WASHINGTON — Since its founding in Worcester 123 years ago, the American Psychological Association has been the preeminent voice promoting, as it says in its mission statement, the power of psychology to “benefit society and improve people’s lives.”
But a new report alleges that the association’s leaders — including Harvard-affiliated academics at the top of their field — strayed dramatically from those lofty goals when they worked with the Department of Defense to draft ethics guidelines loose enough for psychologists to participate in harsh interrogation techniques in America’s war on terror.
The outside review concluded that two of the association’s former presidents — Gerald Koocher, a psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Ronald Levant, who taught at Harvard and Boston universities — were “intimately involved’’ in coordinating the association’s policies to line up with Pentagon preferences.
Koocher and Levant, who also are past presidents of the Massachusetts Psychological Association, issued a joint denial last week of the findings.
“We do not now and never have supported the use of cruel, degrading, or inhumane treatment of prisoners or detainees,” they wrote.
The controversy raises questions about how much mental health professionals should participate in interrogations aimed at causing intense distress and wearing down a subject’s will, such as putting detainees into uncomfortable physical positions, or subjecting them to loud music, bright lights, and other forms of sleep deprivation.
The report reveals a fierce debate behind the scenes in Boston’s academic circles over psychologists playing any role in military interrogations. Much of the scrutiny of the psychological association was stoked by Nathaniel Raymond, a human rights investigator at the Harvard School of Public Health, who fought to expose what he considered the association’s unethical collaboration with security officials.
“They were involved in legitimizing health professionals participating in acts that could constitute war crimes and potentially crimes against humanity,” Raymond said in an interview, referring to the psychologists named in the report. “They were part of the mosaic of protections that helped indemnify then-President Bush against criminal torture charges.”
The 542-page report was a self-examination commissioned by the American Psychological Association. The report’s broad findings were first reported by New York Times reporter James Risen, whose 2014 book described alleged complicity of the psychological association in justifying government torture.
The American Psychological Association, founded in 1892 by a former president of Clark University in Worcester, represents more than 122,500 researchers, educators, clinicians, and consultants across the country. Now based in Washington, it is the world’s largest society of professional psychologists and sets practice guidelines for the field.
In 2005, the association convened a special task force — largely made up of Defense Department officials — at its Washington headquarters across the street from the Union Station parking garage. The panel was supposed to grapple with a thorny ethical issue: To what extent should psychologists employed by the government be participating or advising during national security-related interrogations?
By 2005 a national debate already raged about waterboarding and other harsh measures that had been employed by the CIA and Department of Defense intelligence agencies. Images of prisoners being abused by military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had unleashed condemnations.
The task force produced a vaguely worded set of ethics guidelines that critics said left plenty of room for psychologists to continue participating in abusive questioning that could harm the subjects.
The APA’s outside investigators, who were hired by the association last year, reviewed e-mails and interviewed task force participants. They found that the APA did not conduct an ethical analysis of the issues at stake.
Instead, the association was largely concerned with appeasing the Pentagon, managing media perceptions, and deflecting questions from Capitol Hill, the report said. The motive, investigators said in the report, was to “curry favor” with the Defense Department so that psychologists would remain deeply involved in intelligence-collection activities.
The department is one of the largest employers of psychologists and provides millions of dollars in grants and contracts for them across the country, a generous benefactor that investigators likened to a “rich, powerful uncle.”
As the task force drew up its guidelines, APA officials stifled dissent, choosing instead to remain “deliberately ignorant” of the abusive interrogation techniques involving Central Intelligence Agency and Pentagon psychologists, the report said.
Yet the review found that, although APA leaders regularly interacted with the CIA, there was no evidence that the relationship influenced the association’s ethics guidelines. By the time the guidelines were drafted in 2005, the CIA’s most controversial practices at so-called black site detention centers, which included waterboarding and other techniques deemed to be torture, were on the wane.
Investigators named Stephen Behnke, the association’s ethics director, as the man directly behind the deliberate crafting of vague ethical guidelines. Behnke, a part-time medical ethics instructor in the psychiatry department at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, was fired from the APA on July 8 following the report’s release to the board, said an association spokesman.
Louis Freeh, a former FBI director who is now representing Behnke, e-mailed a statement saying that Behnke rejects the report as a “gross mischaracterization of his intentions, goals, and actions.”
“It is unconscionable that APA would take action against Dr. Behnke on the basis of allegations that are fraught with defamatory material,” Freeh said.
Harvard officials confirmed Koocher’s and Behnke’s current appointments at university hospitals but did not respond directly on whether the report would affect their standing.
The report accused another Boston psychologist, Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter, who had led the 2005 task force, of signing off on questionable ethical guidance without objections. Moorehead-Slaughter is a child psychologist at The Park School in Brookline and faculty consultant at Boston University School of Medicine. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Globe.
The association updated its policy in 2013 to bar psychologists in most circumstances from working in settings that violate the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture. The association board also recently recommended that it adopt a policy to explicitly prohibit psychologists from participating in military interrogations.
In their statement, Levant and Koocher admitted that the association, under their respective leadership in 2005 and 2006, should have crafted more definitive guidance around national security interrogations. But they strongly denied investigators’ conclusions about their roles in colluding with the Department of Defense.
“Was APA’s incremental response to addressing the ethical challenges of psychologists in national security settings poorly crafted and executed? Yes,” Levant and Koocher wrote in a six-page statement released on Tuesday. But “we never colluded with government agencies or the military to craft APA policies in order to justify their goals or the illegal ‘enhanced interrogation’ practices promoted by the administration of President George W. Bush.”
Koocher also is former dean of the School of Health Sciences at Simmons College and is currently a dean at DePaul University in Chicago, splitting his time with his Harvard-affiliated appointment at Children’s Hospital. Levant now teaches at the University of Akron.
Among the more specific allegations directed at Koocher in the report: that he specifically rejected an attempt by a member of the task force to add a guideline saying psychologists should adhere to the Geneva Convention’s definition of human rights violations.
Koocher, in his written response, said he was trying to keep the task force focused on coming up with an “enforceable APA ethics code, rather than any toothless international treaties.”
Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com.