Hoffman Report’s flaws should be acknowledged

By Sally Harvey, Ph.D.
February 5, 2020



Hoffman Report - ethicsFor the past decade, members of Division 48 (Peace) and Division 39 (Psychoanalysis) of the APA have filed and/or supported licensure and ethics complaints and attempted to instigate criminal investigations against military psychologists for abusing detainees.

None of these accusations has been found to be credible, presented as they were in the absence of evidence and in the face of unqualified denials by these psychologists.

As a military psychologist, I have anguished over what appears to be a deep-seated and prolonged bias against military psychologists by some of our colleagues. Yet even I was stunned to see the panel put forth by these two divisions at the 2019 annual convention: “Changing APA Ethical Practices in the Post-Hoffman Report Era.”

A military policeman was part of the panel, and his abstract read this way:

“While my time at Abu Ghraib took place after the infamous events of 2003-04 were revealed and operationally halted, at least at the tent camps, I was a witness of and participant in unethical and inhumane treatment of detainees…. I placed handcuffs and shackled children in cages for punishment purposes and was forced by the nature of my duty to contribute to their general maltreatment.”

The very same groups who without evidence accused military psychologists of unethical behavior gave a public platform to someone who openly acknowledged his abuse of detainees, and proceeded to champion him not as unethical and criminal, but as a whistleblower.

I was not alone in my reaction to this abstract. Forty psychologists signed a letter to APA and the divisions supporting this panel to ask how a program touting inhumane and likely illegal behaviors could have been accepted for the convention program.

APA President Rosie Davis, Ph.D., responded that exercising oversight on the program would be to “censor content” and placed responsibility upon the panel’s organizers. She offered that APA welcomed “diversity of thought and opinion even if it is sometimes uncomfortable,” concluding by “strongly encourag[ing]” the signatories to contact Division 48.

This same “diversity of thought and opinion” encouraged by Davis has not been a feature of those criticizing the work of military psychologists. As Davis was well aware, Division 48’s president had already characterized the signatories’ concerns about the panel as “an obvious and objectionable attempt to censor scholars and intimidate whistleblowers and veterans.”

Such a reply is absurd – many of these signatories are combat veterans who served in harm’s way to defend free speech. This anti-military bias was on full display during the panel, and it was personal. Steven Reisner, Ph.D., a Division 39 representative to the APA council, accused (without evidence) a group consisting primarily of military psychologists of publishing documents “hacked out of our personal computers.”

A more ominous side of this bias is seen in the 2013 interview of Stephen Soldz, Ph.D. Soldz, a close colleague of Reisner and, like Reisner, a primary source for the Hoffman Report, said about Larry James, Ph.D., Division 19’s (Military Psychology) representative to council:

“James can’t write an English sentence…. They (Wright State University officials) gave him the job (director of the Department of Psychology) – partly because he’s black. The president came in and basically said, ‘We’re going to have a black dean, and that’s it.’ …But I hear he’s been an awful, awful dean. He doesn’t show up for work. He basically doesn’t do anything.”

But APA’s leaders know otherwise. On June 23, 2007, an open letter recognized James “as a hero in [his] work at Abu Ghraib to develop training and to implement systems to prevent further acts of abuse.” That letter’s 18 signatories included Davis as well as Sandy Shullman, Ph.D., (president-elect, 2019) and Jennifer Kelly, Ph.D., (president-elect, 2020).

The board’s continuing silence about Soldz’s comments is inexplicable. In July, 2019, Davis herself spoke about the “pernicious effect” of racist statements: “I personally understand the harmful impact of such statements…. This is not who we are as Americans.”

Following the leak of the Hoffman Report to The New York Times, the APA board did nothing to discover the leak’s source. Credible evidence has emerged that Mr. Hoffman himself, or a member of his team, leaked the Report – as the board must have suspected, given how tightly APA controlled access to this document. If true, that would have upended the entire investigation by revealing that Hoffman had his own agenda and was not a neutral, independent investigator.

The majority of the board, despite their involvement in underlying events and knowledge of the Report’s falsity, remained silent as they proceeded to publish the Report. Only after substantial evidence mounted that Hoffman had in his possession documents and witness statements that refuted all his major findings, did the board conclude a review was necessary.

Unbelievably, despite the obvious conflict of interest and strong objections from council members, the board rehired Hoffman for this task! The statement by then APA President Susan H. McDaniel, Ph.D., in April of 2016 to council, claiming the board’s decision was “driven by our fiduciary responsibility to the association” was either naïve or intentionally disingenuous. Predictably, that report has never materialized.

But the board has not simply remained neutral or “welcomed diversity of thought and opinion.” APA summarily dismissed an ethics complaint lodged against the Special Committee co-chairs overseeing the Hoffman investigation.

The public member of the Ethics Committee, a retired judge, resigned in protest, writing that the process was “so flawed that I can no longer participate.” APA, in turn, silenced discussion of the judge’s letter.

APA’s lawyers have persistently sought to quell criticisms of the Report, silencing staff members from discussing the Report and threatening council members with exclusion from governance meetings for speaking out with the truth.

Continuing to stand by the Hoffman Report – which APA and Hoffman’s law firm have recently described as merely Hoffman’s “opinion,” rather than an effort to find the facts and “ascertain the truth” as was originally promised – has cost APA nearly $8 million. APA members should be outraged when they consider how this money could have been spent to advance psychology.

Kelly and Shullman, both of whom are well-versed in the Hoffman controversy, have a choice. They can remain silent, perhaps out of fear of renewed media attacks by APA’s critics or the prospect of uncovering organizational malfeasance. Or they can step forward with courage in the spirit of truth and transparency – in the best interests of a scientific, ethical organization and its members. If they choose silence, it may be incumbent upon the association’s members to then consider legal avenues to speak the truth to APA power.

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Sally Harvey, Ph.D., is a retired colonel, served nearly 28 years on active duty with the U.S. Army, In 2015, she chaired a presidential task force for APA’s Division 19 (Society for Military Psychology) which produced a report refuting the Hoffman Report’s primary findings. She is an independent consultant in New Braunfels, Texas, and may be contacted at salsterhead@yahoo.com.

 

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