Lawsuit accuses APA of defamation over torture report

A 2015 report commissioned by the American Psychological Association determined that the organization colluded with military and CIA officials to allow psychologists to participate in torture of military detainees. Five people named in that report have now sued the APA and the report’s author, David Hoffman. (The report is widely known and referenced as the Hoffman Report.) The lawsuit alleges that Hoffman worked with longtime APA critics to create a one-sided and often inaccurate telling of how the APA interacted with military and intelligence officials. This report then allowed the APA to use the five as scapegoats, they say, in some cases ending their careers.

The Hoffman Report, and the APA’s responses to it, are collected here. The lawsuit can be read here. They present vastly different perspectives on the events Hoffman and his team investigated.

Pay Any Price

Accusations of psychologists colluding with the US military were given a high profile in the 2014 book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War. Author James Risen accused the APA of actively working with the CIA and Department of Defense to support the torture of military detainees in the years following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Facing substantial criticism, the APA commissioned an independent investigation of interactions between the organization and the military. They sought to determine whether any such collusion had indeed taken place. The Hoffman Report was the result of that investigation, and it was formally released by the APA in July 2015. Based on the findings of the report, the organization quickly made a number of internal changes. In addition, a number of senior APA officials left the organization.

“A report that became a prosecutorial brief”

The Hoffman Report actually did not find evidence to support the most troubling accusations that had been levied against the APA. There was no evidence of significant interaction between the APA’s Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) and the CIA. There was no evidence that APA officials sought to support the Justice Department’s legal rationale for torture. And there was no evidence that a 2002 change in the APA Code of Ethics stemmed from interaction with the government or a desire on the part of the APA to support torture.

Hoffman did, however, find what his report framed as a series of troubling interactions between APA officials and military and intelligence officials. He determined that the APA had worked to ensure that psychologists’ ethics rules surrounding torture were no more stringent than what the military wanted.

The lawsuit suggests that Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor, was more eager to prosecute a case than he was to actually find the truth. Once it became clear that those most serious charges could not be supported, the suit alleges, Hoffman’s investigation turned into a “fishing expedition spanning decades of events not only within the APA, but also within the government, military and CIA.” The suit chips away at the evidence Hoffman used to reach his conclusions. It argues that those named in the report were in fact working to prevent the abuse of detainees. It also says that those accused in the report were not given an opportunity to defend themselves, and that the APA set aside fairness and due process by rushing the publication of the report after a draft had been leaked to the media.

The full suit can be read here. A press release summarizing its arguments is available here. Spokespeople for the APA and Hoffman’s firm, Sidley Austin (also named as a defendant), have said they will “vigorously defend” their organizations. They stand by the report.

Disclosure: Russ Newman, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, was formerly the Provost for Alliant International University during the time I served as a faculty member. Neither of us is currently affiliated with the university.