Wednesday, November 12, 2008

PENS Redux? Arrigo & Wessells' Letter to APA President Kazdin

Stephen Soldz, whose blog is a treasure chest of information about the fight against torture, has kindly reproduced a letter from Jean Maria Arrigo and Mike Wessells, two former members of the American Psychological Association's Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS), to current APA President Alan Kazdin.

As was noted in an earlier article here, aimed to address ethical and practical problems arising through the use of psychologists in the U.S. "war on terror," PENS was stacked with military psychologists, and gave a quick and pressured rubber stamp to the use of psychologists at military and CIA interrogation sites, despite reports of abuse, leading to the resignation or apostasy from the panel of leading non-military members. Two of those former members wrote the following letter to APA's current president, concerned about APA's approach to constituting a new "Advisory Board" to implement a new policy on psychologist non-participation in national security interrogations, and at sites "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)." This new policy was passed by referendum of the membership two months ago, after a petition campaign led by key APA dissidents.

The new advisory board is supposed to meet this weekend to decide how to implement the petition's resolution. For more analysis of the background of the situation, see this earlier article. The letter from Arrigo and Wessells to Dr. Kazdin is reproduced below (as originally published at Psyche, Science and Society):
Dear President Kazdin:

We, Jean Maria Arrigo and Mike Wessells, are writing in response to news of your formation of the Presidential Advisory Group on the Implementation of the Petition Resolution. With this committee, the APA has a new opportunity to unite the organization by effectively implementing the policies widely adopted by vote of the membership.

Yet we also see that setting up the organizational structure, charge, and guidelines for communication and transparency warrants caution. As members of the 2005 Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics in National Security (PENS), we wish to warn of certain procedural irregularities in the PENS process that are potential pitfalls for successful implementation of the referendum. These irregularities led to a fraudulent process that undermined the ostensible purpose of PENS: to develop ethical guidelines for psychologists in national security interrogations.

It appears to us that the fraudulent PENS process was the root cause of many of the APA’s difficulties in the past three years because it prevented true deliberation. As much as anything else, it deprived thoughtful, honest advocates for psychologists’ involvement in interrogations of the opportunity to present a credible case for their position.

Many of the stakeholders to the PENS process are involved in the Implementation process, directly or indirectly. It is therefore crucial that the actual Implementation process — as opposed to the public face of the process — be transparent, fair, and deliberative. To illustrate both the subtlety and the gravity of violations in the PENS procedures, and the potential for violations in the Implementation process, we offer four examples from among a dozen that equally de-legitimized the PENS effort. All of these can be substantiated. Not one has been publicly acknowledged by APA authorities. There were other— in some ways more dramatic and egregious—violations of independent, democratic process, but the following examples particularly signal risks to the work of the new Advisory Committee.
1. As psychologists we are aware that majority influence plays a great role in group decision-making. The undisclosed “observers” to the PENS task force meeting included: the Assistant Director of Social, Behavioral, and Educational Sciences for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; the Executive Director for APA Science Policy; a second APA Science Policy staff member; a former National Security Agency psychologist and former director of the Navy Internship Program; and the Director of the APA Practice Directorate. At least the first four of these five had been closely involved in securing defense-related funding for APA programs. And all received the PENS listserv communications. Their presence and involvement was inconsistent with what anyone would understand by the “public face” of the PENS task force.

2. An APA Board liaison to the PENS task force was the first to suggest that the Director of the APA Practice Directorate attend the PENS meeting as an “observer,” because, as he wrote on the pre-meeting PENS listserv, “this TF has direct implications for practice.” In the morning of the first day of the June 26-29, 2005 task force meeting, it was this same Board liaison who proposed confidentiality of the task force proceedings, although no sensitive issues had yet arisen. This subtle intrusion by the APA Board exceeds the official role of Board liaison.

3. The Director of the APA Practice Directorate indeed attended, but not as mere observer. This Director articulated the task force mission as “putting out the fires” of controversy at APA, rather than resolving complex questions in psychological ethics. With cooperation from the task force chair (who was simultaneously vice-chair of the APA Ethics Committee), the Director steered the task force toward policy to be made in extreme haste, secrecy, with only an appearance of unanimity, and with no concrete examples to substantiate the policy.

Further the Director of the Practice Directorate was married to a BSCT psychologist who had served at Guantánamo, one of the theaters of concern to the task force. His spouse was closely involved with Army Surgeon General Kiley and, along with two other task force members, was part of the almost immediate military review of the PENS report with General Kiley. Other task force members employed by the military and intelligence agencies and APA task force organizers were surely aware of these profound conflicts of interest, although the Director disclosed no such influential relationships at the meeting.

4. As is now publicly known, one military member of the task force had been involved in the so-called “reverse engineering” of the Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training program to produce abusive techniques for terror suspects and prisoners of war. At least one of his colleagues on the task force was certainly aware of his severe conflict of interest. Further, four of the task force members served in the chains of command that had been accused of abuses.
The PENS process generated cadres of fierce critics of APA policy, whose researches eventually exposed many of the specific instances and mechanisms of fraud. These same cadres of APA members, international psychologists, human rights scholars, and journalists have their eyes on the Implementation process.

To fulfill the promise of your Presidential Advisory Group on the Implementation of the Petition Resolution, and because the PENS process so deeply damaged trust in APA institutional process, we think three things are needed: (a) a fair and transparent process, (b) committee participants who are free from overt conflicts of interest (whether disclosed or undisclosed), and (c) a reputable, independent monitor. We do not at all question your sincerity. This is not the point. Nevertheless, however far down the path you feel you are to a fair and transparent process, we urge you to arrange for a reputable, independent monitor. Such a practice will finally help put out the fires of controversy at APA over psychological ethics in interrogations.

Thank you very much for your time in considering our letter.


Jean Maria Arrigo, PhD
Michael Wessells, PhD
One final note: Drs. Arrigo and Wessells apparently cc'd the letter to other PENS Task Force members, the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, Psychologists for Social Responsibility, and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. I'd say that those wishing to hold APA and like institutions to something like transparency and ethical process will be much more vigilant after the experience of the Bush years.

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