President's Column

In early July, the Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS), appointed a few months earlier by then-APA President Ron Levant, released a thorough and thoughtful report detailing the ethical constraints on psychologists who serve in or consult to military and security agencies of our government. The task force included a broad range of psychologists with career interests in ethics, government service, peace and negotiation studies, and the victims of torture. The task force took as its starting point APA's strong historic stand against the use of torture, as well as the ethical foundation that unlawful acts against others also constitute ethical misconduct.

The group became aware of several incidents in which psychologists serving in the military had intervened, putting their own careers at some risk by taking strong stands against abusive actions toward people held in detention both in Iraq and at Guantanamo Naval Base. For example, an APA member has been credited with alerting his superiors as early as 2002 about questionable interrogation of detainees at Guantanamo. The task force members had a keen awareness of reports in the news media of alleged ethical misconduct by mental health professionals involved in the interrogation of such detainees, predicated chiefly on rumor and speculation regarding a confidential report by the Red Cross, which has never become public.

The task force members drafted a thoughtful, detailed report and sent it on to the APA Ethics Committee for study. The Ethics Committee, the only body of APA authorized by our Bylaws to interpret our ethics code, reviewed the report, made some edits and confirmed that the guidance offered by the PENS task force conformed fully to the Ethical Principles of Psychology and Code of Conduct. The report then went to the APA Board of Directors for review and approval for its public release on July 5, 2005.

A number of opportunistic commentators masquerading as scholars have continued to report on alleged abuses by mental health professionals. However, when solicited in person to provide APA with names and circumstances in support of such claims, no data have been forthcoming from these same critics and no APA members have been linked to unprofessional behaviors. The traditional journalistic dictum of reporting who, what, where and when seems notably absent.

The PENS report makes clear that any APA member who participates in torture or the cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of people, or who enables use of information gleaned in health or mental health-care relationships to the detriment of a person's safety and well-being, stands in violation of our ethics code. The task force declined to use the words "coercive" or "harmful" in describing ethical misconduct, because many legitimate professional roles of psychologists could prove problematic in that regard. The psychologist who acts as a mandated reporter of abusive behavior toward children or dependent persons may cause harm to the perpetrator, while acting to protect the more vulnerable party. Clinicians who conduct custody evaluations, criminal competency assessments or independent disability evaluations will often evaluate people who feel coerced to cooperate by the legal system. We undertake such assignments with appropriate disclosure to the parties and a solid commitment to promoting a world where our scientific and clinical skills benefit society as a whole, and its most vulnerable citizens in particular.

Sadly, many people, including some public luminaries, some of our own members and some of our psychiatric colleagues have leaped to find fault with the PENS report. Ironically, many appear to have offered their critical commentary without carefully reading the report or by selectively ignoring key elements. Many of our psychiatric colleagues have offered interpretive criticism, although their professional association has yet to agree on an official position. One proposed draft before the psychiatric association includes an itemization of specific prohibited tactics they deem as torture. When carefully scrutinized, their draft bears a remarkable resemblance to our position, although no journalist has yet commented on this point. Likewise, no journalist-including those critical of the PENS report-has commented upon an interesting irony: Despite psychiatrists' opposition to prescription privileges for psychologists, the psychiatric association's list of forbidden coercive techniques omits any mention of the use of drugs, implicitly allowing such practices.

Many APA members oppose current government war policies, strongly support victims of torture or want to proudly uphold our strong tradition of advocacy for social justice. All our members can take pride in the work of the PENS task force and the strong ethical positions held by APA.

If you have not yet done so, I encourage you to read the full report. It can be found at PENS Task Force (PDF, 534KB).