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There has been considerable controversy over the involvement of psychologists in the interrogation of detainees in national security settings since the start of the global War on Terror. In particular, the issues surrounding the collaboration of the American Psychological Association (APA) with U.S. Department of Defense officials received international attention before and following an independent review that supported claims made earlier by journalists. This article is a brief overview of the situation and includes references for further reading and staying up to date on developments. 

Whereas the APA took a stand against psychiatrist involvement in interrogations of detainees in national security settings (American Psychiatric Association, 2006), until recently the APA, allowed, and even promoted psychologist participation based on the premise that psychologists could not only help obtain valuable information to protect national security, but they could also ensure the interrogations were safe, legal, and ethical (APA, 2005). Despite reports from human rights organizations and investigative journalists documenting psychologist involvement in development and implementation of “enhanced” interrogation procedures, the APA press office continuously denied any role of the organization or membership in promoting torture (Pope, 2016). 

In 2014, journalist James Risen published a book in which he asserted APA was complicit with CIA and U.S. Military use of torture. This went beyond the behavior of any one psychologist in the field to include development of APA policy on the role of psychologists in such settings. APA issued a public statement in October 2014 denying all claims in the book, but soon after commissioned an independent review as detailed in this 2014 statement: 

The American Psychological Association (APA) Board of Directors has reviewed the allegation in James Risen's book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War, that APA colluded with the Bush administration to support torture during the war on terror. Specifically, Risen alleges that APA supported the development and implementation of "enhanced" interrogation techniques that constituted torture, and was complicit with the CIA and U.S. military to this end. We believe that APA's October 16th statement refuting Risen's assertion was a fair and accurate response. However, the allegation made by Mr. Risen is highly charged and very serious. His book has created confusion for the public and APA members. This confusion, coupled with the seriousness of the allegation, requires a definitive, independent and objective review of the allegation and all relevant evidence. Toward that end, and to fulfill its values of transparency and integrity, the APA Board has authorized the engagement of David Hoffman of the law firm Sidley Austin to conduct an independent review of whether there is any factual support for the assertion that APA engaged in activity that would constitute collusion with the Bush administration to promote, support or facilitate the use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques by the United States in the war on terror (APA, 2014).

In what to some was an unexpected finding, the resulting report (available on the APA website) provided additional evidence for Reisen’s claims (Pope, 2016). In July 2015, APA issued a public statement acknowledging the investigation had yielded evidence of collusion among APA officials and Department of Defense officials in policy related to interrogation techniques, and outlined recommendations for internal policy and procedural changes. At the August 2015 Annual APA Meeting, the APA Council of Representatives voted to ban psychologist participation in national security investigations and created a panel to review APA ethics policies and procedures (APA, 2015).

Although recent developments are encouraging, in that there is evidence of increased transparency within APA and more overt commitment to protection of human rights, the issue is far from being resolved. Some psychologists have spoken out against the validity of the Hoffman Report (Banks, Dunivin, James & Newman, 2015), whereas others have questioned whether the resolution passed last August is even enforceable (Pope, 2016). Further, early this year in a piece in the New York Times, Risen (2016) reported the Pentagon has asked APA to retract this resolution and allow continued psychologist involvement. APA continues to update a timeline on the evolution of ethical policies related to detainee welfare beginning in with policy in 1985 and most recently updated February 2016, which can be found here.

Regardless of one’s opinion on this issue, it is generally accepted that involvement of psychologists or other mental health professionals in national security interrogations raises a host of ethical considerations. Ken Pope, who has written extensively on this and other ethical issues, provided a thought provoking review of the history of the APA ethics code and how it relates to psychologist involvement in interrogations during the War on Terror (Pope, 2016). 

About the Author

Jessica E. Lambert, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and an assistant professor in the Psychology & Child Development Department at California State University, Stanislaus. Her research program is primarily focused on the impacts of traumatic events on the well-being of diverse populations, and the role of attachment relationships and coping processes in recovering from exposure to trauma. 


American Psychological Association (2005). Report of the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2005/07/pens.aspx 

American Psychological Association (2007). Statement of the American Psychological Association on psychology and interrogations submitted to the United States Senate select committee on intelligence. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/programs/position/legislative/senate-select.aspx

American Psychiatric Association (2006). Position Statement on Psychiatric Participation
in Interrogation* of Detainees. Retrieved from: http://www.psychiatry.org/file%20library/about-apa/organization-documents-policies/policies/position-2014-interrogation-detainees-psychiatric-participation.pdf.

American Psychological Association. (2014). APA response to Risen book and allegations of support for torture. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/response/risen-book.aspx

American Psychological Association. (2014). Statement of APA Board of Directors: Outside counsel to conduct independent review of allegations of support for torture. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/11/risenallegations.aspx 

American Psychological Association (2015). Press Release and Recommended Actions: Independent Review Cites Collusion among APA Individuals and Defense Department Officials in Policy on Interrogation Techniques. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/07/independent-review-release.aspx

Banks L.M., Dunivin, D.L., James, L.C. & Newman, R. (2015) Retrieved from: http://www.hoffmanreportapa.com/ 

Pope, K (2016). The code not taken: The path from guild ethics to torture and our continuing choices. Retrieved from: http://kspope.com/PsychologyEthics.php.

Reisen, J (2016). Pentagon Wants Psychologists to End Ban on Interrogation Role. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/25/us/politics/pentagon-wants-psychologists-to-end-ban-on-interrogation-role.html?smid=tw-share&_r=2