March 15, 2014

APA Response to Forbes Magazine Opinion Pieces by Todd Essig

Letter from APA’s Farberman to Forbes’ editor

Dear Editor:

Todd Essig’s opinion pieces about the American Psychological Association’s policies on the treatment of national security detainees contain a startling number of false premises and factual errors, as does the Dr. Frank Summers’ letter on which one of them relies.  

Contrary to the author's claim, APA’s no torture policy is clear and unequivocal. There is never a justification for torture, regardless of the "larger societal good" at issue. The American Psychological Association’s policies strictly prohibit any member from engaging in torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in any and all circumstances. This policy has been in place since 1986 and there is no exception to it. APA’s governing Council of Representatives has adopted many additional policies since then to define specifically what constitutes torture, to outline measures to safeguard detainee welfare, and to clarify the roles and responsibilities of psychologists related to work in national security settings. In July 2013, the Council of Representatives passed a unified, comprehensive policy to reiterate and clarify the association’s anti-torture position

In the matter of Dr. John Leso, formal charges were not brought because the allegations, including those that Dr. Leso directed or participated in torture, could not be proven consistent with the Ethics Committee’s burden of proof. Due process is the foundation for the rules and procedures that govern the APA ethics complaint process. Those rules and procedures require balancing all evidence within an adjudication framework in an effort to determine if ethics charges should be brought, and can be proven, based on a preponderance of the evidence. APA’s responsibility is to enforce its Ethics Code while also protecting the due process rights of both the complainant and the accused. This requires that decisions be made on direct, substantiated information from primary sources, not secondhand accounts or supposition. The Ethics Committee ultimately bears responsibility for proving any charges of unethical behavior. Further, the committee must base its actions on clear evidence of individual wrongful behavior that can be shown to be directly attributed to the accused. 

The Leso case was highly unusual in that the complainants had no first-hand knowledge of the facts of the case. For this reason, and to ensure that all possible relevant material was reviewed, the APA Ethics Office proactively sought information that had been released into the public domain that might be relevant to the allegations. Because much of the relevant information was classified, the process continued over a seven-year period while substantial, relevant information was released into the public domain. In other words, the committee had no access to classified information and therefore undertook as complete and careful a review of the available evidence as possible. Members of the Ethics Committee and committee staff reviewed actual evidence in the public record, as opposed to second-hand media reports. The work was conducted in a manner to ensure that the process was kept insulated from political pressures.  

Based on the requirements set forth by the Ethics Committee’s Rules and Procedures, the record, read in its entirety, did not support bringing formal ethics charges against Dr. Leso. APA’s responsibility was to determine, based on its rules and procedures, if a preponderance of the evidence suggested that Dr. Leso acted in an unethical matter. That preponderance of evidence of wrongdoing was not found.  

In addition, APA’s policies are in no way influenced by research funding from the U.S. military. Our revenue sources, which are public information, are primarily our publishing arm, member dues and our annual convention. The only funding APA received from the Department of Defense in 2013 (2013 being a typical year regarding outside funding) was a $10,000 grant to support training programs. That amount represents less than .01 percent of the overall APA budget. 

With respect to Dr. Scott Churchill’s last-minute proposal that he wished to place on the Council of Representatives’ agenda in February, it is expected to be on that body’s formal agenda when the group meets next, in August. That timing will allow the council to give the proposal the thorough review it deserves.

Questions about unethical behavior and inhumane treatment of detainees by health professionals are of the utmost concern to APA. It would be incorrect to infer from the resolution of the Leso matter that APA is equivocal in condemning torture and abuse. We will continue to exercise the association’s influence wherever possible to prevent such treatment and will adjudicate any future claims against psychologists accused of unethical treatment of national security detainees in accordance with the Ethics Committee’s Rules and Procedures.


Rhea K. Farberman, APR
Executive Director
Public & Member Communications
American Psychological Association