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.
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