What should a psychologist do when a client shares what appears to be credible information about a potential terrorist attack during therapy?

How can government officials strike a balance between informing the public about terrorism-related risks and compromising national security?

Tough questions like these were among those discussed during a Feb. 28 conference that involved social scientists and law enforcement officials from major police departments, as well as the FBI, CIA, U.S. Secret Service, Office of Homeland Security and Department of Defense.

The meeting, "Countering Terrorism: Integration of Theory and Practice," was co-sponsored by APA, the FBI Academy and the University of Pennsylvania's Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict to foster collaboration between social scientists and law enforcement officials who work daily to combat terrorism. It was held at the FBI Academy.

"The meeting allowed psychologists and other social scientists to get in touch with front-line responders to show what science can add--and it enabled us to see the work and issues they are facing," explains APA Senior Scientist Susan Brandon, PhD, who helped organize the event. "Each side informed the other."

It was a unique occasion, adds Brandon, because those in the trenches--law enforcement officers and intelligence agents--are seldom included in meetings between scientists and policy-makers, even though such front-line responders are among those best-equipped to tell scientists what information they need to combat terrorism.

No easy answers

For most of the daylong conference, the approximately 60 attendees split into groups to discuss issues surrounding scenarios posed by the FBI--hypothetical situations that point to law enforcement's most pressing needs as well as challenges that could arise for psychologists.

For example, a woman contacts her psychologist because she believes her son's friend is recruiting him to commit a terrorist act. She's overheard worrisome conversations between the young men, but is afraid to report this to the police because her son has a police record. What are psychologists' ethical obligations in such cases?

While attendees didn't come up with hard-and-fast answers, "there was some very innovative and exciting thought expressed during the sessions," says conference organizer Anthony J. Pinizzotto, PhD, a clinical forensic psychologist at the FBI Academy who was the FBI's organizer and driving force behind the conference.

"It was a very lively, intellectually stimulating debate," agrees Stephen R. Band, PhD, chief of the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy who has nurtured the relationship with APA and was also a key conference organizer. "Agents of the FBI, agents of the intelligence community and police officers shared their views as to how they actually operate. Scholars and theorists offered their insight into cultural-related issues."

"It forced us to ask what we really know by seeing what we have to say in these scenarios that are novel for most of us," adds Baruch Fischhoff, PhD, of Carnegie Mellon University.

While psychologists gained insight into how law enforcement officials are combating terrorist threats and what types of information they need from social science, the federal and local officials became more familiar with how psychologists' knowledge of risk perception and decision-making could be applied in the field. Among the topics discussed were:

  • The difficulties of determining whether a person or group poses a risk. "I got a better sense of their frustration," says psychologist Deborah Frisch, PhD, of the National Science Foundation's Decision, Risk and Management Sciences program. "They are responsible for trying to anticipate and prevent future attacks, which is an incredibly hard thing to do." Despite those difficulties, participants agreed that stereotyping and racial profiling aren't the solution because such actions can do more harm than good.

  • Strategies for sifting through the enormous amounts of information about possible threats.

  • How to strike a balance between informing the public and revealing information that could compromise security.

  • The importance of working relationships between law enforcement and communities. Ron Wasson, an investigator with the New York Police Department and chief officer of its Emergency Services Unit, says the conference highlighted the need for law enforcement to establish relationships with the community before their help is needed. "If you're calling [for help] after the incident, you're starting from a disadvantaged position," explains Wasson.

  • The psychological reasoning behind why individuals commit terrorist acts. Jonathan Drummond, a major in the U.S. Air Force and a doctoral student at Princeton University, told attendees that terrorist attacks don't happen because people are crazy. "People in extreme religion or politics may be much more cognitively complex than they're often given credit for," Drummond says.

Conference organizers will summarize the discussion in a report that will be distributed to law enforcement agencies. They will draw on the results to organize possible future meetings between social scientists and the law enforcement community.

"There were many more good questions that came out of this conference than final answers," explains the FBI's Pinizzotto. "I'm hoping that we encouraged members of the scientific community to continue an open discussion with us on ways that we can continue to make America a safe and open society."