What we’re reading now: The APA report

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The American Psychological Association’s Independent Review on ethics, national security and torture—in historical context

By Marcie Holmes


The Hidden Persuaders project studies the history of ‘brainwashing’ and other forms of mind control as they relate to the expertise and status of the psy professions during the Cold War. Our inquiries here chart important chapters in the ‘history of the present’, especially in light of recent revelations that the psychological methods once used to protect against ‘brainwashing’ have been reverse engineered as techniques of ‘enhanced interrogation’ in the ‘War on Terror’. This past week saw yet another example of how the role of psy professionals as potential experts in interrogation methods—a role that was forged during the Cold War’s brainwashing scandals—continues to invoke controversy, especially amongst psy professionals themselves. In dispute, I suggest in this post, are the proper scope and purposes of the profession of psychology: should it continue to countenance the weaponising of psychological knowledge for the good of ‘national security’?


On Thursday, 2 July 2015, the American Psychological Association (APA) received the report of David H. Hoffman of the Chicago law firm Sidley Austin LLP, a document known as the Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture. This details the results of Hoffman’s eight-month investigation into, as the APA explains, ‘whether there was 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.’


This report was made publicly available on 10 July. You can download the full document, and also its supporting evidence, from the APA’s website.


Many knowledgeable observers have already described it as a bombshell for the architects of the association’s 2005 policy to allow American psychologists to participate in enhanced interrogations for the sake of national security. The report requires careful reading and contextualisation, but at the outset Hoffman’s analysis validates much of the criticism that American psychologists have made about the APA’s ethical stance leading to, and following from, the creation of its 2005 policy.


Here I provide some background to the Independent Review, also known as ‘the Hoffman report’. I describe its major findings, what led to its commissioning, and how it raises new questions about the evolving role of American psy professionals in national security and defence organisations.


The Hoffman report’s conclusions

The key finding of David Hoffman’s 542-page review is that between 2004 and 2008, certain prominent APA members ‘colluded’ with US Department of Defense (DoD) officials to create an official APA policy that, by allowing psychologists to participate in enhanced interrogation, conformed to the operational needs of the DoD. This policy failed to include a full ethical analysis of the issue, and offered guidelines that, according to Hoffman, were intentionally written to be general and ‘high-level’ without providing specific advice on whether, and under what circumstances, particular interrogation techniques would constitute a breach of psychologists’ charge to ‘do no harm’. The Independent Review‘s executive summary states:

Our investigation determined that key APA officials, principally the APA Ethics Director joined and supported at times by other APA officials, colluded with important DoD [Department of Defense] officials to have APA issue loose, high-level ethical guidelines that did not constrain DoD in any greater fashion than existing DoD interrogation guidelines. We concluded that APA’s principal motive in doing so was to align APA and curry favor with DoD (Independent Review 2015, p. 9).


As requested by the APA, Hoffman’s investigation focused in particular on the circumstances surrounding the meeting that produced the APA’s 2005 ethical guidelines on national security interrogation: a meeting of the Presidential Task Force on Ethics and National Security (known as the PENS Task Force), which took place between 24 and 26 June, 2005. The twelve guidelines that emerged from this meeting were adopted as official APA policy less than a week later in an emergency session of the APA Board of Directors. In short, the policy allowed for psychologists to participate in national security interrogations when using methods that were ‘safe, legal, effective and ethical’ – but did not delve into the complexities of these criteria. The APA asked Hoffman to consider whether APA representatives had coordinated with DoD, CIA or other government officials to create this policy in order ‘to support torture’.



The American Psychological Association building in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Oakstreetstudio, Wikimedia Commons

Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor, did not find evidence of APA collusion with the CIA in composing the PENS Task Force and its guidelines. However, he and his team of investigators found copious and specific evidence to support the charge of collusion between APA representatives and DoD officials.


Hoffman argues that APA representatives did not knowingly pursue this collaboration as a means to support the use of torture. Rather, members of the PENS Task Force did not seek information about the methods that were then being used in national security interrogations at sites like Guantanamo Bay, or consider whether they constituted torture. Nor did the PENS Task Force formally discuss whether questionable interrogation techniques were likely to be continued, with the assistance of psychologists, under the ethical guidelines they recommended.


The Hoffman report notes that this is surprising, and potentially an act of ‘deliberate avoidance’, because the committee members would have been aware of well-publicised news stories about how CIA and DoD interrogations were contravening the Geneva Conventions against torture (p. 67). In particular, when the PENS Task Force met in June 2005, there had been news stories in April 2004 about the degrading treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib, and a 30 November 2004 article in the New York Times had described a leaked report by the International Red Cross that stated psychologists were participating in interrogation techniques ‘tantamount to torture’. Indeed, these stories had led the APA Board of Directors to establish the PENS Task Force. During the meeting, one of the Task Force members, the APA Ethics Director, learned that the New Yorker would shortly be publishing Jane Mayer’s (now well-known) article on the use of aggressive interrogation methods at Guantanamo (Mayer, 2005). The Independent Review concludes:

We did not find evidence to support the conclusion that APA officials actually knew about the existence of an interrogation program using ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. But we did find evidence that during the time that APA officials were colluding with DoD officials to create and maintain loose APA ethics policies that did not significantly constrain DoD, APA officials had strong reasons to suspect that abusive interrogations had occurred. In addition, APA officials intentionally and strategically avoided taking steps to learn information to confirm those suspicions. (p. 9)


In addition, the Hoffman report finds that the collusion between high-ranking APA officials and DoD personnel did not merely influence the construction of the APA’s official guidelines in 2005. In the years that followed, their secret cooperation affected the enforcement of those guidelines by the APA’s Ethics Office, with several cases of psychologists purportedly involved in the torture of detainees not receiving satisfactory scrutiny. The result of this collusion can also be seen in the treatment of APA members’ attempts to change the association’s ethics policy to create more stringent protocols. On this last point, the report summarises:

We also found that in the three years following the adoption of the 2005 PENS Task Force report as APA policy, APA officials engaged in a pattern of secret collaboration with DoD officials to defeat efforts by the APA Council of Representatives to introduce and pass resolutions that would have definitively prohibited psychologists from participating in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. detention centers abroad. (p. 9)

The Independent Review is perhaps surprising for its claims about the intentions and motivations of the individuals on the PENS Task Force and in the APA’s upper-echelons of management. However, this was part of the independent reviewer’s mandate from the APA to conduct a ‘thorough’ and ‘definitive’ review into how and why such events occurred. The Hoffman report suggests that the APA management’s foremost concern was to ‘curry favor’ with the DoD, because the DoD has historically been a top employer of psychologists and generous funder of psychological research, and was in the process of determining how psychologists would be involved in its future intelligence activities. The report notes two ‘secondary’, but still very powerful, motives:

First, APA wished to implement a media communications strategy in which APA could portray itself as very engaged in the issue and very concerned about ethical issues… And second, APA wanted to foster the growth of the profession of psychology by supporting military and operational psychologists, rather than restricting their work in any way. (p. 11)

These motives, as we will see below, should lead us to reflect on the historical relationship between psychologists and the US government’s national security apparatus, and the potential for this evolving relationship to destabilise the APA and the profession of psychology. But first, it is necessary to consider the present atmosphere of heightened controversy that surrounds the Hoffman report. Why has a long-simmering internal debate about institutional policy spilled so spectacularly into the public sphere?


What led to the report—immediate circumstances

The APA’s 2005 ethics policy became a flashpoint for debate ever since the PENS Task Force guidelines were adopted in an ’emergency meeting’ of the APA Board of Directors in July 2005. Individual psychologists publicly and doggedly attacked the policy. Among the most prominent were Jean Maria Arrigo (who had served on the PENS Task Force), Steven Soldz, and Roy Eidelson—though there were many, many others. Organisations like Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Human Rights, and Coalition for an Ethical Psychology called for an investigation into the policy’s creation and adoption, as well as as its repeal and replacement. Some individuals and organisations even called on APA members to withold their membership dues. Outside of the psychological profession, policies set by the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association in 2006, which clearly prohibited their members from taking part in enhanced interrogations, put the APA’s more permissive stance in harsh light.


Yet despite the immediate suspicion of the APA’s 2005 ethics policy—and its overhaul in 2013—APA management denied that any of their staff or Board of Directors had acted improperly. It was nearly ten years later that the APA agreed to an independent review. When the APA Board of Directors retained David Hoffman in November 2014, it was in direct response to the specific allegations of collusion made by the New York Times journalist James Risen, in his book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, published only a month before. In his book, Risen cites emails shared with him by the RAND researcher and CIA contractor Scott Gerwher (now deceased), which show that the construction of the PENS Task Force and its guidelines had been carefully planned to support the wishes of the CIA, DoD, and other Bush Administration personnel. Risen writes, ‘Gerwehr’s emails…show that APA officials were secretly working behind the scenes with CIA and Pentagon officials to discuss how to shape the organisation’s position to be supportive of psychologists involved in interrogations—long before the task force was even formed.’


Risen’s book suggested that there was evidence for what many American psychologists had long claimed: that the 2005 policy was not only lax in ethical substance, but had been unduly influenced by Bush Administration officials seeking cover for their use of enhanced interrogation. Though APA representatives officially denied these allegations, they recognised that Risen’s book had created a cloud of uncertainty around the organisation that only an independent investigation could dispel. In retaining Hoffman to provide a thorough and definitive review, the association gave Hoffman and his team at Sidley Austin unfettered access to internal APA emails, electronic and hard copy documents, and handwritten notes. Hoffman and his team interviewed 148 participants and witnesses, and sought additional documents and correspondence from non-APA sources.


During Hoffman’s investigation, the results of two other independent investigations were published that, it appears, placed further pressure on the APA to produce its own review quickly, and to make the results public. In December 2014 the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a summary of its findings on the effectiveness of CIA enhanced interrogation. This document provided further insight into psychologists’ involvement in designing the CIA’s strategies for interrogation, in particular the work of Air Force psychologists James Mitchell (a former APA member) and Bruce Jessen. In April 2015, an independent report, All the President’s Psychologists, was published by a group of psychologists critical of the APA’s 2005 policy. Written by Stephen Soldz, Nathaniel Raymond, and Steven Reisner, it analyses the emails that Scott Gerwehr gave Risen and finds that thoroughly support Risen’s claims.


APA officials may have thought Hoffman’s independent review would exonerate their organisation from the worst of Risen’s charges. Yet Hoffman’s careful investigation found undeniable evidence of secret, behind-the-scenes strategising and collaboration between the Director of the APA’s Ethics Office, Stephen Behnke, and Morgan Banks, the Chief of Psychological Operations for US Army Special Operations Command and head of the Army SERE Training Program, in the crucial period between 2004 and 2008. The review—with its discussion of the APA’s institutional motives—suggests that this is not a problem of certain individuals behaving inappropriately. There appear to be deeper tensions within the organisation that enabled, perhaps even encouraged, this clandestine collusion.


What led to the report—deeper tensions

It may seem strange that the APA asked its independent reviewer to assess the institutional circumstances surrounding its controversial 2005 ethics policy, rather than to address the question of whether particular APA members crossed an ethical boundary in participating in national security interrogations. However, the charge of secret collaboration between APA and DoD officials in setting APA ethics policy speaks to a debate that has been roiling the profession of psychology within the United States. Should psychology—a profession dedicated to the care and improvement of human lives, but which owes so much of its modern form to the military—be used in situations where supporting the military’s mission requires psychologists to cause harm to incarcerated individuals? Is the essential character of the APA, and of the profession, under siege by this seemingly new use for psychology?


The Hoffman report hints that two camps are now pitted against each other within the APA. The first group, perhaps the overwhelming majority of psychologists, see their profession in light of its core values to provide care for others, improve persons’ quality of life, and ‘do no harm’. This group has historically held sway over the APA’s ethical codes, which, since the first code was set in 1953, have sought to protect psychology from quackery, dubious forms of human experimentation, and other kinds of abuse. The other, smaller, yet still influential group is comprised of ‘operational psychologists’ and their defenders, who see psychologists as potential operatives in the government’s mission to protect its citizens. Members of this latter group tend to defend the use of interrogation techniques on the basis of their ability to produce actionable intelligence that will save American lives (Dunivin et al., 2011). Both sides agree that operational psychology, which emerged as a field in the wake of 9/11, represents a new development within military psychology. The question is whether the new ‘operational psychology’ can be a positive development for the wider profession, or is undermining it.


The field of operational psychology is populated with psychologists (sometimes called behavioral scientists) who work for the armed services, national security organisations, and law enforcement. Their role is to directly support military commanders, intelligence agents and other operatives in achieving missions of national security. These psychologists’ tasks might involve assisting in interrogation, hostage negotiation, persuading enemy combatants to surrender, or assessing special-operative personnel for their ability to contribute to high-risk missions. The field continues to discuss how best to describe itself, but one recent definition holds that

Operational psychology is a specialty within the field of psychology that applies behavioral science principles to enable key decision makers to more effectively understand, develop, target, and/or influence an individual, group or organization to accomplish tactical, operational, or strategic objectives within the domain of national security or national defense. (Staal and Stephenson 2013, p. 97)


There is no distinct body of knowledge that belongs to operational psychology. Rather, operational psychologists serve as ‘translators’ of psychological knowledge to commanders and other operators (Palarea 2007).


Operational psychology differs from traditional military psychology in that its behavioral scientists use their expertise directly in combat or in other theaters of action, as if their expertise was itself a defensive shield, weapon, or similar instrument for achieving mission objectives. In the 2006 special issue of the journal Military Psychology, devoted to the emerging field of operational psychology, Mark A. Staal and James A. Stephenson describe a continuum of roles and their effects within military psychology: at one end are tasks performed by military psychologists to care for service personnel, including seeing to soldiers’ mental health; at the other end is the ‘operational’ use of psychology in interrogation support, ‘psy ops’, and psychological profiling. In the middle of the continuum are the jobs that military psychologists do to improve ‘human performance’, such as personnel selection and training (Staal and Stephenson 2006).

Should psychology—a profession dedicated to the care and improvement of human lives, but which owes so much of its modern form to the military—be used in situations where supporting the military’s mission requires psychologists to cause harm to incarcerated individuals?

It appears that operational psychology can be distinguished from other forms of military psychology, and from other fields of applied psychology more generally, by how it views its relationship with, and responsibilities to, its patrons and its human subjects. Operational psychologists view their patrons in military, national security and law enforcement organisations as ‘partners’ who employ psychologists to share in their mission (Palarea 2007). In contrast to military psychologists who provide care or performance enhancement for personnel, operational psychologists often consider the subjects of their expertise as ‘targets’ (Staal and Stephenson 2006; Staal and Stephenson 2013; Arrigo et al., 2012). To describe how operational psychologists ‘target’ individuals or groups, Staal and Stephenson (2013) draw an analogy between their field and engineering that should give us pause:

For example, when an operational decision maker selects a building as a target to achieve a military or national objective, they seek the advice of an engineer as to the potential vulnerabilities of the structure as well as potential munitions which would be effective against these vulnerabilities, all the while seeking to reduce the chances of collateral damage. Similarly, when the objective relates to an individual personality, cultural group, or organization, the decision maker needs to understand the particular vulnerabilities or likely behavior of the individual or group in order to properly prepare a line of operation, engagement, or influence. (Staal and Stephenson 2013, p. 99)


Consequently, while earlier APA ethics codes conceived of human subjects in terms of their vulnerability to the psychological distress that could be caused by experimenters and therapists (Stark 2010)—and famous experiments by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo convinced many psychologists that they possessed power over subjects that could too easily be perverted to cause lasting harm—here we see the tables turned: in the work of operational psychologists, the subject (e.g., a detainee or criminal) is seen in terms of his danger to others and his degree of resistance to cooperating with authorities. The operational psychologist is percieved as being exposed to this danger and resistance along with her fellow operators, and in a unique position to deploy her knowledge in order to protect her colleagues and society at large. Consequently, some operational psychologists believe that norms of ethical practice are somewhat different for their field than for those in the profession who treat patients or perform controlled experiments on human subjects (Hubbard 2007; Stephenson and Staal 2007).


There is still much to learn about the internal dynamics of the emerging field of ‘operational psychology’. However, if this preliminary account of the field is correct, then it raises the question of whether operational psychology is fundamentally at odds with the older ethical and professional traditions of American psychology—and if, in actual fact, it is a natural outgrowth of psychology’s long-standing relationship with national defence.


Operational psychology in historical context

Though operational psychology is by recent accounts a ‘new’ subfield in psychology, it has complex roots in the past that are familiar and yet not well understood. The American psychological profession has long been very supportive of military efforts—most notably through the selection, classification, training, and mental health care of service personnel. In the United States, this tradition began in World War I with the IQ and aptitude testing of Army soldiers, and the treatment of ‘shell shock’ (though psychologists were joined by psychiatrists and physicians in this latter role). World War II saw the entry of psychologists into every branch of the US military, performing every function their expertise would allow, including psychometric testing, human factors research, ‘morale’ studies, propaganda studies, and the then-new specialism of ‘clinical psychology’. Psychologists also worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, perhaps most notoriously in the scientific assessment of personnel to be trained as spies, and in the profiling of individuals such as Adolf Hitler. It is to the OSS in particular that operational psychologists look when locating the origins of their subfield (e.g., Staal and Stephenson 2013).


It is not an exaggeration to say that the APA and the US military have historically been partners in building the profession of psychology within the United States. As historian James Capshew has convincingly argued, American psychologists’ service during World War II consolidated the power of the APA as the premier professional organisation for American psychologists. The APA’s war efforts laid the foundation for its postwar functions in accrediting the training of psychologists, advocating on their behalf in legal and political disputes, and in policing the ethical boundaries of the profession (Capshew, 1999; Capshew and Hilgard 1992). In the postwar period, the military services, Department of Defense, CIA and related agencies would employ thousands of psychologists and ‘behavioral scientists’, and would fund a wide variety of psychological research. Thus, just as the Second World War established the utility of psychological expertise beyond any doubt, it bound the profession of psychology—and its representative body, the APA—to the causes of national defence and national security.


There is also a darker side to the history of psychology’s involvement in military and national security organisations, one that has become part of our popular imagination as well as public record since the publication of monographs such as John Marks’ The Search for the Manchurian Candidate (1979) and Alfred McCoy’s A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror (2006). McCoy’s history traces how the brainwashing scandals of the Korean War created a new role for psy expertise within the growing national security state, and this expertise was turned toward some of the United States government’s most unsavoury practices in the Cold War and beyond. During the Korean War, American airmen were held captive and interrogated by Chinese forces, and then forced to make false confessions about their use of biological warfare against the Korean people. This seeming reprise of the Soviet show trials of the 1930s and ’40s suggested that the American airmen had been psychologically and physically tortured until they were ‘brainwashed’. Wanting to know more about how these men could be brainwashed to tell lies about their country, and about the experiences of other American soldiers who may have been submitted to the same treatment, the US armed services hired psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts to study these prisoners of war on their return to the US. These psy experts deciphered the range of techniques that had been used, and their short- and long-term psychological effects.


The findings of these psy experts—for instance, Albert Biderman’s chart of communist interrogation techniques—were used by the Air Force to create its Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) curriculum for training personnel to resist interrogation and ‘brainwashing’. This body of knowledge was also deployed, McCoy shows, in the CIA’s KUBARK field manual on the effective use of torture in counterintelligence interrogation, which was used by US agents throughout the Cold War. In the 1950s and ’60s, the CIA’s MK-Ultra program funded scientific experiments on the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, and other techniques now classed as ‘enhanced interrogation’ (Marks, 1979). US Senate reports have confirmed that these Cold War methods were ‘reverse engineered’ in the initiation of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program under the Bush Administration (US Congress, 2008; 2014). And yet, while we can trace the uses of psychological concepts through this historical trajectory, for example noting every time that Albert Biderman’s chart is cited, we do not know much about whether and which psy professionals were inside the CIA, the DoD, or other intelligence agencies during this period, and if they were purposefully using their psychological expertise to consult on these morally questionable developments. Were there, in practical fact, ‘operational psychologists’ before 9/11? If so, how did they understand the ethical boundaries of their work?

Just as the Second World War established the utility of psychological expertise for national defence, it bound the profession of psychology—and its representative body, the APA—to the causes of national defence and national security.

The complex internal dynamics of operational psychology suggests that we need to investigate a different, but related, trajectory to the history we already know, one that focuses on the employment of psychologists (and their close compatriots, the ‘behavioral scientists’) within US intelligence organisations. This story would begin with the recruitment of psychologists into the OSS in World War II and their significance in establishing the CIA in 1947, but it would also assess the many roles played by psychologists in the intelligence operations of the military services and the Department of Defense. It might also include the work of psychologists in law enforcement organisations like the FBI and civilian police forces. Such an historical effort would need to explore the distinctive institutional cultures of these very different agencies, including the particular work demands, career trajectories, and professional codes typical to each. A crucially important goal of such a history would be to provide a more systematic account of these behavioral scientists’ own evolving understanding of the ‘ethical’ creation and application of psychological knowledge in their work.


In conclusion… the essential tensions over APA ethics will not be easily resolved

The Hoffman report gives a convincing account of the PENS Task Force and the behavior of particular APA representatives in colluding with DoD officials, but it cannot resolve the essential tension: whither operational psychology? Will this field continue to be encouraged within the institutional framework of the American Psychological Association? How will, and should, it be shaped by American psychology’s ethical, intellectual and professional traditions? If it is fundamentally at odds with the modern profession of psychology, does it make sense to cut it out of the APA – or does that place it out of the reach of those who can best reform its excesses? Has the close relationship between American psychology and the cause of national security, between the APA and the US military, begun to unravel?


At present, the APA is divided between those psychologists who would allow for the ‘operational’ use of psychological knowledge for the good of national security, even at the cost of doing harm to individuals, and those who believe that psychologists have a fundamental commitment to the dignity and inviolability of all persons. In the Independent Review Hoffman writes,

We have heard from psychologists who treat patients for a living that they feel physically sick when they think about the involvement of psychologists intentionally using harsh interrogation techniques. This is the perspective of psychologists who use their training and skill to peer into the damaged and fragile psyches of their patients, to understand and empathize with the intensity of psychological pain in an effort to heal it. The prospect of a member of their profession using that same training and skill to intentionally cause psychological or physical harm to a detainee sickens them. We find that perspective understandable. (p. 70)


Psychologists who are sickened by their operational counterparts may never accept the premise that psychology can ethically be used to ‘target’ individuals, and indeed, perhaps they never should.



Camp X-Ray Detainees, Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Official US Department of Defense photograph by Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy, US Navy. 11 January 2002.

Sources cited:

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Soldz, S., Raymond, N., and Reisner, S. (2015). All the President’s Psychologists: The American Psychological Association’s Secret Complicity with the White House and US Intelligence Community in Support of the CIA’s ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Program. https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.documentcloud.org/documents/2069718/report.pdf (accessed 16 July 2015)
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