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After more than a decade of detention at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, dozens of “war on terror” prisoners – the vast majority of them long recognized as innocent of any terrorist involvement – have taken to starving themselves to death. Their desperate hunger strike is driven by the deadening cumulative toll of years of indefinite detention, with little or no hope of ever leaving the U.S. military prison alive.
As the plight of the men still imprisoned at Guantánamo is beginning to receive some small measure of public attention and concern, there remains a disturbing reality. Many of these individuals have suffered not only from indefinite detention, they have also been the victims of horrific physical and psychological abuse often rising to the level of torture, at the hands of individuals who have never been held accountable.
As psychologists distressed by the involvement of our own profession in detainee abuse, we are especially troubled by the failure of the American Psychological Association (APA) to sanction one of its members, Dr. John Leso, a psychologist and Army officer who served at Guantánamo from June 2002 to January 2003. Six long years ago one of us (Trudy Bond) filed a complaint against Dr. Leso with the APA’s Ethics Committee. Providing detailed and comprehensive documentation, the complaint identified Dr. Leso’s role in developing abusive and torturous detention and interrogation procedures at the facility, as well as his direct participation in the mistreatment of prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani. Remarkably the Ethics Committee has still not adjudicated this case.
The evidence of Dr. Leso’s ethical violations is quite considerable and thus difficult to summarize. While much information is still classified, ample evidence of wrongdoing by Dr. Leso is publicly available in a wide range of official government documents. Of particular note is a 2008 Report from the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), based on the Committee’s extensive inquiry into the treatment of detainees held at Guantánamo and elsewhere. The Report discussed the activities of a military psychologist – identified in supporting documentation as Dr. Leso – and psychiatrist Paul Burney as the lead members of the first Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) at Guantánamo, tasked with using their professional expertise to advise interrogators.
According to the SASC Report, after three months of monitoring interrogations at Guantánamo, Drs. Leso and Burney traveled to Fort Bragg in North Carolina for training in interrogation techniques modelled on the Army’s program of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE). SERE is an intensive training program for U.S. service members at high risk of capture. One component teaches how to resist the type of interrogation employed “by enemies that refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions.” Thus SERE trainees are exposed to torture techniques as a form of inoculation training. As the SASC Report documents in detail, during the period after the 9/11 attacks, CIA and military psychologists reverse-engineered these SERE training techniques to be used as “enhanced interrogation techniques” against U.S. “war on terror” prisoners. With this maneuver the U.S. military joined those powers that “refuse to follow the Geneva Conventions” in interrogations.
After their return from Fort Bragg in October 2002, Drs. Leso and Burney issued a memo in which they proposed SERE-based strategies and techniques for use with “high value” Guantánamo detainees. These techniques were calculated to create maximal psychological disorganization, severe physical discomfort, and intense fear and anxiety. Among the techniques they recommended were prolonged isolation for up to 30 days without the right of visitation by treating medical professionals or the International Committee of the Red Cross (with additional month-long periods if authorized); removal of all “comfort items,” including sheets, blankets, mattresses, wash cloths, and religious items; daily 20-hour interrogations (with resultant sleep deprivation); placing hoods on detainees during questioning or movement; food restriction for 24 hours once a week; scenarios designed to convince the detainee that he might experience a painful or fatal outcome; removal of clothing; exposure to cold; and stress positions.
The recommendations of Drs. Leso and Burney soon were applied to Mohammed al-Qahtani, the unwilling recipient of Guantánamo’s first “Special Interrogation Plan.” The leaked secret interrogation log of “Detainee 063” (Mohammed al-Qahtani) confirms that Dr. Leso was present during interrogation sessions and that he provided guidance in his BSCT role. A 2005 Army Report examining FBI allegations of detainee mistreatment concluded that Mr. al-Qahtani was the victim of degrading and abusive treatment. Almost daily over a period of nearly two months, Mr. al-Qahtani was subjected to interrogations of 18-20 hours’ duration. For over five months, he was held in solitary confinement, completely segregated from other detainees.
Army investigators also found that all of the following occurred at various times during the course of Mr. al-Qahtani’s interrogations: he was forced to wear a woman’s bra and had a thong placed on his head; he was told that his mother and sister were whores, that he was a homosexual, and that other detainees had found out about his homosexual tendencies; he was tied to a leash, led around the interrogation room, and forced to perform dog tricks; he was forced to dance with a male interrogator, subjected to strip searches, and forced to stand naked with women present; he was prevented from carrying out his Muslim obligation of praying regularly; he was held in place while a female interrogator straddled him; a military working dog was brought into the interrogation room to growl, bark, and show its teeth; he was subjected to loud music and cold temperatures for extended periods; and water was repeatedly poured over his head as an act of humiliation.
There is perhaps no more succinct or more authoritative judgment of the mistreatment Mr. al-Qahtani suffered at Guantánamo – with the participation of Dr. Leso – than the assessment offered by Susan Crawford, the former judge who was appointed by the Bush Administration as the convening authority of military commissions in February 2007. Judge Crawford declined to refer Mr. al-Qahtani for prosecution, and in a later Washington Post interview she stated, “We tortured [Mohammed al-] Qahtani. …His treatment met the legal definition of torture.”
Longstanding American Psychological Association policy prohibits psychologists from involvement in torture or cruel, degrading, or inhuman treatment or punishment. The first principle of the APA Ethics Code – “Beneficence and Non-Maleficence” – states clearly: “Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm,” an injunction clearly violated by Dr. Leso’s actions. Dr. Leso also violated multiple specific Ethical Standards delineated in the Ethics Code. For example, he failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing harm to detainees at Guantanamo, or to act in ways that minimized others’ misuse of his knowledge and training as a psychologist. At the same time, he acted beyond the boundaries of his competence; he used his position of authority to adopt an exploitative relationship toward detainees; and he engaged in harassing and demeaning behavior toward detainees through the interrogation plans he designed and through the specific guidance he provided to interrogators.
So why then, despite a compelling public record of extensive wrongdoing by Dr. Leso, has the APA Ethics Committee refused to adjudicate this case for six years? The Ethics Committee is comprised of eight members who serve staggered three-year terms. The composition of the entire Committee has already fully turned over twice without a decision having been reached in this case. In fact 26 different psychologists and public representatives have served terms on the Ethics Committee during this extended period of inaction. Throughout, the only constant has been the leadership of Stephen Behnke, the Director of the APA Ethics Office. As far back as 2005, Dr. Behnke dismissed growing concerns of psychologist complicity in detainee abuse and torture while making this false promise:
If psychologists have engaged in any activity, and at this point the media reports are long on hearsay and innuendo, short on facts, the American Psychological Association wants the facts. And when we have the facts, we will act on them. And if individuals who are members of our association have acted inappropriately, the APA will address those very directly and very clearly.
If there was ever any validity to Dr. Behnke’s assertion that reports of psychologist complicity were “long on hearsay and innuendo, short on facts,” that argument was discredited long ago with the release of thousands of pages of official documents providing the necessary details of psychologist involvement in torture. In the case of Dr. Leso, Dr. Behnke now has the facts, provided by reputable sources, including the United States Senate.
But Dr. Behnke’s claim is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to APA assurances that lack substance. For years and in many contexts APA leaders have argued – with little evidence – that psychologists have played a crucial role in places like Guantánamo by helping to keep detention and interrogation operations “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.” Moreover, they have boasted that psychologists are uniquely trained to recognize and guard against the “behavioral drift” of overzealous interrogators, who might otherwise cross ethical boundaries and apply coercive techniques. It would be a direct contradiction to this carefully crafted APA narrative to find that APA member Dr. Leso was directly involved in designing and overseeing the abuse of Guantánamo prisoners.
When wrongdoing becomes undeniable in situations like these, a familiar defensive response from “war on terror” proponents has been to describe an often-nameless perpetrator as one of “a few bad apples.” But that defense also falls flat here, as Major Leso was then (and thereafter remained) a high-level commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, specifically assigned to use his psychological training to develop Guantánamo’s coercive and abusive camp-wide policies. It is also troubling that APA member Col. Larry James (former President of APA’s Division 19, the Society for Military Psychology) recommended that Dr. Leso attend the Ft. Bragg training, and that this training was organized by APA member Col. Morgan Banks.
With so much public evidence of significant professional wrongdoing by Dr. Leso, one might imagine that over a six-year period the Ethics Office could have adjudicated this case with a careful review of the facts. Instead there is the appearance that the case is being delayed by matters of political expediency or concerns about the APA’s relationship with the national security establishment. Indeed to date the only indication that the Ethics Committee has taken the accumulated evidence seriously in any way is that they have not declared Dr. Leso guiltless.
The failure to adjudicate this case has long been indefensible. The resort to stonewalling and obfuscation by the APA in order to avoid accountability has been even more egregious. Over the past six years the APA’s Ethics Office and leadership have, at various times, claimed that the complaint against Dr. Leso was never received; that documentation already submitted was still needed; that no decision could be reached while a similar complaint was under review in a different jurisdiction; and that the evidence provided – including authoritative government documents – did not constitute adequate primary source material. Most recently, in November 2012, the Deputy Director and Director of Adjudication in the APA Ethics Office wrote that “it is to the advantage of all parties involved to wait until APA obtains the best evidence available to make its determination.” One can only wonder what would constitute that “best evidence,” and what the APA is doing to obtain it.
Dozens of the detainees who were present when Dr. Leso helped to design and implement abusive and torturous practices at Guantánamo – now over a decade ago – still remain imprisoned there. Many of them are innocent victims of horrific mistreatment and indefinite detention. Some have been released and returned to their homelands to live with their nightmares, and today some are among the increasing number of hunger strikers. Amidst this national disgrace, the ongoing unwillingness of the American Psychological Association to act responsibly further implicates our profession in this travesty of justice.
Trudy Bond is a counseling psychologist in independent practice in Toledo, Ohio. She is a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and on the steering committee of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.
Roy Eidelson is a clinical psychologist and the president of Eidelson Consulting, where he studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, associate director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College, and a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology.
Stephen Soldz is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He has written extensively on the involvement of psychologists in the US torture program. Soldz is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations working to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations and is a former president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He served as a psychological consultant on several Guantánamo trials.