Psychology Professor Linda Woolf Guides Adoption of American Psychological Association’s New Anti-Torture, Pro-Human Rights Policy

Psychology Professor Linda Woolf The new policies were regarding psychologists’ involvement in national security settings

ST. LOUIS (APRIL 20, 2014) - Webster University psychology professor Linda Woolf spent the last two years leading a grassroots taskforce aimed at convincing the American Psychological Association (APA) to adopt a comprehensive anti-torture, pro-human rights policy on the role of psychologists in national security settings. At the 2013 APA convention, the policy created by Woolf and her colleagues passed with a vote of 92 percent, effectively closing the former policy loopholes created by a 26 year history of disparate and, at times, contradictory policies. This spring marks the first phase of the new policy’s implementation.

“Dr. Woolf’s contribution to the revision of APA policy represents an incredibly meaningful and lasting impact in her field,” said David Carl Wilson, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “The dedication, scholarship, and spirit of social justice which motivated her work demonstrate Webster faculty at their best.”

APA has historically opposed psychologist involvement in the inhumane treatment and punishment of national security detainees with policies dating back to 1986. Yet in 2004, the APA learned that psychologists had played a role, indirectly as well as directly, in the torture of prisoners at military locations like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Woolf wrote about this very issue in Peace Psychology, the newsletter for the APA’s Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence (Division 48), of which she was then president.

APA recognized the need for policy reform. In 2005, APA issued the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS), which argued against torture but left open the option for psychologists to obey military orders even if these orders contradicted the Ethics Code. In 2006, Woolf helped draft the APA Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Other policies followed, including a change in the Ethics Code which argued that there could be no justification for the violation of human rights, and a Resolution barring psychologists from working at sites operating outside of international law, except when working directly for the prisoner. Given the myriad of policies that evolved over time, Woolf noted that “some of these policies contradicted different policies and I think it is safe to say that everyone hated at least one of the policies. This failure left psychologists, the Association, and others involved with the military in a difficult position and opened the door for human rights abuses against prisoners.” There was still work to be done.

Woolf united with fellow APA members Laura Brown, Kathleen Dockett, Julie Meranze Levitt, and William Strickland to establish an independent task force and draft a new policy. The issue of torture, Woolf notes, is emotionally charged, and as task force chair, she became “a lightning rod for political angst from all sides of the political spectrum.” Yet her focus remained on the policy itself, and the task force sought to maintain the greatest level of transparency possible regarding their work; all working drafts were published online, and they invited feedback first from fellow APA constituencies, then from the community at large.

Ultimately, the task force arrived at a new policy which “unequivocally condemns torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under any and all conditions and affirms that there are no exceptional circumstances whatsoever that justify the use of torture or other abuses against prisoners.”

The APA’s Council of Representatives voted to pass the policy last summer. This winter, the organization sent letters to key government officials (President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel among them) emphasizing the new policy and encouraging the officials to do everything they can to “prohibit the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in interrogations and any other detainee-related operations.”

Nadine J. Kaslow, Ph.D, President of the APA, and Norman B. Anderson, Ph.D , APA CEO, wrote Woolf a letter thanking her for her contribution to the organization and to the field of psychology, recognizing the “diligence, commitment, sincerity, and integrity” it took to bring the new policy to fruition. “The work you did,” Kaslow and Anderson wrote, “was that of a scholar and committed activist. You represent the very best in our Association.” 

Woolf credits her success with the new APA policy in part to “the kind of environment that Webster fosters which enables its faculty to pursue alternate scholarship:”

“I could not have focused on these efforts without the support of my Chairperson, Michael R. Hulsizer,” Woolf said, “or the implicit support of the institution in relation to issues related to human rights as well as the military. Webster's support for alternative scholarship is very much appreciated and opens the door for important policy work in other venues.”

As for her own efforts, Woolf humbly defers to circumstance: “Occasionally, we are faced with opportunities to engage in unique efforts simply because it is the right thing to do.  I am grateful to have been in the right place at the right time to contribute to the Association’s ongoing efforts focused on the welfare of all, human rights, and social justice.”