The Hoffman Report: Background & Introduction

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Within about a year after 9/11, information began to emerge publicly about the manner in which individuals taken into U.S. custody abroad in the war on terror were being treated. Fourteen years later, a great deal of information has become publicly available about this treatment, including from reports by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (2014) and the Senate Armed Services Committee (2008), although more information emerges on an ongoing basis.

This information establishes that in the months following 9/11, the President authorized the CIA to engage in “enhanced interrogation techniques.” These techniques were not methods of asking questions of a detainee, but were rather ways of attempting to break the will of uncooperative detainees so that they would answer the interrogators’ questions and provide intelligence information. These “techniques” included waterboarding, harsh physical actions such as “walling,” forced “stress positions,” and the intentional deprivation of necessities, such as sleep and a temperature-controlled environment. The Secretary of Defense authorized the Defense Department to engage in a similar set of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” although waterboarding was excluded.

The Justice Department office in charge of authoritatively interpreting U.S. law, the Office of Legal Counsel, wrote memos to the CIA in 2002 defining “torture” in a very narrow way. Acts intentionally causing pain to individuals in U.S. custody abroad could only rise to the level of torture, they said, if the effect was equivalent to the pain of a “serious physical injury such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.” Acts intentionally causing psychological harm to such captives would only count as torture if they caused “significant psychological harm” that lasted “for months or even years,” such as the development of an actual mental disorder. The memos emphasized that understanding “the context” of the act was important, and that “it is difficult to take a specific act out of context and conclude that the act in isolation would constitute torture.” The memos added that, regardless of what actions causing psychological harm were taken by interrogators, the actions could not be considered torture if the interrogator could show that he “did not intend to cause severe mental pain.” Interrogators could show that they lacked this intent by “consulting with experts or reviewing evidence gained in past experience.”

In 2003, based in part on these Justice Department memos, Defense Department attorneys wrote a report concluding that a U.S. law barring torture by military personnel was inapplicable to interrogations of detainees, and that causing harm to an individual in U.S. custody abroad could be justified “in order to prevent further attacks” on the United States by terrorists. The report, which essentially repeated the conclusions of the DOJ memos regarding the narrow definition of torture, and became the basis for an authorization to the military command at Guantanamo Bay to use certain interrogation techniques not included in the Army Field Manual. The authorization repeated that the Geneva Conventions were not applicable to the detainees held at Guantanamo.

By June 2005, much of this information had been made public, including the analysis of the Justice Department memos and the Defense Department report. In addition, numerous detailed allegations and accounts of abusive interrogation practices had been made public, including from the International Committee for the Red Cross, which monitored activity at Guantanamo Bay, and from media reports, which quoted military interrogation logs and government officials who described abusive interrogation practices at CIA “black sites.”

As we write this report, the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” is well documented, including in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2014 report. Among other things, psychologist and CIA contractor Jim Mitchell described in a recent, nationally-broadcast TV interview how he engaged in waterboarding detainees — including how he decided whether to pour water over the strapped-down and blindfolded detainee’s face for 10 seconds, 20 seconds, or 40 seconds. The Defense Department’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques has also been documented to some degree, including in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s 2008 report.

The critics of APA’s actions, decisions, and statements relating to this issue, including the 2005 task force report, say that they are horrified by the involvement of psychologists in these types of abusive interrogation methods, and find APA’s actions that facilitated or allowed such involvement to be atrocious. They are most critical of the 2005 task force report, but also sharply criticize subsequent APA policy actions on this issue, its handling of related disciplinary complaints against certain members, and some of the key ethics code revisions that APA made in 2002.

Based on the evidence available to them of important interactions between APA and parts of the government, they believe that the only logical explanation for APA’s action is collusion or close coordination with the government. They describe APA’s apparent motive and intent in different ways, from a desire to curry favor with the government to an intent to help government officials engage in torture. And some are convinced that a comparison of the timing of APA’s actions and the timing of the Bush Administration’s actions establishes that APA was acting in explicit and close coordination with high-level Administration officials. Some label APA’s actions “criminal,” and have called out by name the APA officials and employees most involved with this issue, with a request that they be prosecuted. They have said that APA’s refusal to strictly limit — if not prohibit — the involvement of psychologists in national security interrogations on ethical grounds created an indelible stain on the entire profession, and a warped and improper definition of what it means to be a psychologist.


Taken from the Introduction of Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture (PDF).



The Hoffman Report: Background & Introduction

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.


APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2015). The Hoffman Report: Background & Introduction. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 16, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 13 Jul 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 13 Jul 2015
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