More Questions About Torture, and the University

Questions remain unanswered as a military psychologist searches for a new job.

Posted Jan 24, 2013

Last week I raised significant concerns here about the University of Missouri’s search for a new division director for its College of Education. According to reports, one of the two finalists for the position is Dr. Larry James, a former senior military psychologist who was involved in the interrogation and detention operations at both Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Dr. James has been the target of multiple ethics complaints, submitted to state boards and the American Psychological Association. Yesterday, two of the complainants – Rev. Colin Bossen and Dr. Trudy Bond – posted an open letter urging the search committee to pursue several lines of inquiry in their upcoming interview with Dr. James. With the authors’ permission, I am sharing the full text of their letter below.


Questions About Torture: What The University of Missouri Should Ask A Gitmo Psychologist

This month marked 11 years since the opening of the infamous prison camp at Guantanamo, where over a hundred men, many innocent, remain indefinitely detained by the U.S. while hundreds of others have had their lives ruined. The national opening of Zero Dark Thirty and its controversial interpretation of torture’s benefits at the hands of U.S. forces ironically merged with this distressing anniversary. In the midst of these events--which have reignited public interest in the lack of accountability for torture and other violations of international laws--news broke that Dr. Larry James, a senior intelligence psychologist at Guantanamo during a time of the worst documented abuses, was on the short list for a high-level administrative position at the University of Missouri. 

We write because a few years ago, Wright State, a public university in our state of Ohio, hired Dr. James as Dean of its School of Professional Psychology.  Like most Ohio residents, where we both lived at the time, we did not learn about his hiring until after the fact.  Shortly after, the state psychology board issued Dr. James a license to treat patients in Ohio.  Concerned, we did our own research. Attempting to reconcile Dr. James's story with the public record, we spent over a year carefully examining declassified government documents, news accounts, and testimonials from other service members, intelligence officers, former and current detainees, and their counsel.  Dr. James’s story of ending abuse and protecting prisoners from harm simply did not check out.  Instead, we found alarming evidence that his team of interrogation consultants were integral to the cruel treatment of boys and men in Guantanamo.  Indeed, Dr. James’s own statements were internally inconsistent and, on their face, seemed to violate ethical prohibitions against misrepresenting his own professional experience and breaching confidentiality.  Based on this research, we asked the state psychology board to investigate Dr. James’s fitness to practice--a request that it refused, responding that it was “unable to proceed” and offering no reason for its inaction. 

The people of Missouri are more fortunate than the people of Ohio: concerned faculty and press have brought Dr. James’s candidacy into the public light, giving the search committee, the University of Missouri community and others affected an opportunity to examine the candidate’s record openly and thoroughly before making this important decision.  We write in the belief that the evidence we have compiled is relevant to this discussion, and with the hope that the University of Missouri will learn from Wright State and the Ohio Psychology Board’s mistakes.   The Columbia Missourian reports that the search committee is scheduled to interview Dr. James in early February.  We highlight below some lines of inquiry that we think the committee would be remiss not to pursue.

If Dr. James was “not involved in any of those horrible things” in Guantánamo and he was instead “on hand to clean up issues related to detainees and personnel working with detainees,” as well as to write “policies so other abuses would not occur to anyone in our care,” how does he explain the fact that, in the midst of his first deployment at Guantánamo, the policy that was in fact written was the Camp Delta Standard Operating Policy (SOP), approved on March 27, 2003, including specific guidelines for Detainee Behavioral Management i.e. the Behavioral Science Consultation Team which Dr.  James  led?

According to the SOP, “the purpose of the Behavior Management Plan is to enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process . . .”  During the first two weeks at Camp Delta, the detainee was kept in isolation, denied contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross and Chaplain and was denied a Koran, prayer beads, and prayer cap. After the initial two weeks, the detainee remained in isolation for another two weeks.  All these actions were in violation of international law as well as Dr. James’s Code of Ethics.  What is Dr. James’s explanation of these policies?

Dr. James’s personal bio of himself states that he served as Chief Psychologist of the Joint Task Force at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba in 2003. Dr. James’s admission that he was known as “Biscuit 1,” along with military policy documents specifying that “BSCT1" was the designation for the Chief of the Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT), strongly suggest that he led the Guantánamo BSCT at this time. Citations are detailed in par. 3 of our 2010 Board Complaint.

Given Dr. James’s statement, “[I] was not involved in any of those horrible things that occurred at any of those places like in Cuba,” what does he consider to be “horrible things?”

From our perspective, it is clear by his own accounts that he was, indeed, "involved" in "the horrible things that occurred ... in Cuba."  For example, in his memoir, Fixing Hell, Dr. James recounts calmly observing guards and interrogators wrestle a screaming, near-naked man on the floor while trying to put on female lingerie and choosing not to immediately intervene -- or to report or sanction the men for the abuse.  This is detailed, along with quotes and citations to his book, in par. 37-42 of the above-referenced Complaint.

In the same book, he also admits to leading the team responsible for detaining and interrogating the three young boys from Afghanistan (see par. 44-48 of  Complaint).  These boys, whose estimated ages were between 12-14, were imprisoned, flown across the world (blindfolded, according to one of the boys) and held incommunicado without access to family or counsel for almost a year.  By his own account, James coordinated the "transfer" and then oversaw all aspects of their interrogation, detention and even treatment, although he warns: “There was no mistaking our intentions...:" meaning the health care treatment was meant as preparation for interrogation.  These are clear violations of international law, human rights, and psychological ethics--and most people's moral standards. The boys were released without ever being charged.

Perhaps Dr. James doesn't find these "things" to be "horrible."  Perhaps he doesn't find "horrible" other conduct that has been documented as widespread and, in some cases, official policy during the period that he was responsible for consulting on interrogation policy at the prison: rape and death threats; sexual, cultural, and religious humiliation; forced nudity; sleep and sensory deprivation; over-stimulation; extreme isolation; short-shackling into painful, stress positions for hours; and physical assault.

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, as the Chief Psychologist of the BSCT, at minimum knew or should have known it was being inflicted.

Dr. James’s recent statement to the Missouri press that “I did not have command authority. I was a consultant to a commanding general,” conflates two concerns. First, the more significant question to ask Dr. James is whether, as head of the Behavioral Science Consultation Team, he had command authority over his team of psychologists and psychiatrists at Guantánamo?  Did he have the power and duty to stop interrogations?

We do not allege that Dr. James had command authority over the interrogators, but that in his role as head of the Behavioral Science Consultation Team, his team consulted on the planning and implementation of interrogation tactics that were at the very least unethical. Evidence indicates that in this role Dr. James did have command authority of his BSCT team and the de facto authority to stop abusive and torturous interrogations.

As an example, on April 22, 2003, a BSCT psychiatrist allegedly under Dr. James’s command recommended that a man be forcefully and repeatedly lifted and dropped to the floor as a means of keeping him awake and “install[ing] interr[ogator’s] dominance in [the] room.”  A contract interrogator and a contract analyst observing the incident from a neighboring booth reported that, while the intelligence team watched, two guards slammed the man to the floor as many as 25-30 times using force “adequate to cause severe internal injury,” (see par. 30-36 of Complaint).

Did Dr. James have command authority over this member of his team?  Was he responsible for the abuse cited above?  Did he have a responsibility to stop the interrogation, or a duty to report the action?

Second, why does Dr. James give prominence to his role at Guantánamo in self-aggrandizing claims, yet deny any power when others attempt to hold him accountable, as he has done in his statements to the Missouri press?

In a posting to the listserv of the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security in 2005, Dr. James wrote, “the commanding general also put me in the ‘IG’ role, thus, I had oversight over everthing (sic) . . . the second thing I requested was to have legal authority to STOP any interrogations/interviews when I thought something was inappropriate. Meaning, a psychologist (me) had veto authority to stop anything that I thought was harmful, dangerous, unethical, illegal, etc. The general easily concurred with this request. It allowed me to work for the military client, but also ethically look out for the welfare for the detainees as well.”

On what basis does Dr. James claim to have been “thoroughly investigated … and …found completely innocent”?

As we have noted and others have reported (see, e.g., here), none of the sanctioning bodies has actually conducted meaningful investigations or hearings. The Ohio Board responded that it was “unable” to proceed, without further explanation; indeed, that Board has spent the last 18+ months in court defending its right to not investigate Dr. James.  Meanwhile, throughout its own lengthy legal battle, the Louisiana Board steered clear from advancing a position on Dr. James’s conduct.  Instead, it argued (without evident legal basis) that the statute of limitations had expired and thus that, it, too, was unable to look into the matter. 

To say that James "won" the proceedings before the Ohio Board (as Tom Warhover at the Missourian described it) is a legal stretch. If James “won” the proceedings before the Ohio Board, it could not have been based on his “innocence,” when there was no meaningful inquiry into his conduct.  If James “won,” it is because the Ohio Board--like other licensing boards, the American Psychological Association, the U.S. Department of Justice and other institutions empowered to hold individuals accountable for torture--chose the easy way out. It ducked the issue, confident it could take refuge in a climate where “looking forward, not backward” is the mantra of choice.    

Dr. Michael Pullis, search committee chair from the University of Missouri, has said, “I understand the allegations, but that is not sufficient to discriminate against anyone.” But when presented with disturbing evidence from credible sources, it is not discrimination to expect certainty, beyond doubt, that a candidate to a top educational post does not bear responsibility for the torture of others, to expect certainty that he has not been dishonest with his employers, faculty, students, professional boards and the American people. To do otherwise risks sending the message that the University of Missouri does not take seriously allegations of abuse and dishonesty.  The search committee should consider how such a message will impact the university community, in particular, survivors of sexual, child, domestic and all other forms of abuse and violence. 

Authors Note: Rev. Colin Bossen is a Unitarian Universalist minister previously located in Cleveland, Ohio and currently working on his doctorate at Harvard University. Dr. Trudy Bond is an Ohio-based psychologist and member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology.  Both are complainants against Dr. Larry James before the Ohio Board of Professional Psychology.