American Psychological Association's Post-9-11 Ethics

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"The Ethical Policies & Involvement in Enhanced Interrogations of U.S. Psychologists After 9/11"

Kenneth S. Pope, Ph.D., ABPP

This article was published in Psychiatric Times (2009, vol. 26, #11,November). The copyright is held by CMPMedica LLC, a United Business Media company. The copy below is used with permission, is for personal and individual use only, and may not be copied or distributed without permission for CMPMedica. For all uses involving copyright, contact CMPMedica

The article “Mental Health Professionals in the ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Room” on the cover of this issue of Psychiatric Times provides an invaluable service.

It documents psychologists’ and physicians’ involvement in enhanced interrogation programs.

The impact of professional involvement goes beyond the harm suffered by the person who is waterboarded, slammed into a wall, forced to hold a stress position, or deprived of sleep for over 72 hours.

Freyd [reference #1] wrote that professional participation perpetrates 3 betrayals. It betrays the trust and human rights of the person subjected to those methods; it betrays professional ethics; and it betrays society’s trust. US psychologists embraced ethical policies that set them apart from other professionals. [reference #2]

Steven H. Miles, author of Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors [reference #3], wrote: “The American Psychological Association was unique among US health professional associations in providing policy cover for abusive interrogations.” [reference #4]

After 9/11, the American Psychological Association revised its ethics code to reject the Nuremberg ethic. [reference #5]

The May 16, 2009, issue of the British Medical Journal emphasized this new psychology-physician split on its cover by stating in regard to the contrasting ethical policies: “Interrogating Detainees: Why Psychologists Participate and Doctors Don’t.”

In that issue, the journal editor, Fiona Godlee, wrote:

Just obeying the rules has long been insufficient for doctors. The judges at Nuremberg made clear that obeying commands from superiors didn’t remove personal accountability. Doctors couldn’t deviate from their ethical obligations even if a country’s laws allowed or demanded otherwise. . . . So deeply ingrained is this ethic in health care that it’s surprising, even shocking, to find that the same code isn’t shared by psychologists, at least in the United States. [reference #6]

The American Psychological Association had adopted a discredited ethical rationalization used by the Nuremberg defendants as one of its own ethical values.

Fierce criticism came from those outside, like Godlee, but also from those inside the organization.

Two prominent members, Lohr and Tolin, wrote that their professional association must set aside the notion of “pre-9/11 ethics” and “post-9/11 ethics,” that psychologists must realize that core ethical values “should not vary according to shifts in the political tide,” and that the rejection of the Nuremberg ethics “sets professional psychology apart from other helping and healing professions who have refused to compromise principle for expediency.” [reference #7]

We cannot ethically turn away from what happened in settings like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

As members of the psychiatry and psychology professions, we have both individual and shared responsibilities for what we do and fail to do.

We must work toward understanding what happened, how it happened, and where we need to go from here.

New works continue to document how the American Psychological Association’s policies evolved and their disastrous consequences. [references #2,7-9]

As a psychologist, I have a special responsibility to address these issues in light of psychology’s support for and key roles in the interrogations.

There is much work to be done.

An open letter to the American Psychological Association from Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, and 11 other organizations describes some necessary steps to address “the terrible stain on . . . American psychology.” [reference #10]

Here is an excerpt:

Any meaningful approach to this issue must start by acknowledging the fact that psychologists were absolutely integral. . . . When the Bush administration decided to engage in torture, they turned to psychologists. . . . [American Psychological Association] leadership has much work ahead to begin to repair the harm they have caused to the profession, the country, former and current detainees and their families. [reference #10]


1. Freyd JJ. Rules of conscience: Betray ethics, betray trust. British Medical Journal. 2009;338:b2191. Accessed October 12, 2009.

2. Pope KS, Gutheil TG. Contrasting ethical policies of physicians and psychologists concerning interrogation of detainees. British Medical Journal. 2009;338:b1653. Accessed October 12, 2009.

3. Miles SH. Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press; 2009.

4. Miles SH. Psychologists and torture. Britsh Medical Journal. May 1, 2009. Accessed October 12, 2009.

5. Pope KS, Gutheil TG. Psychologists abandon the Nuremberg ethic: concerns for detainee interrogations. International Journal of Law & Psychiatry. 2009;32:161-166.

6. Godlee F. Rules of conscience. British Medical Journal. 2009;338:b1972. Accessed October 12, 2009.

7. Tolin DF, Lohr JM. Psychologists, the American Psychological Association, and torture. Clinical Science Newsletter. 2009 (Fall):4-10. Accessed October 15, 2009.

8. Soldz S. Closing eyes to atrocities: US psychologists, detainee interrogations, and the response of the American Psychological Association. In: Goodman R, Roseman MJ, eds. Interrogations, Forced Feedings, and the Role of Health Professionals: New Perspectives on International Human Rights Humanitarian Law and Ethics (Harvard Law School Human Rights Program series). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2009:103-142.

9. Eidelson R. No place to hide: torture, psychologists, and the APA. June 18, 2009. Accessed October 12, 2009.

10. Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, and 11 other organizations. Open letter in response to the American Psychological Association Board. June 29, 2009. Accessed October 12, 2009.

Author Biographical Summary & Conflict of Interest Statement

Dr Pope is a licensed psychologist and diplomate in clinical psychology. He is a recipient of the American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Contributions to Public Service and the American Psychological Association Division 12 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Clinical Psychology and has chaired the ethics committees of the American Psychological Association and the American Board of Professional Psychology. His most recent book is Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Practical Guide, 3rd ed (coauthored with Melba Vasquez). A fellow of 9 American Psychological Association divisions, he resigned from the association after 29 years of membership, stating his respectful disagreement with the changes the American Psychological Association had made in its ethical stance that had moved the organization far from its ethical foundation, historic traditions, and basic values, and beyond what he could in good conscience support with his membership. He reports no conflicts of in-terest concerning the subject matter of this commentary.


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