Psychologists for Peace

APS Declaration on Torture



Should psychologists, physicians and mental health professionals be involved in the design and implementation of interrogation techniques?

The issue of psychologists' involvement in torture and interrogation came to the fore for many Australian psychologists during the 2007 APS National Conference, with the presence of Dr Gerald P Koocher (past APA president) as a keynote speaker. To read more about this, click here - Acrobat icon - small (219kb)

As part of a response to Dr Koocher's presence, and the questions it raised for many APS members, a forum was held, titled "Lessons from Guantanamo: Ethical Issues for psychologists working in the military, intelligence and detention facilities." Forum participants were Dr Koocher, Heather Gridley (PFP and College of Community Psychologists member), Amanda Gordon (APS president) and Dr. Chris Lennings from the University of Sydney, who had been involved in research and advocacy in relation to the mental health of detainees in places like Villawood and Baxter detention centres. The forum was chaired by Professor Graham Davidson. To read Heather Gridley's forum presentation, click here - Acrobat icon - small (335kb).

History of APA stance on role of psychologists in interrogations

Over the last few years, the APA has been involved in considerable controversy over the involvement of psychologists in interrogation. The question for many members was, why didn't the APA do the same thing as the other professional organizations, and tell psychologists "do not participate, do not be present, and do not advise in military interrogations"?

Other American professional organisations said:

  • American Psychiatric Association in May 2006: Do not be present, do not participate, and do not advise in interrogations.
  • American Medical Association in 2006: Do not conduct or participate in interrogations, and do not monitor interrogations, because that constitutes direct participation.

APA actions

2005 Report of the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS Report)

2006 Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

August 2007: Reaffirmation of the American Psychological Association Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and Its Application to Individuals Defined in the United States Code as "Enemy Combatants"

August 2008: Petition resolution to limit Psychologists' work in some detention settings

2005 Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) report

The PENS report (2005) states:

"the Task Force was unambiguous that psychologists do not engage in, direct, support, facilitate, or offer training in torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and that psychologists have an ethical responsibility to be alert to and report any such acts to appropriate authorities. The Task Force stated that it is consistent with the APA Ethics Code for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation and information-gathering processes for national security-related purposes, as psychologists have a long-standing tradition of doing in other law enforcement contexts. Acknowledging that engaging in such consultative and advisory roles entails a delicate balance of ethical considerations, the Task Force stated that psychologists are in a unique position to assist in ensuring that these processes are safe and ethical for all participants."

The PENS report concluded that "it is consistent with the APA Ethics Code for psychologists to serve in consultive roles to interrogation and information-gathering processes for national security related purposes." (PENS 2005)

The report specifically cited APA Ethics Standard 1.02, which states that, when faced with a conflict between ethics and laws or legal regulations, "psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority." (PENS 2005)

In addition, there was widespread criticism that the majority of the members of the PENS Task Force had strong links to the military. 

2006 APA resolution

In 2006, the APA passed a resolution against torture, and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment.


The resolution says:

The APA "unequivocally condemns torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, under any and all conditions"

This condemnation includes, "an absolute prohibition against psychologists knowingly planning, designing, and assisting in the use of torture and any form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment"

The resolution specifically prohibits psychologists from being involved in:

  • mock executions
  • water-boarding or any other form of simulated drowning or suffocation
  • sexual humiliation
  • rape
  • cultural or religious humiliation
  • exploitation of phobias or psychopathology
  • induced hypothermia
  • the use of psychotropic drugs or mind-altering substances
  • hooding
  • forced nakedness
  • stress positions
  • the use of dogs to threaten or intimidate
  • physical assault including slapping or shaking
  • exposure to extreme heat or cold
  • threats of harm or death
  • isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation and/or sleep deprivation

Responses to the PENS report and resolution

Many psychologists were disappointed at the PENS report and resolution, and argued that it held the following limitations:

Some of these techniques prohibited in the resolution were only prohibited when they were:

  • used for the purposes of eliciting information in an interrogation process
  • used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm
  • The Resolution also said that the APA "expresses grave concern over settings in which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights"
  • Concerns remain that psychologists could still be involved in many of these practices as long as a "reasonable person" would not judge them to cause "lasting harm."
  • The resolution only expresses "grave concern" over the denial of basic human rights, rather than making prohibitions of psychologist activity in these settings.
  • The resolution did not address a major inconsistency in the ethical standards over conflict between ethics and law, which states that "If psychologists' ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict. If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority."

Zimbardo (2006) argued:

  • psychologists operating within the military often do so when information is compartmentalized;
  • if a psychologist was to give a psychological assessment of a detainee he/she cannot guarantee it would not be used for interrogation purposes;
  • That the APA should not have a lower standard of ethics than the AMA or the American Psychiatric Association;
  • The PENS report assumes that individual psychologists have the same circumstances as those practicing in a consultancy or private practice and it is unrecognized that enormous pressures can be brought to bear on psychologists to comply with organizational norms especially in times of war, when activities are secret and their credentials and security rankings are linked with what they are asked to perform;
  • The euphemisms used by the Bush administration, such as "soft torture" and the narrowing of the definitions of human rights as dictated by the US government rather than the Geneva convention lends itself to human rights abuses which have been used to justify the actions of fascist regimes.

Olson, B. & Soldz, S. (2007) argued:

  • That psychologists are bringing the profession into disrepute and violating the APA code of ethics if participating in interrogation
  • That torture techniques are a reversal of the Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) psychologist designed training for special forces in the US to harden US soldiers against abuse
  • Psychologists in detainee interrogation situations are not on record as preventing the abuse of prisoners
  • The positive illusion is the argument that the presence of psychologists ensures "behavioural" drift does not occur on the part of interrogators. There is no such training nor any record of psychologists intervening to prevent behavioural drift.

Miles (2007), argued that:

  • Substantial research has shown that there is very little intelligence value of individuals subject to torture;
  • Most abused prisoners are innocent of any wrong doing;
  • That torture is a crime against a civil society not just the individuals concerned.

For further information, see:

Zimbardo, P. (2006) Commentary on Report Of The American Psychological Association's Presidential Task Force: On Psychological Ethics And National Security (PENS)

Psychologists for Social Responsibility November 2006 report: Rethinking the psychology of torture: A Preliminary Report from Former Interrogators and Research Psychologists - Acrobat icon - small (66kb)

Olson, B. & Soldz, S. (2007) Positive illusions and the necessity of a bright line forbidding psychologists involvement in detainee interrogations.  Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2007, pp. 1-10

Summers F. (2007) Psychoanalysis the APA and the involvement of psychologists at Guantanamo Bay

Miles, S. (2007) Science and Torture. Archives of General Psychiatry 64

2007 APA Resolution:

Amendment to 2007 APA resolution

On February 22, 2008 the APA adopted an amendment to the August 2007 resolution.  The amendment closes the loopholes that many saw in the August 2007 resolution. It lists specific international agreements (such as the Geneva Conventions) and condemns all techniques considered cruel punishment or torture under those agreements.

APA policy condemns and absolutely prohibits psychologists from planning, designing, assisting in or participating in any activities including interrogations which involve the use of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The response to the 2007 resolution

Significant improvement, but it still leaves at some issues unanswered:

  • Conflict in ethics is still unresolved, meaning that meaning that psychologists could violate the ethics code if legally ordered to do so.
  • Psychologists can still ethically work in settings that violate basic human rights
  • Psychologists can still participate in interrogations which may involve other people subjecting detainees to acts recognized as cruel and inhuman.
  • The APA has still not made a total ban, as other professional health organisations have done.
  • (Notes taken from a powerpoint presentation by Jean Hill,, accessed 22 October, 2008).

2008 APA petition resolution (August 2008)

The most recent development has been the passing of a petition resolution to limit Psychologists' work in some detention settings.  The petition, passed in August 2008, states that psychologists may not work in settings where "persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights" was approved by a vote of the APA membership. The final vote tally was 8,792 voting in favor of the resolution; 6,157 voting against the resolution.

Further information

Further information on the APA policies and action related to detainee welfare can be obtained from:


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