Case closed.

Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR) released a copy of a letter they sent to the Ethics Office of the American Psychological Association (APA). The letter sharply criticizes APA for sitting seven years on an ethics complaint made against Dr. John Leso, who was a military psychologist at Guantanamo and an early member of that prison’s Behavioral Science Consultant Team (BSCT). Rather than a dust-up between psychology groups, the issue goes right to the heart of the US’s ability to conduct coercive interrogations and torture with the input of behavioral specialists.

On December 31, 2013, the APA sent a letter to psychologist and complainant Trudy Bond, who in 2007 had filed a complaint against Leso for his reported participation in torture at Guantanamo, that APA was not going to hold make formal charges against Leso. They said they were closing the case.

A week ago, Spencer Ackerman at The Guardian broke the story on the APA’s decision, which caused a great deal of consternation among psychologists who have been working against torture, and who support Bond and others who have made ethics or legal complaints against Leso and other psychologists involved in torture. (Full disclosure: I’m one of those psychologists supporting Trudy, and a member of PsySR.)

Ackerman described Leso’s role in the most famous of his nefarious deeds, his participation in the torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani:

Leso was identified as “MAJ L” in a leaked log, published by Time magazine in 2005, of Qahtani’s marathon interrogation in November 2002. With Leso recorded as present for at least some of the session, Qahtani was forcibly hydrated through intravenous drips and prevented from using the bathroom until he urinated on himself, subjected to loud music, and repeatedly kept awake while being “told he can go to sleep when he tells the truth”.

At one point, Qahtani was instructed to bark like a dog.

“Dog tricks continued and detainee stated he should be treated like a man,” the log records. “Detainee was told he would have to learn who to defend and who to attack.”

During an interrogation on 27 November 2002, the log records a direct intervention by Leso: “Control puts detainee in swivel chair at MAJ L’s suggestion to keep him awake and stop him from fixing his eyes on one spot in booth.”

For more on Leso, see the information posted at The Center for Justice and Accountability.

In a key section of their letter, PsySR’s steering committee tells APA: “Evidence clearly exists that Dr. Leso and other psychologists have utterly failed to ensure that detention and interrogation operations at Guantánamo and elsewhere were kept ‘safe, legal, ethical, and effective.’ By closing this case in the manner you have chosen, it is only reasonable for members and the broader public to assume that APA will never sanction any psychologist participating in government-sanctioned abuses. No statements from APA’s PR office will change this perception.”

Indeed, APA has been the biggest backer of psychologist participation in interrogations. APA’s former Chief Scientist, for instance, Susan Brandon, is Chief of Research for the Obama Administration’s High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, and was last seen involved in murky ways in the interrogation of purported Iranian assassin-would be, Mansour Arbabsiar.

APA claims that it is against torture and has issued numerous statements against psychologist participation in torture. While I believe APA membership is certainly anti-torture — a member-initiated referendum passed calling for APA to support removal of psychologists from sites of human rights violations — APA’s leadership has moved over and over to sabotage any real anti-torture actions. The referendum has never been actualized in action. APA has never called for the closing of Guantanamo. Their anti-torture resolutions are eviscerated by legalistic and/or bureaucratic maneuvers.

In this, it must be said, they follow the plan constructed by their government mentors, who chopped down the significance of the U.S. signing of the UN Convention Against Torture by encumbering it with “reservations” and “understandings” that greatly reduced the power of the treaty to in fact exercise state power to rein in torture.

Below is the full text of PsySR’s letter. Readers should feel free to copy and share.

January 29, 2014

Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD
Director, Ethics Office
American Psychological Association
750 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002-4242

Lindsay Childress-Beatty, JD, PhD
Director of Adjudication/Deputy Director, Ethics Office
American Psychological Association
750 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002-4242

Dear Drs. Behnke and Childress-Beatty:

As representatives of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR), we write to express our deep concern and dismay over the recent decision by the Ethics Office of the American Psychological Association to dismiss the Complaint against Dr. John Leso, a former military psychologist at Guantántamo Bay Naval Base. According to your 31 December 2013 letter to complainant Dr. Trudy Bond (a PsySR member), your office does not dispute that Dr. Leso was instrumental in devising and administering the Guantánamo “enhanced interrogation” protocol in 2002. Declassified government documents and independent reports have revealed that this protocol included, but was not limited to, weeks or months of solitary confinement; sleep deprivation; sexual humiliation; exposure to extreme cold; prolonged removal of sheets, blankets, wash cloths and religious items; 20-hour interrogations, and painful stress positions.

The Ethics Office took almost seven years to review one of the most egregious examples of unethical behavior in the history of American psychology. Due to unusual circumstances (leaks and release by Congress of classified documents) more information is available about Dr. Leso’s participation in government-sanctioned torture and abuse than may ever be the case for any other APA member. Dr. Leso co-wrote the plan for and is documented as directly participating in the interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani. This interrogation was described as meeting the legal definition of “torture” by Susan Crawford, the Bush administration convener of the Guantánamo military commissions.

In the end, your office apparently decided that Dr. Leso’s months of involvement with the torture program were wholly mitigated because he did not volunteer to lead the Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) that formulated the protocol; he was an early-career psychologist; and he reportedly expressed unease with the assignment and a preference for “rapport-building” methods. In reaching its decision the Ethics Office has set a stunning and disturbing precedent. Your office has now provided another layer of protection to psychologists who participate in the debilitating isolation of prisoners, the psychological abuses still permitted by Appendix M of the Army Field Manual, the brutal force-feeding of Guantánamo hunger-strikers, or other ethical violations. As well, this logic suggests that psychologists who engage in insurance fraud or sexual relations with their patients can evade censure if they are relatively inexperienced and express discomfort in advance of or concurrent with their actions.

For years APA has insisted that it would sanction any member for whom credible evidence existed of participation in torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, yet no psychologist has ever been held accountable for involvement in our government’s post-9/11 torture program. Evidence clearly exists that Dr. Leso and other psychologists have utterly failed to ensure that detention and interrogation operations at Guantánamo and elsewhere were kept “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.” By closing this case in the manner you have chosen, it is only reasonable for members and the broader public to assume that APA will never sanction any psychologist participating in government-sanctioned abuses. No statements from APA’s PR office will change this perception.

At this point, your office must realize that the Leso decision is being widely discussed in the media and has become a matter of profound concern to many members of the profession. We therefore believe that it is important for the Ethics Office to provide greater clarity regarding two key issues: First, substantively, how does this landmark decision align with the specific principles and standards of the APA’s code of ethics, and with longstanding professional prohibitions against involvement in torture and abuse? Second, procedurally, how was the decision to close the case reached? While you state that the complaint was “carefully reviewed by multiple reviewers,” it is unclear who these reviewers were. Does this decision reflect an official vote of the entire Ethics Committee, or rather action taken by the Director of the Ethics Office, or some other group of reviewers, without the participation of the full committee? Confidentiality about these matters serves, in our perception, no constructive purpose and instead raises confusion and uncertainty about the priorities and procedures of the Ethics Office. We therefore request that this information be made public in order to begin to rebuild the moral authority of the profession.

We look forward to your timely reply. Thank you.

Sincerely,
The Steering Committee of Psychologists for Social Responsibility

cc: Members of the APA Ethics Committee
Members of the APA Board and Council of Representatives