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New York Court to Hear Case Against Psychologist Accused of Torture in Guantánamo Interrogations

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The Obama administration has announced that key suspects in the 9/11 attacks will be tried by military commissions at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay — not in U.S. civilian court. There will, however, be one Guantánamo case tried in New York. Today the New York State Supreme Court will hear the case against Dr. John Leso, a psychologist accused of participating in torture during interrogation of detainees in Guantánamo. The case was brought on behalf of Dr. Steven Reisner, who is at the center of a growing group of medical professionals campaigning against the participation of psychologists in the U.S. government’s interrogation programs. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that key suspects in the 9/11 attacks would be tried by military commissions in Guantánamo, not in U.S. civil court. Holder blamed members of Congress for the decision.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Had this case proceeded in Manhattan or in an alternative venue in the United States, as I seriously explored in the last year, I am confident that our justice system could have performed with the same distinction that has been its hallmark for over 200 years. Now, unfortunately, since I made that decision, members of Congress have intervened and imposed restrictions blocking the administration from bringing any Guantánamo detainees to trial in the United States, regardless of the venue.

AMY GOODMAN: But there will be one Guantánamo case tried in New York. This week, the New York State Supreme Court will hear the case against Dr. John Leso, a psychologist accused of participating in torture of prisoners at Guantánamo.

The case was brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Justice and Accountability on behalf of Dr. Steven Reisner. He’s a New York psychologist and adviser to Physicians for Human Rights. He’s at the center of a growing group of psychologists campaigning against the participation of psychologists in the U.S. government’s interrogation programs. He’s on the faculty at New York University Medical School and at the International Trauma Studies Program affiliated with Columbia University and a founding member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and the New York Campaign Against Torture. Dr. Reisner is currently running for president of the American Psychological Association, the largest association of psychologists in the world.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dr. Reisner.


AMY GOODMAN: You are just about to go over to the New York State Supreme Court today to hear this case that is being brought against, really, a colleague, against Dr. John Leso. Explain who he is and what he did.

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, John Leso was the first psychologist — the first person — named to a Department of Defense BSCT team. BSCTs were the Behavioral Science Consultation Team that oversaw and advised on the enhanced interrogations of detainees at Guantánamo and elsewhere. And John Leso found himself in Guantánamo, was put in charge of this BSCT team — he was BSCT number one — and was given the responsibility of creating a program, which we would now call a program of torture, for the high-value detainees at Guantánamo.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was that program?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, he went to Fort Bragg to be trained in SERE techniques. SERE is the program in our — for our armed forces to be given experiences of torture in case they’re captured, as a kind of inoculation.


DR. STEVEN REISNER: Yes, Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. And the “resistance” part is the part that has to do with dealing with torture techniques. And he was taught a series of techniques while at Fort Bragg, and his colleagues and the interrogators at Guantánamo were all part of a training program. And they went back to Guantánamo, and Dr. Leso and his partner, Dr. Burney, a psychiatrist, created a progressively harsh list of techniques to be used, at that point, on Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was a detainee who was thought to be the 20th hijacker. All those charges have been dropped since. But the increasingly harsh techniques included isolation, sleep deprivation, extreme cold, sexual and religious humiliation — the whole gamut of techniques used individually and together. And the interrogation lasted for about a month and a half.

AMY GOODMAN: Major Leso recommended three categories of interrogation severity at Guantánamo, depending on the prisoner’s ability to resist.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain what “Category III” was.

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, Category III were the harshest techniques. They included some physical abuse. They included nonstop interrogations for 20 hours, absolute isolation. I can’t remember all of —

AMY GOODMAN: Including from the ICRC.


AMY GOODMAN: That they were not to be seen by the International Committee of the Red Cross?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, that was not only the case for those detainees undergoing severe interrogation techniques; the Guantánamo protocols prohibited any contact with the ICRC for all detainees in their first 30 days of isolation.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the rules? You actually brought a case to the Office of Professional Conduct against John Leso, but they would not investigate him.

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Right. They made the claim that since what he was doing was aimed to harm — in other words, aimed to break down prisoners — he wasn’t functioning as a professional psychologist, and therefore the State of New York’s Office of Professional Discipline didn’t have jurisdiction to question the ethics of a psychologist who was not acting according to the New York definition of a professional psychologist. So they just refused to hear the case. They refused to investigate.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you break the rules, you’re not acting according to the professional rules of conduct, so you’re not investigated?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: To some extent —

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, isn’t he hired because he is a psychologist?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: He was hired because he was a psychologist. It was required that he be licensed. He was asked to use his psychological expertise. The state board said that he didn’t have a therapist-patient relationship with al-Qahtani, but it left out a whole area of professional psychology where the client is the organization. This holds, for example, in prisons. Prison psychologists are clinical psychologists, licensed in the State of New York, who oversee the practice and care of prisoners. And if they act unethically, they are held accountable. It’s quite analogous at Guantánamo. But for some reason, the New York board decided that it was unique and different, and they refused to investigate.

AMY GOODMAN: So your case today is trying to force the Office of Professional Discipline to investigate Dr. John Leso?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: That’s exactly right.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, he was at Walter Reed.

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Yes, John Leso was at Walter Reed under Colonel Larry James. And —

AMY GOODMAN: Who’s head of Wright State now, right?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Yes, Larry James is now a dean at Wright State School of Professional Psychology. And cases have been brought against Colonel Larry James, as well, because Larry —


DR. STEVEN REISNER: Larry James followed John Leso as BSCT number one at Guantánamo.

AMY GOODMAN: Put this in the context of the battle within the largest association of psychologists in the world, your association, the APA, the American Psychological Association.

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, because the legal justification for torture required the presence of psychologists and psychiatrists or — and physicians, in order to allow the torture to go forward according to the Justice Department’s rules at the time, there were — it was necessary for health professionals to be part of the Bush administration torture program. A growing number of psychologists, in particular, felt that we could find a wedge to stop that torture program by forcing the American Psychological Association to declare such practices unethical. And that would take away the legal justification for torture. So, more and more psychologists were made aware of the role of psychologists in the torture. And I don’t know if the public is aware, but the protocols for torture in both the CIA and the Department of Defense were crafted by psychologists. So we’ve been trying now for about five or six years to have the American Psychological Association state unequivocally that these psychologists who followed the Department of Defense protocols should be held accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s interesting that the American Psychological Association has not enforced resolutions like the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association around issues of interrogation and torture.

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, that’s right, and they’ve refused to implement those.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what hasn’t become clear is, a few weeks ago, there was some news that Larry James, also who complaints have been brought against, was being selected to serve on the White House task force called Enhancing the Psychological Well-Being of the Military Family. What is this about? Because the Obama administration is denying this.

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, it’s hard to know exactly what it’s about. Dr. James sent a letter to faculty and students stating that he was proud to have been selected to serve on this task force. But when the White House was asked about it, they stated that Dr. James was not invited to the task force. In fact, the task force — there was no such task force. So, those of us who have followed Larry James’s career and have read his book, we’re not so surprised, because the exaggerations and distortions in that book are pretty widely known. And so this — we had to take this one with a grain of salt, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will continue to follow both of these cases, and we will link at our website to all of our coverage of the controversy in the American Psychological Association. Dr. Steven Reisner, thanks so much for being with us, adviser on psychology and ethics for Physicians for Human Rights, running for president of the American Psychological Association.

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