Public Policy Update

In response to the national tragedy of Sept. 11, APA's Science Directorate staff convened a series of workshops to advance psychological research relevant to counterterrorism and national security issues. As such, the Science Directorate entered new territory, reaching out to federal personnel in the homeland security, law enforcement, defense and intelligence communities in an effort to integrate psychological theory and practice in these areas. As the directorate developed relationships with psychologists working in these settings, APA learned that they face a unique set of concerns.

Psychological ethics and national security

More than a year and a half ago, APA held a first-of-its-kind meeting at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., to begin discussions about the extent to which the APA Ethics Code adequately served psychologists operating in national security settings. The meeting was held in response to APA members from these communities who had approached APA, seeking help in defining ethical guidelines to govern their work. The meeting was exploratory in nature and brought together a unique group, including representatives of other mental health associations as well as behavioral scientists and operational personnel working in the law enforcement and intelligence communities. That seminal meeting led APA to begin to explore the extent to which its Ethics Code spoke to the unique circumstances that sometimes surround gathering information related to national security. The Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (the PENS Task Force) explored these questions in greater depth.

The PENS Task Force met last June. The resulting task force report was released in July for public comment and was a vanguard policy statement well in front of other mental health professional associations. Importantly, the task force report reaffirmed APA's 1986 Council resolution against torture and other forms of cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment, and also affirmed the appropriate role psychologists can play in supporting national security investigations as well as the strict ethical boundaries that will inform that role. The report furthermore recommended that psychologists continue to conduct research relevant to national security settings. The report was approved as policy by the APA Board of Directors in July and was accepted by APA's Council of Representatives later that fall.

Although some popular press reports and some mental health professionals criticized and miscast the APA position, it should be noted that APA took every opportunity to correct the record and clarify its position with, for example, high profile placements in The New York Times and The Lancet.

However, the issue of detainee abuse intensified when it was reported that several men held in a Baghdad prison under Iraqi Interior Ministry control had suffered grievously at the hands of their guards and that foreign prisons under CIA control were being used for interrogation. These and mounting concerns about what exactly constituted torture eventually led to a showdown between Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the Bush administration. But what APA members may not realize is the unusual position APA was in at that point from a public policy perspective.

An amendment to the defense appropriations bill, popularly known as "the McCain amendment," called for uniform standards of interrogation for Department of Defense detainees and a prohibition on the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of individuals in custody of, or under the physical control of, the U.S. government, whether it be in the United States or internationally. The amendment provided an opportunity for APA to take a very public stand because the text was entirely consistent with our decadelong position against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Interestingly, the Senate and House of Representatives, although both led by Republican majorities, were at very different places in the overall debate. While the Senate approved the amendment overwhelmingly, the House was backing the Bush administration and vehemently opposed any provision that would limit the range of executive branch interrogation practices. However, the tension between the two chambers held even greater significance for APA because attached to the House version of that bill was an Education Directorate training initiative coordinated by APA education policy staff and designed by Department of Defense (DoD) psychologists (see box). APA realized that backing the McCain amendment would likely put in jeopardy funding for a program that would benefit psychology and psychologists because the Republican champion for this nascent Defense Graduate Psychology Education (D-GPE) Program might not be inclined to continue supporting it in the final bill if he took umbrage at APA's endorsement of an amendment he opposed.

A program in jeopardy

This situation brings to light just how complex some of our policy issues become when pursuit of broader APA interests potentially jeopardize federal program initiatives developed and advanced by APA staff and members. In this case, the proposed $4 million D-GPE program was put in potential jeopardy when APA went on record in support of the McCain amendment. There was no question that it was the right thing for APA to do, but it was also a sad day for the internal and external advocates of the D-GPE program who were looking at the possible adverse outcomes. Many of us feared for the worst: that not only would the McCain amendment fail to pass but also that the D-GPE provision would be dropped from the final bill.

On Oct. 28, APA sent letters to the leaders of the conference negotiations in the House and Senate who were working out the differences between the two versions of the defense funding bill. The letters reaffirmed APA's 1986 Council of Representatives resolution against torture and support for the U.N. Principles of Medical Ethics and requested that they support the McCain amendment. In addition, APA distributed an action alert via its Public Policy Advocacy Network requesting that APA members contact their elected representatives and urge support for the McCain amendment.

Fortunately, APA's stance in support of human rights prevailed when the administration agreed to a compromise and the House passed the defense appropriations bill with the McCain amendment attached. And while funded at $3.4 million rather than the original $4 million request, the D-GPE program likewise remained in the bill.

As for the PENS Task Force report, it remains open for public comment through June 30. Comments will be essential in following a PENS Task Force recommendation that a casebook/commentary on the task force report be written. Such a casebook/commentary will certainly benefit from reviews of research on topics such as confirmation bias in investigational settings, the ease with which individuals can be coerced into false confessions and improved methods for detecting deception. APA encourages individual scientists to think broadly about how their own research might inform such an effort and submit comments for possible inclusion in the commentary. Science Directorate staff will continue to staff the PENS Task Force in conjunction with the Ethics Office to help ensure that the special knowledge base that psychology offers can be brought to the fore in the service of our national security interests.

Further Reading

To read the PENS Task Force Report, visit APA Report (PDF, 534KB). 

Geoff Mumford is APA's assistant executive director for science policy.