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Military Psychologists Face Complaints with Licensing Boards over Roles at Guantánamo

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Two US military psychologists are facing complaints with their state licensing boards over their actions at Guantánamo Bay. The psychologists, Major John Leso and Colonel Larry James, are accused of helping perpetrate the abuse and torture of prisoners in violation of standards of professional conduct. We speak with Dr. Steven Reisner, a New York psychologist who filed one of the complaints. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Two US military psychologists are facing complaints with their state licensing boards over their actions at Guantánamo Bay. The psychologists, Major John Leso and Colonel Larry James, are accused of helping perpetrate the abuse and torture of prisoners in violation of standards of professional conduct. On Wednesday, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic filed a complaint against Larry James in Ohio, where he now serves as dean of Wright State’s School of Professional Psychology. Meanwhile, the Center for Justice and Accountability filed a complaint against John Leso here in New York.

Both James and Leso played key roles in interrogations at Guantánamo. Leso served at Guantánamo from June 2002 to January 2003. He led the Behavioral Science Consultation Team involved in the interrogation and torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani. In 2003, James arrived at Guantánamo to head a group of up to five psychologists who assisted in intelligence gathering and interrogations. James would later serve in Iraq, where he became the first psychologist stationed at the Abu Ghraib prison.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined here in New York by the psychologist Dr. Steven Reisner. He filed the complaint against Major General John Leso here in New York with the assistance of the Center for Justice and Accountability. Dr. Reisner is senior faculty and supervisor at the International Trauma Studies Program, also teaches at New York University Medical School and Columbia University and is a founding member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. He also ran for president of the American Psychological Association.

Dr. Steve Reisner, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you lay out your complaint?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, there is a lot of evidence that has been made public showing that the torture programs in the CIA and at Guantánamo, the Department of Defense, were created and overseen by health professionals, particularly psychologists. Since most of these programs were classified and most of the names are also classified, we have been focusing on the few psychologists whose names we know and whose roles have been made pretty clear. And two of them, Major John Leso and Colonel Larry James, were in charge of the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams, the advisers on interrogations and on the enhanced techniques at Guantánamo.

AMY GOODMAN: Known as BSCT teams.

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Known as BSCT teams, yes. And those teams oversaw the implementation of a particular type of abusive interrogation technique from the SERE program, and they were overseen at two different times by particular psychologists whose names we know. One is Major John Leso. He was the first BSCT psychologist, BSCT number one, at Guantánamo. He and a psychiatrist named Major Burney created the protocols for the psychological abuse of detainees, to use psychological means to force or to coerce detainees into ostensibly revealing their information. But basically, what we’re bringing the cases against each of them is that they’re using their psychological knowledge, their professional expertise, to do harm.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how would — specifically, since they were obviously in the employ of the military at the time, why are you going here in New York state, in particular, to challenge their licensing by the state licensing board here in New York?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, there are two reasons. First, the government — neither the government nor the military has yet to hold anybody involved in the torture accountable. The government refuses to police itself. The military refuses to police itself. So there is no accountability. There is no guarantee that this wouldn’t happen again under similar circumstances. And so, looking for a way to hold people accountable has been a difficult job.

Second, and even more important for us, health professionals are held to even higher standards than interrogators or military men and women. The health professional is held to an ethical code, and the ethical code stems from the fact that people are more vulnerable to health professionals. Health professionals are privy to private information, to weaknesses, to psychological and physical compromises, and they are privy to that information because they take an oath not to abuse that information to cause harm. So when health professionals use that very information, their very knowledge, to cause harm, we want to hold them to ethical responsibility and make sure that those people are held accountable and have their licenses revoked, if necessary.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you exactly know that Dr. Leso did?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Dr. Leso, as I said, he was the first BSCT, but there were — there was no clear program to use these enhanced techniques with the with detainees yet at Guantánamo. It had been done in — used in the CIA, but there was no clear program, but there was a mandate from Washington, as well as from the higher-ups at Guantánamo, to take the gloves off and use harsh techniques. Major Leso and the psychiatrist, Major Burney, created a protocol to use these harsh techniques, three levels of increasingly aversive types of techniques, starting with just lying to the detainee and ending with hypothermia, stress positions, sleep deprivation and all of the techniques that we know as torture. So, Major Leso was responsible for creating the protocols, and then they used these protocols, first with Mohammed al-Qahtani, who they interrogated for forty-nine days straight, twenty hours a day, using and implementing these very techniques. And Major Leso is known, because the log of that interrogation was released, to have been present for some, if not all, of — certainly for some —- of that abusive interrogation, and participated.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us what Time released and the significance of that.

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Yes, well, there is a log that was kept. Very often in cases of abuse, interrogation and torture, the agency that does the abuse keeps very close logs of what they’ve done, because they have an idea justified by, in our case, the Justice Department that there are laws that permit such things. So there was a log kept, very close details, of al-Qahtani’s torture and interrogation. It was leaked to Time magazine and published. Major Leso appears in the log as “Major L” and comes in and sometimes makes suggestions on how to better use the techniques.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And now, with your complaint, what would be the next steps? Is there a hearing mandated, or is that up to the licensing board to decide that?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, it’s always up to the licensing board to decide what they are going to do. Very often in the past, licensing boards have tried to find some way not to look at these cases. But the Center for Justice and Accountability has been extraordinarily thorough in laying out exactly which standards of New York licensing law Major Leso has violated. It’s a long and detailed and quite well-documented piece of work, and I don’t think that they have any recourse but to bring this case and to investigate.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2007, Colonel Larry James spoke at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in San Francisco. We’d been covering these controversies very closely and had gone out to cover the annual meeting of the APA. James said he had been flown in from Guantánamo to oppose an APA resolution that would have prohibited psychologists from participating in interrogations at Guantánamo and other US prisons.

    COL. LARRY JAMES: This is my second tour at Gitmo, Cuba. I was also the first psychologist at Abu Ghraib. I’m going to repeat what I said earlier. If we remove psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die. If we remove psychologists from these facilities, people are going to get hurt. There’s one other thing I want to add. We’ve got young, twenty-seven—, twenty-eight-, twenty-nine-year-old psychologists on the battlefield right now. If you support this amendment, those young psychologists are going to feel as though we’ve abandoned them, and they need our support right now. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was in 2007, and you heard him say, “People will die,” and someone shouted, “People are dying.”

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, Colonel James was helping to disseminate the false view that psychologists in interrogations were there to keep the detainees safe. They were not there to keep the detainees safe. They were there, first and foremost, to use their professional expertise to break down the detainees. And this whole idea of keeping them safe is really Newspeak for the fact that they were there to do that breaking down within the Justice Department’s legal definition of torture, so that they could claim that they were keeping the detainees safe and, in that way, protect the interrogators. The whole idea here is a program of protection for the people doing the abusive interrogations. It had nothing to do with the protection of the detainees.

And Larry James was the chief BSCT starting in January 2003. And when you read the standard operating procedures for mental health, for how to — behavior protocols for detainees during the time that Larry James was the chief psychologist, you find institutionalized abuse and torture — isolation for thirty days at a time with absolutely no contact, prohibition of the International Committee of the Red Cross to see these detainees, no access even to religious articles, to the Qur’an, unless they cooperate with interrogations, not to mention frequent interrogation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, James is now the dean of Wright State’s School of Professional Psychology. Where is Leso? Do you know?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, it’s not known where Major Leso is. He was out of the country for a few years, as far as I know, as an attaché in an embassy, I think in Europe. But he hasn’t appeared in the United States to speak, for example, before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He hasn’t appeared to respond to these charges. So I can’t answer that question. I don’t know where he is.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the APA’s stance right now? The American Psychological Association’s stance?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, I want to thank you for the coverage you’ve given to the American Psychological Association’s inaction on this issue. The APA continues to claim, just as the Bush administration did, that it is against torture, that psychologists have this role to play for the protection of the detainees, much like Larry James has said. But, in fact, the APA continues to refuse to implement even its own policies to prohibit psychologists from being present at these sites that violate international law. The APA has a policy on the books that psychologists cannot be at places that violate international law, and we know that Guantánamo is still in violation of international law. We know that Bagram is in violation of international law. This is plain. Nobody is denying that they violate the Geneva Conventions. And the APA refuses to implement its own policies, because — I believe because of their long history of working closely with the military and the influence of military psychology and the APA, not that there shouldn’t be collaboration, but there should be ethical standards that the APA upholds universally.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Dr. Steven Reisner, New York psychologist, senior faculty and supervisor at the International Trauma Studies Program, teaches at both NYU and Columbia.

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