Defense Department Calls On American Psychological Association To Reconsider Ban

The New York Times is reporting that a Pentagon official has requested that the American Psychological Association (APA) reconsider its blanket prohibition on having its members participate in what it calls ‘national security interrogations’ at facilities like Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.  The ban is a result of an investigation into APA conduct that concluded that APA officials colluded with the Defense Department on torture techniques used by the U.S.  (See this timeline of APA activities related to this report.)

The ban was overwhelming approved (157-1) by the Association’s Council of Representatives in August 2015, but it has yet to be incorporated into the APA Code of Ethics.  There have been rebuttals to the independent report that focus on the Defense Department putting into place policies and procedures intended to prevent future abuses involving detainees.  They do not directly address the matter of APA collusion with the Department.

At the moment, the APA policy is only permitting member psychologists to work at Defense Department facilities in caring for military members and their families, for a third party protecting human rights, or directly for any detainees.

In the letter, Acting Principal Deputy Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson argues against the ban for a number of reasons, and would like the opportunity to discuss revising the prohibition in order to minimize the licensing uncertainty that current exists for military psychologists and those providing psychological care to detainees.  That concern explains a lot of the language in the letter seeking clarification about what is a matter of policy and what is a matter of ethical conduct.

(Should the blanket prohibition be incorporated into the APA’s Code of Ethics, a document that influences the state licensure of psychologists, members participating in national security interrogations face the possibility of having their licenses revoked.)

Carson further argues that current Defense Department policy is consistent with the intent of the APA resolution to do no harm.  He suggests that APA guidelines need to be consistent on this point, focused on the well-being of the patient and not on courtroom evidence rules.  My interpretation is that Carson’s preferred perspective would make meaningless the APA policy, which allows for work with law enforcement due to the implicit Miranda and other Constitutional protections.

The APA policy specifically forbids participation at Guantanamo Bay except to provide care for military personnel.  It cites United Nations reports related to activities at Guantanamo to support it stance.  Surprising possibly nobody, the Defense Department notes that it is acting consistent with U.S. law and Supreme Court decisions, which disagree with the U.N. reports.

And I think here is where there might be the biggest pushback from the Association.  Part of the effort to revise policy was to demonstrate support of U.N. guidance on the humane treatment of detainees.  While members may be willing to find appropriate grounds to maintain ethical standards of detainee patient care, they may be unwilling to be seen as supporting policies inconsistent with U.N. guidance.

Throughout the letter, Carson seeks to distinguish between policy preferences and ethical standards.  But I think some members of the association will indicate that their ethical standards should dictate policy preferences.  Further stung by the impact of the collusion described in the independent report, enough APA members may be willing to stand firm on compliance with U.N. policy, and see the threat to detainee patient care as motivation for the Department of Defense to change its policies.

The fight, if there is one, will have two components.  Discussions between the APA and the Defense Department will take place, but changes in APA policy will be conducted through the membership (which has a section of military psychologists).  As it has taken the APA years to get to this point, a final resolution likely will not be quick.