How the American Psychological Association Lost Its Way


Roy Eidelson & Jean Maria Arrigo – Los Angeles Times

Satellite imagery shows the Salt Pit, a CIA "black site" prison complex located north of Kabul, Afghanistan, where detainees were submitted to harsh interrogations devised by American psychologists John Jessen and James Mitchell. (DigitalGlobe / Getty Images)

Satellite imagery shows the Salt Pit, a CIA “black site” prison complex located north of Kabul, Afghanistan, where detainees were submitted to harsh interrogations devised by American psychologists John Jessen and James Mitchell.
(DigitalGlobe / Getty Images)

30 Jul 2015 – The American Psychological Assn. is in crisis.

Last December, a Senate Intelligence Committee report laid bare the extensive involvement of individual psychologists in the CIA’s black-site torture program. Then, in early July, a devastating independent report by a former federal prosecutor determined that more than a decade ago APA leaders — including the director of ethics — began working secretly with military representatives. Together they crafted deceptively permissive ethics policies for psychologists that effectively enabled abusive interrogation of war-on-terror prisoners to continue.

These revelations have shocked and outraged not just psychologists but also the public at large. After all, the APA’s ethics code for psychologists governs not only its 80,000 members but also underlies the policies of most state licensing boards.

The fallout will be on full display next month as the APA — the world’s largest association of psychology practitioners, researchers and educators — holds its annual convention in Toronto. There, APA authorities will face members’ confusion and rage during three APA Council governance meetings, a three-day teach-in organized by Psychologists for Social Responsibility, and open town hall meetings. Can this soul-searching be channeled into fruitful reforms, not just for the organization but also the future of the field? A lot is at stake in the weeks ahead.

The APA got into this mess by holding tightly to a deeply flawed assumption: that psychology should embrace every opportunity to expand its sphere of influence.

The APA’s relationship with military intelligence dates back to its contributions in critical areas such as aptitude assessment and teamwork during World War I and II. After the 9/11 attacks, the APA sought to become an indispensable source of psychological expertise for counter-terrorism efforts at the Pentagon and CIA. Along with other health professionals, psychologists got placed in key roles in clandestine interrogation operations. When this made headlines, both the American Medical Assn. and the American Psychiatric Assn. issued declarations against their members’ participation.

But the APA’s response was different. It launched the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security and stacked it with military intelligence insiders. In quick order, the task force reached a disingenuous, preordained conclusion that psychologists have an important role to play, asserting that their involvement kept interrogations “safe, legal, ethical and effective.” The Bush administration immediately used this made-to-order policy to legitimize and continue its abusive detention and interrogation programs.

APA leaders were particularly eager to curry favor with the Pentagon. The Defense Department was already a major source of jobs and research funding, and involvement in the war against terrorism gave psychology a higher profile and opportunities to expand its reach. Psychologists were given new positions as behavioral science consultants at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other detention sites, as trainers of national security personnel, and as operational psychologists for military contractors. This was progress in the eyes of the APA leadership, and so for 10 years, the APA quashed any attempt to question its faux task force, loosened ethics, too-close ties to the military or its motivation to have psychologists play a central role in “enhancing” interrogations.

Along with colleagues, we personally spent years working to expose and reverse those transgressions. Throughout, the APA’s leaders adhered to the CIA’s informal motto: admit nothing, deny everything, make counter-accusations. After one of us (Arrigo) went public with details from her role as one of the token civilians on the 2005 task force, she was targeted with character assassination.

Can the APA regain its legitimacy? Those known to have colluded, covered up or ignored the wrongdoing cannot remain in positions of leadership. Governance policies must become more transparent and democratic. Old ethics complaints may need to be reexamined. Ultimately, a federal investigation may be necessary for adequate APA reform.

And the APA’s ethics code — especially as it pertains to national security settings — needs an urgent overhaul. For many reasons, it will not be as simple as just cutting ties with the Pentagon, not least because dedicated psychologists provide personnel and training services to the Department of Defense and critical care to our country’s soldiers, veterans and their families.

But substantial areas of military and intelligence work are at odds with psychologists’ commitment to do no harm. Our profession has yet to address profound ethical challenges posed by national security operations and research in which the intent is to cause injury, or where the targets of intervention have not consented, or where actions are beyond the reach of oversight by outside ethics panels. Without imposing ethical constraints in these contexts, psychologists risk further loss of public trust and the erosion of psychological science.

Psychology as a profession should not seek unbridled growth. That view is grandiose and misguided. The effective bounds of our professional ethics and expertise must limit our horizons. After the 9/11 attacks, the APA could have used its knowledge, reputation and influence to promote alternatives to the tragic choices our government made. Instead, it lost its way to war entrepreneurs, careerists and yea-sayers.


Roy Eidelson is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and was a member of the American Psychological Association for over 25 years, prior to his resignation. He is a clinical psychologist and the president of Eidelson Consulting, where he studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, associate director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College, and a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. Roy can be reached at

Jean Maria Arrigo established the APA PENS Debate Collection at the University of Colorado Archives at Boulder and the Intelligence Ethics Collection at Hoover Institution Archives. She is a representative to the APA Council.

Go to Original –

Share this article:

DISCLAIMER: The statements, views and opinions expressed in pieces republished here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of TMS. In accordance with title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. TMS has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is TMS endorsed or sponsored by the originator. “GO TO ORIGINAL” links are provided as a convenience to our readers and allow for verification of authenticity. However, as originating pages are often updated by their originating host sites, the versions posted may not match the versions our readers view when clicking the “GO TO ORIGINAL” links. This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

One Response to “How the American Psychological Association Lost Its Way”

  1. satoshi says:

    Remember that Japan’s 731 Unit conducted not only physical experiments but also mental experiments. It is no wonder even if some people consider what the American Psychological Association is doing, in accordance with the above article, might pave the way for a contemporary version of the 731 Unit’s mental experiments.

    By the way, regarding the 732 Unit, The Japan Times August 14, 2005 issue reports as follows:

    WASHINGTON – The United States paid money and gave other benefits to former members of a Japanese germ warfare unit two years after the end of World War II to obtain data on human experiments conducted in China, according to two declassified U.S. government documents.

    It has been known that the Allies offered to waive war crime charges at the tribunal for officers of the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731 in exchange for experiment data.

    But the latest findings reveal Washington’s eagerness to obtain such data even by providing monetary rewards, despite the horrific nature of the unit’s activities, in an attempt to beat the Soviet Union in the arms development race.


    In addition, the website of the University of Michigan – Flint is posting a report, entitled, “Biohazard:Unit 731 and the American Cover-Up – Brandi Altheide – Faculty Mentor/Sponsor – Dr. Roy Hanashiro”. This report, consisting of 11 pages of the main part and 7 pages of the footnotes, reveals one of the dark aspects of the international situation just after WWII.