(CN) – Staff members of the American Psychological Association named in an independent report as pushing for loose ethics guidelines to allow psychologists to participate in military interrogation sued the report’s author for defamation.
An independent report released in 2015 found that APA officials colluded with the Pentagon to maintain loose ethics policies that let psychologists participate in “enhanced interrogation techniques” – a euphemism for techniques that others call torture.
The 542-page report, commissioned by the APA and authored by a team of attorneys at Sidley Austin led by David Hoffman, examines the relationship between officials at the APA and the Department of Defense, or DOD.
It adds to the brutal picture of U.S. interrogation techniques portrayed in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's report on enhanced interrogation partially released in 2014.
Hoffman’s report expressly names several psychologists who worked with the military at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and other locations, and were influential in purportedly massaging the APA’s ethics guidelines to ensure they permitted psychologists’ continued involvement in enhanced interrogations.
Five of these psychologists – Larry James, L. Morgan Banks, Stephen Behnke, Debra Dunivan, and Russell Newman – sued Hoffman, Sidley Austin, and the APA for defamation Friday in the Montgomery County, Ohio, Court of Common Pleas.
The psychologists call Hoffman’s report a “fishing expedition.”
Hoffman’s “narrative was adopted from long-standing critics of the plaintiffs and the APA,” critics who actively sought to ban psychologists accountable for their alleged complicity in torture and sought an FBI investigation of their conduct, according to the 105-page complaint.
The report says that the APA sought to “maximize its influence with and build its positive relationship with the DOD,” rather than institute firm guidelines to prevent abuses within the profession.
Calling the DOD a “rich, powerful uncle” to the APA, Hoffman called it “difficult” to act independently of such a benefactor.
The DOD is one of the largest employers of psychologists in the country, and provides millions of dollars in grants and contracts for psychological research each year.
In a revision of its ethics code in 2002, the APA said that psychologists faced with a conflict between ethics standards and the law, as interpreted by the DOD for example, may disregard the ethics guidelines to follow "other governing legal authority."
Critics labeled the amendment the “Nuremberg defense,” named after the defense repeated again and again by high-level Nazi officials at the war crimes trials in Nuremberg over their conduct in World War II – that they were just following orders.
The APA revised the code again in 2010 to clarify that psychologists cannot be involved in interrogations that violate human rights. However, it did not explicitly forbid the use of techniques pervasive at Guantanamo Bay, such as the use of stress positions and sleep deprivation.
Hoffman found that the APA’s Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security, also called PENS, was particularly motivated to “please and curry favor with the Department of Defense” to foster the growth of the profession. The task force was created to define a role for psychologists in national security interrogations that did not involve torture or degrading treatment.
Two of the named plaintiffs, Banks and James, were members of PENS. Behnke served as staff liaison to the APA Ethics Committee. Newman was a staff observer, and husband of Dunivan, who was formerly a member of the Guantanamo Bay Behavioral Science Consultation Team.
They claim that “[Hoffman] assumed the worst about the plaintiffs’ motives from the start, as had the critics, and then described the facts through that distorting lens.”
As a result, “the normal back-and-forth among members of an organization who are strongly committed to a point of view becomes ‘collusions,’” the complaint states. “A rational disagreement about the APA guidelines governing its members’ participation in the interrogation process – should the guidelines be detailed about specific interrogation techniques or leave that specificity to the military policies the guidelines incorporated? – becomes an effort to allow abuses to continue.”
The psychologists say they stepped up to implement new policies and ensure training to prevent the “horrific” abuse of prisoners that occurred soon after 9/11, but Hoffman and the APA set out to punish them for their efforts.
“Hoffman cherry-picked evidence, ignored contradictory evidence, mischaracterized facts, relief on inferences the facts did not support, and failed to follow obvious investigatory leads,” they claim.
In the wake of the report’s findings, the APA immediately passed a ban on the involvement of psychologists in national security interrogations and detention sites, and issued an apology.
APA spokesperson Kim Mills said the organization will vigorously defend the suit.
“The independent review by Sidley Austin concluded that some longstanding criticisms aimed at the APA regarding these matters were inaccurate. Since the review’s publication, APA has taken steps to examine internal organizational policies and further the humanitarian objectives of the science and profession of psychology,” Mills said.
The plaintiffs seek punitive damages for defamation, claiming the Hoffman report’s findings have substantially damaged their careers. They are represented by James Arnold in Columbus, Ohio, Bonny J. Forest in San Diego, and Louis J. Freeh in Washington D.C.
Sidley Austin spokesperson Kellie Mullins said, “The firm stands behind its lawyers and its work for the APA, and will vigorously defend both in this litigation. Our investigation and resulting opinions and conclusions meaningfully contributed to an ongoing dialogue about issues of public importance.”