Lawsuit Probes Role of Psychologists in Terror War

The state board responsible for licensing – and disciplining – psychologists in Louisiana is accused of turning a blind eye to serious allegations of abuse against one of its members, including complicity in beatings, religious and sexual humiliation, rape threats, and painful body positions during his service as a senior adviser on interrogations for the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

Dr. Trudy Bond, an Ohio-based psychologist, is suing the Louisiana State Board of Examiners of Psychologists to compel it to investigate the actions of Louisiana psychologist and retired U.S. Army colonel Dr. Larry C. James, a former high-ranking adviser on interrogations for the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

Deborah Popowski, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, part of the legal team representing Bond, told IPS that, according to James’ own statements, he played an influential role in both the policy and day-to-day operations of interrogations and detention at the prison camps.

She claims that publicly available information shows that "while Dr. James was at Guantanamo, abuse in interrogations was widespread, and cruel and inhuman treatment was official policy."

The chairperson of the Board, Dr. Jillandra Rovaris, who also chairs the complaints committee, did not respond to telephone calls or e-mails seeking comment and clarification.

In February 2008, Bond filed a complaint against James before the Board, the agency that issued and now regulates his psychology license. She alleged that James breached professional ethics by violating psychologists’ duties to do no harm, to protect confidential information, and to obtain informed consent, and she called on the Board to investigate whether action should be taken against James.

Bond’s lawyers contend that the Board summarily refused to investigate her complaint, claiming that the statute of limitations had run, despite what they say is conclusive information to the contrary.

Bond then filed suit against the Board in Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District Court, which in July 2009 dismissed her case without looking at the merits. Now, in a brief before the First Circuit Court in Baton Rouge, Bond argues that the District Court should have reviewed the Board’s "clearly wrong legal decision."

"The five psychologists on the Louisiana Board were given plenty of credible evidence, but they chose not to investigate the head intelligence psychologist of prison camps notorious for their use of psychological torture," she said. "I don’t think Louisiana lawmakers intended to give five fellow professionals total, unchecked power to make arbitrary decisions that deeply affect the public welfare."

Bond told IPS, "I began reading of the role of psychologists at detention sites such as Guantanamo and was horrified when the American Psychological Association, by way of the infamous PENS report in 2005, determined that the actions of the BSCT psychologists were ethical."

She added, "In his biographical statement for the PENS report, Larry James stated that he was the chief psychologist for the Joint Intelligence Group at GTMO, Cuba, starting in January 2003."

Bond said that when the Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedure Manual (dated February 2003 and implemented March 27, 2003) was released in November 2007, "and included behavioral management of prisoners that violated our psychological ethics codes, that same ethics code required that I report such violations to the licensing board to be investigated."

Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, who is still imprisoned in Guantanamo, is one of the prisoners who has alleged brutal treatment in the spring of 2003, when he was only 16 years old.

Khadr was captured by U.S. forces at the age of 15 following a four-hour firefight with militants in the village of Ayub Kheyl, Afghanistan. He has spent seven years in the Guantanamo Bay detention camps charged with war crimes and providing support to terrorism after allegedly throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier.

Born in Toronto, he is the youngest prisoner held in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp by the United States and has been frequently referred to as a child soldier.

In April 2009, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms made it obligatory for the government to immediately demand Khadr’s return. After a hearing before the Court of Appeals produced the same result, the government announced they would argue their case before the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case next month.

James was also stationed in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 and returned to Guantanamo in 2007. In 2008, he was named dean of the School of Professional Psychology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

The Center for Constitutional Rights says that, as chief psychologist of the Joint Intelligence Group and a senior member of the Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) at Guantanamo, Dr. James had access to the confidential medical records of people he was charged with exploiting for intelligence.

It adds that, according to former Guantanamo interrogators, BSCTs used information from patients’ records to help interrogators increase the patients’ psychological duress, including by exploiting their fears.

The very purpose of these mental health professional teams, the interrogators said, was to help "break" the prisoners. Dr. James denies that claim, but an extensive government paper trail supports the interrogators’ accounts, the center contends.

The so-called "Biscuit Teams" have sparked controversy ever since their existence became public. The actions taken by team members have called into question the appropriate behavior for physicians, psychologists, and other health care professionals who are team members.

"The names and licensing information of several individuals who may have been involved in prisoner abuse are publicly known," the center says. "Yet, when presented with credible information that licensees within their jurisdiction may have committed gross breaches of ethics, state licensing boards have refused to take action. To date, not one health professional has been held accountable for their role in torture."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.