American Psychological Association Refuses to Charge Member Who Committed Torture at Guantánamo

Saturday, January 25, 2014

An American psychologist who took part in the torture of a Guantánamo detainee has avoided disciplinary action by an association of his peers.


The American Psychological Association (APA) wrote in a letter that John Leso, a former U.S. Army reserve major and psychologist, would not be rebuked for participating in the harsh interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani in November 2002.


Qahtani was suspected of helping plot the September 11, 2001, attacks.


The APA said in the letter to Trudy Bond, an APA member who filed the complaint against Leso, that it had “determined that we cannot proceed with formal charges in this matter. Consequently the complaint against Dr Leso has been closed.”


The association did not deny that Leso took part in the brutal interrogation of Qahtani, whose treatment was categorized as torture by a U.S. military commission.


A classified record of the interrogation, which surfaced in 2005, showed Leso (identified as “MAJ L”) was present while Qahtani was forcibly given liquids, denied use of bathrooms, resulting in him urinating on himself, subjected to loud music, and repeatedly kept awake while being “told he can go to sleep when he tells the truth.”


Leso’s role in the use of torture at Guantánamo was bolstered by documents that surfaced during a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee torture inquiry which highlighted Leso’s involvement with a special team at the prison that crafted torture techniques. Leso’s name, rank and membership on the team were cited in minutes of a Guantánamo meeting that was published by the committee. That record quoted Leso, at the time, as pointing out that the detainees “are used to seeing much more barbaric treatment” and therefore the team’s use of “force” on them “may be ineffective.”


Leso also helped write a 2002 memorandum that detailed the use, at Guantánamo, of “stress positions,” sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation, isolation and exposure to extreme cold. The memo made its way through the Pentagon bureaucracy, leading U.S. forces to apply those same abusive techniques to detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2003.


The Senate’s torture report quoted Leso as telling them he had been uncomfortable with the memo he helped produce, preferring instead a “rapport-building approach” to interrogation. APA’s ethics office made note of this, and it has been speculated that it played a role in Leso’s exoneration by the group.


Bond and other APA members who wanted Leso punished were dismayed by the decision. They believe that APA gave more weight to the doubts that Leso expressed after the fact than to his actual participation in the torture program.


“With Leso, the evidence of his participation is so explicit and so incontrovertible, the APA had to go to great lengths to dismiss it,” Steven Reisner, a New York clinical psychologist who unsuccessfully ran for the APA presidency last year, told The Guardian. “The precedent is that APA is not going to hold any psychologist accountable in any circumstance.”


Bond said the organization had sent the message that “psychologists are free to violate our ethical code, perhaps, in certain situations.”


An APA spokesperson, Rhea Farberman, told The Guardian that its investigation could not meet the burden of finding “direct unethical conduct” by Leso, and said it was “utterly unfounded” to fear the organization has condoned professional impunity. Farberman added that the APA’s “standing policies will clearly demonstrate that APA will not tolerate psychologist participation in torture.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

US Psychology Body Declines to Rebuke Member in Guantánamo Torture Case (by Spencer Ackerman, The Guardian)

American Psychological Association Letter on Dr John Leso: 'We Cannot Proceed with Formal Charges' (The Guardian)

Shrinks, Lies and Torture (by Trudy Bond, Counterpunch)

Is It Finally Time to Punish Pro-Torture Judge and Doctors? (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

Psychologists Move against One of Their Own Who Helped Torture (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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