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The APA Relied on the CIA for Ethical Guidance

The American Psychological Association turned to the CIA for guidance in developing ethics policies on psychologist involvement in interrogation operations.

London protesters gather outside the US embassy demanding the closure of the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. (Photo: Pres Panayotov /

In the fall of 2014, the publication of James Risen’s Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War put the American Psychological Association on the hot seat. The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter alleged that, after 9/11, the APA’s leadership colluded with the Bush administration to craft ethics policies permitting psychologists to participate in coercive and abusive “war on terror” detention and interrogation operations. The APA was quick to deny any wrongdoing.

By the end of April, the heat under the APA was turned up another notch by the release and detailed analysis of several previously confidential emails obtained by Risen. These emails, from a much larger trove of hundreds, include correspondence between senior APA officials and members of the intelligence community from 2003 to 2006. Several emails involving one individual in particular – psychologist Kirk Hubbard – go a long way toward undermining the APA’s indignant protestations of innocence.

In 2003, Hubbard was a chief officer at the Operational Assessment Division of the CIA. In late 2001, he had introduced psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen to the CIA. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell and Jessen reportedly went to work devising and administering the CIA’s brutal black site detainee torture regime, as detailed in a recent Senate report. In 2005, Hubbard left the CIA to take a job consulting for his colleagues at Mitchell Jessen & Associates; that firm received more than $80 million from the CIA for managing and staffing the agency’s detention and interrogation operations. And after he resigned from the APA in 2006 (Mitchell resigned that same year), Hubbard publicly acknowledged that he strongly supported the abusive “enhanced interrogation techniques” deemed lawful by the Bush administration.

For most of us, this is probably not the kind of profile that would instill confidence when looking for someone to provide guidance about psychological ethics. But a review of the newly released emails shows that the APA considered Hubbard – with his connections to the CIA and to Mitchell and Jessen – to be a highly valued adviser.

Following a July 2003 invitation-only “science of deception” workshop hosted by the APA and funded by the CIA, APA science policy director Geoff Mumford wanted feedback from the participants. Hubbard wrote to Mumford to say, “You won’t get any feedback from Mitchell or Jessen. They are doing special things to special people in special places, and generally are not available” (8/6/2003). Hubbard’s provocative message – presumably an oblique reference to CIA black site interrogations – apparently failed to elicit concern from Mumford or any of the other email recipients.

Hubbard’s comment about Mitchell and Jessen also did not discourage APA officials from including him in a small meeting of psychologists from the intelligence community, a meeting organized by Ethics Office director Stephen Behnke and held at APA headquarters in July 2004. According to another email, Behnke’s invitation offered the following assurances to Hubbard and the other attendees: “I would like to emphasize that we will not advertise the meeting other than this letter to the individual invitees, that we will not publish or otherwise make public the names of attendees or the substance of our discussions, and that in the meeting we will neither assess nor investigate the behavior of any specific individual or group” (7/14/2004). In other words, Mitchell and Jessen, among others, would not be mentioned.

In turn, that meeting in 2004 was the springboard for the APA’s controversial 2005 Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). The task force mandate, from the APA board, was to assess whether the APA’s ethics code adequately addressed the new and expanding roles and activities assigned to psychologists in national security settings. The psychologists selected by APA leadership to serve on the task force were predominantly representatives from the military and intelligence community, several of whom served in chains of command where detainee abuses allegedly took place. After a single weekend meeting, the task force issued a report asserting that it was indeed ethical for psychologists to serve in various national security-related roles, including as consultants to detainee interrogations.

Although Hubbard did not directly participate in the PENS meeting, his behind-the-scenes influence is revealed in an email from the APA’s Mumford to Hubbard the following week: “I also wanted to semi-publicly acknowledge your personal contribution … in getting this effort off the ground over a year ago. Your views were well represented by very carefully selected Task Force members … I hope this finds you well and that you are as pleased as we are with the report” (7/5/2005). In short, it appears that the primary purpose of the PENS report was to support the priorities of Hubbard and his national security colleagues.

A fourth email of note is one that Hubbard sent to Mumford and others roughly two weeks before the PENS meeting took place. In that message, Hubbard informed the recipients that he had recently retired from the CIA and that “Now I do some consulting work for Mitchell Jessen & Associates. Most of you know who Jim and Bruce are, I think” (6/16/2005). This development also failed to cause a stir among APA leaders, and it did not dissuade Mumford from sending the “thank you” note, described above, just three weeks later.

None of the Hubbard emails indicates that the APA took meaningful steps to defend the profession’s fundamental do-no-harm ethical principles when collaborating with the CIA and Pentagon. Indeed, the accumulated evidence points clearly in the opposite direction. Despite reports of psychologist involvement in detainee abuse at CIA black sites and Guantánamo Bay during this period, the APA failed to reconsider its stance – even as other health professions turned away from involvement in detention and interrogation operations. These latest revelations lend further support to the view that collusion and institutional corruption may have been the reason why.

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