No Comment — July 20, 2009, 4:07 pm

The APA’s Nuremberg Defense

As I noted in a recent post, the disclosures surrounding the waterboarding of Abu Zubaida give further proof that beginning in 2002, healthcare professionals, specifically psychologists, played an essential role at every stage in the development and application of torture techniques. The failure of professional organizations, and specifically the American Psychological Association, to acknowledge this and take appropriate countermeasures is disturbing. The mounting evidence of involvement of psychologists in the torture program should lead both to ethics enforcement measures and a review of existing ethical standards. But just the opposite has happened. Professional oversight bodies have engaged in consistent evasion, and now the APA is focused on the relaxation of its ethics standards to provide defenses for psychologists who joined in the Bush Administration’s torture program.

As the Bush Administration introduced its torture program in 2002, the APA modified Section 1.02 of its ethics rules, to state that in the event of conflict between ethics standards and law as interpreted by government organs like the Department of Defense or CIA, psychologists are free to disregard the requirements of applicable ethics guidelines and “may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority.” This provision was curiously passed just as psychologists undertook their key role in the torture program. And it dovetails perfectly with a scheme introduced by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to undercut the ethics standards of lawyers, doctors, and other healthcare professionals by binding them strictly to the laws and regulations as definitively interpreted by him as Secretary of Defense (DOD Policy Directive 3115.09). It is a full-throated repudiation of the rule fashioned at Nuremberg under which individuals involved in the torture or abuse of prisoners are not entitled to rely on a defense of superior orders. The APA was saying that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were free to suspend the organization’s ethics rules whenever they chose to do so.

Stephen Behnke, the APA’s Director of Ethics, claims that this provision is “written largely in response to conflicts regarding confidentiality, arising most often when courts issue subpoenas for psychologists’ records.” In fact, the provision’s direct relationship to the Defense Department’s efforts to vitiate professional ethics rules, shown in Directive 3115.09, could not be clearer. The modification reflected an effort by APA leaders to give psychologists who were preparing to participate in the torture program an ethical “out.” Since the Bush Administration held “legal opinions” issued by the likes of John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Stephen G. Bradbury, under the reasoning of this amended ethics provision psychologists were entitled to rely upon those opinions—notwithstanding any restrictions contained in their professional ethics code. The rationale that Behnke claims as cover could easily be handled in a provision authorizing psychologists to comply with legal process concerning the turnover of records—a garden-variety provision already found in commercial agreements.

Kenneth S. Pope and Thomas G. Gutheil expose the APA leadership’s latest torture scam in an article in the current issue of the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada



September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics
“When everyday life regularly throws up images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” by Wafa Hourani
“There was torture by the previous regime and by the current Iraqi regime,” Dr. Amin said. “Torture by our Kurdish government, torture by Syrians, torture by the U.S.”
Visiting His Own Grave © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The Tale of the Tape·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Heroin isn’t the weakness Art Pepper submits to; it’s the passion he revels in.”
Photograph (detail) © Laurie Pepper
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia
New Books
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Almond insists that watching football does more than feed an appetite for violence. It’s a kind of modern-day human sacrifice, and it makes us more likely to go to war.”
Photograph by Harold Edgerton

Chance that a movie script copyrighted in the U.S. before 1925 was written by a woman:

1 in 2

Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.

Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


In Praise of Idleness


I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today