Psychologists’ Involvement in Military Interrogations


Psychologists’ involvement in military interrogations is a significant issue that received national attention in the United States after the Hoffman report was made public in 2015. According to the report, many American psychologists have been involved in the so-called enhanced interrogation of detainees during the U.S. War on Terror activities (Marks, 2018). The involvement of psychologists in military interrogations was officially aimed at making the process safe, ethical, and effective. However, the investigation found that psychologists supervised the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, most of which included torture (Marks, 2018). The psychologists’ involvement in military interrogations presents both a human rights issue and an ethical dilemma. The present paper will seek to explore the ethical and human rights dimensions of the problem to show its implications.

Psychologists and Military Interrogations

American psychologists have always had strong ties with the military. Boyd, LoCicero, Malowney, Aldis, and Marlin (2014) explain that psychologists contributed to the U.S. efforts in both World Wars and that one of their essential duties was offering advice to make interrogations effective. For example, during the Cold War, psychologists governed the use of interrogation techniques, such as mind control and sensory deprivation, by the military (Boyd et al., 2014). The ties between psychology and the military became so strong that the U.S. Department of Defense became mostly responsible for financing psychology research in the second half of the twentieth century. Boyd et al. (2014) state that the behavioral science research budget of the DOD is approximately US$400 million annually, with the majority devoted to psychological research, dwarfing other funders of psychological research” (p. 616). Nevertheless, these ties it was widely assumed that harsh interrogation methods involving psychologists were somewhat abandoned after the end of the Cold War until the torture of detainees during the War on Terror received global attention.

Investigations carried out by independent and state agencies showed that psychologists contributed to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program for terrorism suspects. As explained by Brodwin (2017), the plan of enhanced interrogation was devised by two military psychologists, John Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. In enhanced interrogations, the detainees were subject to various tortures, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, slapping, beating, and walling. Sleep deprivation techniques included keeping detainees awake for over 180 hours in a row to induce hallucinations. Another method that was devised by Jessen and Mitchen and pioneered by the CIA was waterboarding, which included subjecting a detainee to near-drowning experiences, causing convulsions and vomiting (Marks, 2018). The methods used in the interrogation threatened detainees’ mental and physical health and resulted in a nationwide scandal following the investigation.

Human Rights

The official purpose of the psychologists’ involvement was to make the interrogations “safe, legal, ethical, and effective for all participants” (Woolf, 2015, para. 1). However, in reality, psychologists were asked to greenlight torture and oversee the implementation of Jessen and Mitchell’s program (Risen, 2015). Psychologists thus played a crucial role in the process, which violated the principles of the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code, as well as international human rights regulations.

Torture is among the key examples of human rights violations as defined by the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. As evident from the information above, psychologists’ involvement in military interrogations has been used to support the torture of detainees. Rather than ensuring that the interrogation practices used were ethical and appropriate, psychologists devised and assisted in the implementation of torturous interrogation methods, thus promoting human rights violations. Boyd et al. (2014) provide evidence that psychologists helped to evaluate the suspects and advise interrogators on how to “break” them (p. 616).

One of the critical questions in connection with the topic is whether or not psychologists’ involvement in military interrogations always results in human rights violations. If tasked with protecting subjects from unlawful or unethical treatment, psychologists could help to prevent torture, thus making interrogations more ethical. In fact, despite banning psychologists from participating in national security interrogations, APA has not prohibited psychologists from offering general policy advice about humane interrogations (Mills, 2015). This solution allows ensuring the ethical conduct of psychologists consulting the military while also protecting the safety of human subjects.

Ethical Implications

There are two sides to the controversy that form a moral dilemma. On the one hand, it is argued that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques advised by psychologists increases the effectiveness of interrogations. This, in turn, justifies the use of harsh interrogation methods by most ethical theories, as the intelligence gathered by applying them could save thousands of lives. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that is commonly applied to the topic (Boyd et al., 2014). By utilitarian theory, a moral action is the one that has more positive consequences for people than the adverse ones. Utilitarianism justifies the use of torturous interrogation methods as long as they help to improve public safety and prevent deaths from terror attacks.

On the other hand, the psychologists’ participation in unethical practices violates the principle of nonmaleficence, which dictates psychologists to cause no harm (Campbell, 2015). It also opposes professional ethical practice codes, including the APA’s Code of Ethics. Psychologists’ involvement in military interrogation can also cause people to distrust them, making it more difficult for psychologists to help people. Therefore, the issue opposes Kantian principles of ethics, as it prevents psychologists from fulfilling their professional duty.

Whether or not the involvement of psychologists in military interrogations is morally wrong depends on the outcomes of the practice. The CIA, the military, and related national security authorities perceived it as practical and used it for years during the Cold War, the War on Terror, and both World Wars. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether or not the psychologists’ participation enabled them to gather any information that could not be obtained in any other way (Campbell, 2015). Canineu and Pitter (2016) also cite the US Senate Intelligence Committee, which ruled the use of enhanced interrogation techniques as ineffective. Hence, while the practice has various negative ethical implications, it appears unlikely that it benefits for public safety. This renders the participation of psychologists in military interrogations unethical based on both the utilitarian and deontological ethical theories.


Overall, the psychologists’ involvement in military interrogations is a controversial issue that is still relevant to the field of professional psychology. While the participation of psychologists assisted the United States’ military efforts in the twentieth century, the enhanced interrogation techniques used in the 2000s were deemed ineffective and unnecessary. The torture of subjects, which was an integral part of the enhanced interrogation, violated human rights, and threatened detainees’ mental and physical help. Based on both the utilitarian theory and Kantian ethics, the involvement of psychologists in military interrogations is unethical, as it does not contribute to the public good and prevents psychologists from fulfilling their duties.


Boyd, J. W., LoCicero, A., Malowney, M., Aldis, R., & Marlin, R. P. (2014). Failing ethics 101: Psychologists, the US military establishment, and human rights. International Journal of Health Services, 44(3), 615-625. Web.

Brodwin, E. (2017). The CIA paid psychologists $81 million to devise brutal tactics for use on terror suspects, and they’re suing. Business Insider. Web.

Campbell, P. (2015). Lessons must be learned after psychology torture inquiry. Nature, 523(7560), 255. Web.

Canineu, M. L., & Pitter, L. (2016). Call it what you will, torture is wrong. Human Rights Watch. Web.

Marks, D. F. (2018). American psychologists, the Central Intelligence Agency, and enhanced interrogation. Health Psychology Open, 2018(2), 1-2. Web.

Mills, K. I. (2015). APA’s Council bans psychologist participation in national security interrogations. American Psychological Association. Web.

Risen, J. (2015). Outside psychologists shielded U.S. torture program, report finds. The New York Times. Web.

Woolf, L. M. (2015). End psychology’s role in national security interrogations. Psychology Today. Web.