In Brief

Psychologists can ethically serve in consultative roles to interrogation or information-gathering processes for national security-related purposes, but must do so within the boundaries of a strict set of ethical considerations, according to a July report released by the APA Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security.

The report declares that "when psychologists serve in any position by virtue of their training experience and expertise as psychologists, the APA Ethics Code applies," a statement that counters the contention that psychologists acting in roles outside traditional health-service provider relationships are not bound by the code.

"The many reports about possible violations of ethics during national security investigations may have created some doubt in the public's mind about when the APA Code of Ethics applies," says Rhea Farberman, APA's executive director for public and member communications. "This report makes it perfectly clear that the code applies to all psychologists in all settings."

APA needed to examine the ethical issues, notes Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD, director of the APA Ethics Office.

"After media reports concerning the possible role of mental health professionals at Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay detention center, it became clear that APA needed to examine the critical ethical issues presented by working in national security-related settings," Behnke says.

Regarding such issues, the task force report, which APA's Board of Directors has approved as APA policy, made several key points:

  • The APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct adequately addresses the ethical issues connected with psychologists' involvement in national security-related activities, such as serving as an interrogation or information-gathering consultant.

  • The APA Ethics Code applies to psychologists at all times--regardless of the position they are serving--because the code asserts that psychologists' training, experience and expertise are constantly applicable.

  • Psychologists serving in consultative roles to interrogation or information-gathering processes for national security-related purposes is consistent with the Ethics Code.

  • Psychologists must not use health care-related information to the detriment of an individual's safety and well-being, even when supporting an interrogation.

  • Psychologists have an ethical obligation to be alert to and report any acts of torture or cruel or inhumane treatment to appropriate authorities.

The task force also reaffirmed APA's 1986 Resolution against Torture, which states that psychologists do not direct, support, facilitate or offer training in torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.