The American Psychological Association 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 in August as the APA — the world's largest association of psychology practitioners, researchers and educators — holds its annual convention in Toronto. 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 Association and the American Psychiatric Association 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. This was progress in the eyes of the APA leadership.
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.
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.
And the APA's ethics code — especially as it pertains to national security settings — needs an urgent overhaul. Substantial areas of military and intelligence work are at odds with psychologists' commitment to do no harm.
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.