New York Times: Psychologists Approve Ban on Role in National Security Interrogations

By JAMES RISEN  AUG. 7, 2015 

The Washington headquarters of the American Psychological Association, the nation’s largest association of psychologists. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times 

TORONTO — The American Psychological Association on Friday overwhelmingly approved a new ban on any involvement by psychologists in national security interrogations conducted by the United States government, even noncoercive interrogations now conducted by the Obama administration.

The council of representatives of the organization, the nation’s largest professional association of psychologists, voted to impose the ban at its annual meeting here.

The vote followed an emotional debate in which several members said the ban was needed to restore the organization’s reputation after a scathing independent investigation ordered by the association’s board.

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That investigation, conducted by David Hoffman, a Chicago lawyer, found that some officers of the association and other prominent psychologists colluded with government officials during the Bush administration to make sure that association policies did not prevent psychologists from involvement in the harsh interrogation programs conducted by the C.I.A. and the Pentagon.


Nadine Kaslow, an association board member and head of a special committee established by the board to oversee the investigation into the organization’s role in interrogations, said she was pleased by the overwhelming vote in favor of the measure. “This is a very resounding ‘yes,’ ” Ms. Kaslow said. The ban was approved by the association’s council by a vote of 156 to 1. Seven council members abstained, while one was recused.

“I think this was a tremendous step in the right direction,” said Susan McDaniel, the association’s president-elect, who was the chairwoman of Friday’s meeting. She expressed hopes that Friday’s vote would persuade psychologists who quit the organization because of its involvement with Bush-era interrogations to rejoin the group.

Many A.P.A. leaders and members said they were stunned by the lopsided vote in favor of the ban, and its backers said that as late as Thursday night they were not certain it would pass. Just before Friday’s vote, the measure’s supporters agreed to change some of the ban’s language, which may have won over some wavering council members. Two of the ban’s advocates on the council, psychologists Scott Churchill and Steven Reisner, insisted that the changes did not weaken the ban. “This was a momentous day,” said Mr. Churchill.

The ban passed on Friday says that “psychologists shall not conduct, supervise, be in the presence of, or otherwise assist any national security interrogations for any military or intelligence entities, including private contractors working on their behalf, nor advise on conditions of confinement insofar as these might facilitate such an interrogation.” The measure’s backers added language on Friday that stated that psychologists may consult with the government on broad interrogation policy, but may not get involved in any specific interrogation or consult on the specific detention conditions for detainees.

The final vote was met by a standing ovation by many of the council members, as well as the large crowd of observers, which included anti-torture activists and psychology graduate students who had come to the meeting to support the ban. Some wore T-shirts proclaiming “First, Do No Harm,” a reference to the physicians’ Hippocratic oath.



“I’m really happy they didn’t vote no,” said Deb Kory, a clinical psychologist from Berkeley, Calif. “I think that would have been the death knell for the A.P.A.”

Some psychologists did speak out in opposition to the ban, or at least expressed reservations about it during the debate before the vote on Friday morning, arguing that it went too far. “I’m concerned about unintended consequences,” said Larry James, who represents the A.P.A.’s division of military psychology on the council.

The ban would only prohibit involvement in what the association defines as national security interrogations, which are those conducted by the American military or intelligence agencies, or by contractors or foreign governments outside traditional domestic criminal law enforcement inside the United States.

It would not prohibit psychologists from working with the police or prisons in criminal law enforcement interrogations.

President Obama signed an executive order in 2009 banning the use of the harsh interrogation techniques employed against terrorism suspects during the Bush administration. But there are still some psychologists involved in the interrogation programs now used in terrorism cases by the Obama administration.

Most interrogations of important terrorism suspects now are conducted by the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, an interagency unit led by the F.B.I. that includes C.I.A. and Pentagon personnel. The group also includes psychologists, who both conduct research and consult on effective means of interrogating terrorism suspects.

Pentagon officials have said that psychologists are also still assigned at the American military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where they oversee voluntary interrogations of detainees.


A.P.A. officials said that psychologists could be subject to ethics complaints if they continued to be involved in national security interrogations after a new association ethics code was in place to reflect Friday’s ban.

Ms. McDaniel said that she did not know how many A.P.A. members were now involved in national security interrogations. But the measure passed Friday calls for the A.P.A. to send a letter to Mr. Obama and other top government officials informing them of the new policy, and requesting that psychologists be removed from Guantánamo Bay and other sites where national security interrogations are conducted, so that they do not violate the new ethics policy.

Psychologists played crucial roles in the post-9/11 harsh interrogation programs created by the C.I.A. and Pentagon, and their involvement helped the Bush administration claim that the abusive interrogation techniques were legal. The involvement of psychologists in the interrogations enabled the Justice Department to issue secret legal opinions arguing that the interrogations were safe because they were being monitored by health professionals, and thus did not constitute torture.

Even before Friday’s vote, the Hoffman report and its unsparing findings of collusion during the Bush administration had already had a dramatic impact on the A.P.A. Four top association officials, including its chief executive and his deputy, have left the organization since the report was released in July.

Friday’s vote in favor of the ban prompted an immediate reaction among military psychologists who are members of the A.P.A.

After the vote, about 50 members of the A.P.A.’s military psychology division, including several who were in uniform, held a separate meeting in another conference room in the hotel that hosted the annual meeting. They expressed frustration and anger.

Tom Williams, the president of the A.P.A.’s military psychology division, said that he thought the language of the ban was overly broad.

“I think the wording could have a large effect on any psychologist in a national security setting,” said Mr. Williams, a retired Army psychologist. He said that the group may consider splitting off from the A.P.A.

“We are keeping our options on the table,” Mr. Williams said.

Correction: August 7, 2015 

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a psychologist who supported a ban on involvement by psychologists in national security interrogations. He is Steven Reisner, not Reissner.