Skip to content

Psychologists and Torture

2010 July 14


No United States official has ever been held accountable for the undeniably cruel treatment of detainees at Guantánamo and elsewhere. In the absence of government action, there are at least three efforts underway to sanction psychologists, who were involved in torture, through their professional licensing boards.

Ohio Board Urged to Investigate
Gitmo Psychologist Larry James

On July 8, 2010, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic announced it has called on Ohio’s Psychology Board to investigate the conduct of Larry C. James, who was Chief Psychologist at Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba. According to the Clinic, “despite the prison’s record of torture during his tenure, Dr. James obtained an Ohio psychology license in 2008 and currently holds the influential post of Dean at Wright State University’s School of Professional Psychology in Dayton.” The complaint was filed in conjunction with an Ohio attorney, and on behalf of four Ohio residents. 
….       .“We rely on psychologists to follow the ethics of their profession, and to do no harm,” said complainant Josephine Setzler. “If a psychologist uses his professional training to facilitate suffering, then should he really be licensed to treat patients in Ohio?”
…..       James was the senior psychologist on Guantánamo’s BSCT (Behavioral Science Consultation Teams – mental health professionals whose job was to advise on and participate in interrogations.) The complaint argues that during his tenure, ”boys and men were threatened with rape and death for themselves and their family members; sexually, culturally, and religiously humiliated; forced naked; deprived of sleep; subjected to sensory deprivation, over-stimulation, and extreme isolation; short-shackled into stress positions for hours; and physically assaulted.  The evidence indicates that abuse of this kind was systemic, that BSCT health professionals played an integral role in its planning and practice, and that Dr. James, in his position of authority, at minimum knew or should have known it was being inflicted.”
.       ….The complaint also argues that James “failed to fulfill his duty to report abuse, including abuse he personally witnessed.” Some of the evidence presented is revealed in James’ own recently-published book, Fixing Hell: An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib.
…..For information about the International Human Rights Clinic, part of Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program, contact Cara Solomon.

Center for Justice & Accountability
Targets N.Y. Psychologist John Leso

On July 7, 2010, the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability called on the New York State Office of Professions to investigate Dr. John Francis Leso for his participation in abusive interrogation and torture at the U.S. detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, and to revoke his N.Y. license as a psychologist. Leso was Larry James’ predecessor on the Guantánamo Behavioral Science Consultation Team.
…..The complaint was filed on behalf of Dr. Steven Reisner, a New York psychologist, teacher, and trauma expert recently honored for his work against torture. “If the government isn’t going to hold these doctors legally accountable for the torture, at least their fellow health professionals can hold them ethically accountable for violating our time-honored principles,” says Dr. Reisner, according to CJA.  The CJA complaint alleges that Leso violated professional standards for New York psychologists when he recommended a series of escalating physically and psychologically abusive interrogation tactics to be used on detainees, personally supervised interrogations where his tactics were used, and actually participated in the application of these tactics. (Read more about the complaint in Reisner v. Leso, or download the full complaint.)

Northwestern University Justice Center Targets Texas Psychologist James Mitchell 

The MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago has filed a complaint against Texas psychologist James Mitchell, a CIA-contractor accused of torturing prisoners in the agency’s secret prison program.
…       ..The Center’s site reprints a June 25, 2010, column by Andy Worthington for The Public Record, Abu Zubaydah and the Case Against Torture Architect James Mitchell. Worthington writes that “a new front in the search for accountability opened up,” when the Center, together with a Texas psychologist and an attorney, “filed a complaint to the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists regarding another architect of the torture program, James Elmer Mitchell. The complaint…accuses Mitchell of numerous grave violations of his duties as a practicing psychologist.”
…..As consultants to the CIA, Mitchell and his colleague John Bruce Jessen took a program originally designed to prepare U.S. troops to resist torture (the Air Force’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program, or SERE), and “re-engineered” it into one for the administration of torture. In the case of prisoner Abu Zubaydah, according to Worthington, the complaint states that Mitchell “ordered that Zubaydah be chained to a chair for weeks on end; that he be whipped by the neck into concrete walls; that he be stuffed into a small, black box and left for hours; that he be hung naked from the ceiling; that he be kept awake for eleven consecutive days, and sprayed with cold water if he dozed. But the torture designed by Dr. Mitchell was about to pass to another level…”
…..The other level was waterboarding: allegedly 83 times in August, 2002, alone. Worthington’s article is worth reading in full, as is the complaint filed by the MacArthur Center.

What About the American Psychological Association?

Since evidence of the torture of prisoners held by the U.S. first arose, the American Psychological Association has been alone among the major professional organizations in refusing to take an unequivocal stance against involvement by its members. Even after a membership referendum forced it to take a stronger position, it has still not as yet incorporated that position into its official code of ethics, and no APA member has ever been disciplined for participating in abuse of detainees.
       …..It seems remarkable, then, that APA has now come out in support of the MacArthur Justice Centers complain against Mitchell. AP writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins reports on Huffington Post that the Association “has taken the unprecedented step of supporting an attempt to strip the license of a psychologist accused of overseeing the torture of a CIA detainee.” He quotes Leah Farberman of the APA as saying “The allegations put forward in the complaint and those that are on the public record about Dr. Mitchell are simply so serious, and if true, such a gross violation of his professional ethics, that we felt it necessary to act.” If any psychologist who was a member of the APA were found to have committed such acts, Faberman said, “he or she would be expelled from APA membership.”
            Maybe not so remarkable after all…
Virtually all of the allegations against Mitchell, James, and Leso have been public record for years, yet the APA has not chosen to act until now, when the actions of the three are about to be aired in public proceedings – and only against Mitchell, who is not a member of APA. The Association reportedly has no plans to back the efforts against James and Leso, who are APA members.
…..Despite the appearance of finally taking a principled position, the organization will maintain its record of never having taken disciplinary action against any of its members for involvement in torture, no matter how clear the evidence.

For another report on these cases, and the role of the APA, see Daniel Schulman in Mother Jones. Sometime in the next few weeks I’ll be posting additional background on the APA story.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

39,789 Spam Comments Blocked so far by Spam Free Wordpress

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>