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Military Psychologist Implicated in Abusive Interrogations

by David M. Reutter

A lawsuit against the Louisiana State Board of Examiners of Psychologists (LSBEP) accuses retired Army Col. Larry C. James of professional and ethical violations stemming from his former role as chief psychologist at the U.S. military prisons in Abu Ghraib, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The suit was filed by Ohio psychologist Trudy Bond after the LSBEP dismissed her February 29, 2008 complaint seeking an investigation of James. Specifically, Bonds alleged that while James was chief psychologist and deputy director of the Guantanamo Behavioral Science Consultation Team from January to mid-May 2003, and chief psychologist at Abu Ghraib in 2004, he “supervised, condoned, authorized, and was aware or should have been aware” of abusive interrogation protocols and techniques at the two military prisons.

Those improper interrogation techniques allegedly included waterboarding, stress positions, isolation, sexual humiliation, threats of rape and other types of psychological abuse. [See: PLN, April 2005, p.1].

Bond’s complaint also alleged that military psychologists “reverse engineered” a program designed to train U.S. troops at high risk of capture how to resist interrogation and torture. The Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training program includes sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, stress positions and the “religious dilemma,” which involves desecration of religious materials.

“Instead of using this knowledge to aid U.S. military personnel ... the psychologists involved in interrogations at Guantanamo, including Dr. James, utilized this information ... in interrogations which resulted in serious harm, abuse, and ill-treatment of detainees at Guantanamo during the time of Dr. James’ assignment there,” Bond stated in her complaint.

The involvement of military psychologists in the SERE program to develop interrogation techniques for terrorism suspects was documented in a sworn statement by the former chief officer of the Interrogation Control Element at Guantanamo, and was discussed during a May 2009 Congressional hearing.

James has been a licensed psychologist since 1990, and was named the dean of Wright State University’s School of Professional Psychology in Dayton, Ohio on August 1, 2008. He also has served on the governing board of the American Psychological Association (APA) and as president of the APA’s Division for Military Psychology.

While the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have prohibited their members from participating in interrogations, until recently the APA resisted such restrictions for psychologists.

Following years of contentious discussions, activism and a vote by its entire membership, in September 2008 the APA approved a resolution barring members from working at locations where “persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g. the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the U.S. Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.”
APA president James H. Bray issued a statement following the adoption of the resolution.
“Let’s set the record straight: It is a clear violation of professional ethics for a psychologist to have played a role in the torture of CIA detainees ...,” he wrote in an April 22, 2009 editorial. “It is unthinkable that any psychologist could assert that stress positions, forced nudity, sleep deprivation, exploiting phobias, and waterboarding ... cause no lasting damage to a human being’s psyche. And yet an emerging record strongly suggests that some did.”

In May 2009, listserv emails from the APA’s Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) were made public. According to Physicians for Human Rights, prior to the adoption of the APA’s September 2008 resolution, the PENS task force had “developed its ethics policy to conform with Pentagon guidelines governing psychologist participation in interrogations.”

“These emails show that several of the military psychologists formulating APA ethics policy were giving themselves get-out-of-jail-free cards. Their report asserted that it was ethical to follow military policy while ... memos allowing torture were still in effect,” said Stephen Soldz, a board member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

“In the context of these revelations, the American public needs to know why a supposedly independent [APA] ethics policy was written by some of the very personnel allegedly implicated in detainee abuse,” added Nathaniel Raymond, Director of Physicians for Human Rights’ Campaign Against Torture.

James, who participated in the PENS listserv, has denied that he contributed to or oversaw improper interrogations. In a 2008 book that he co-authored, titled “Fixing Hell: An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib,” James said he was sent to Abu Ghraib to right the wrongs that occurred at the facility, which became widely known after photos of U.S. military personnel abusing Iraqi detainees surfaced in April 2004. [See: PLN, Dec. 2004, p.26].

The book reportedly “debunks many of the false stories and media myths surrounding the actions of American soldiers at both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay,” according to a description on Yet there is no question that detainees were tortured at Abu Ghraib, as indicated by the photographic evidence and the military’s own reports.

Bond’s lawsuit against the LSBEP for failing to investigate James was originally filed by New Orleans civil rights attorney Mary Howell, but later was turned over to the law firm of Nixon Peabody, LLP for pro bono representation. The Nixon Peabody firm had prepared habeas petitions filed in the U.S. Supreme Court for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay absent any formal charges.

The district court dismissed Bond’s lawsuit on July 13, and she appealed the dismissal to the Louisiana Court of Appeals on August 6, 2009. See: Bond v. Louisiana State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, 19th Judicial District Court, Parish of East Baton Rouge, Case No. 569127 § 24.

Also on August 6, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Canadian Centre for International Justice asked the Canadian government to investigate James for war crimes in connection with his work at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, after it was reported that James planned to attend the APA’s annual convention in Toronto.

Further, in a letter made public on August 7, 2009, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, informed the APA that conditions at Guantanamo Bay were in violation of international law, and requested that psychologists no longer take part in interrogations at Guantanamo and other sites “where international law is being violated.”
Thus far, Dr. James has avoided any criminal investigation or discipline for ethics violations related to his work at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

Sources:, National Public Radio, Physicians for Human Rights press release,,,

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Related legal case

Bond v. Louisiana State Board of Examiners of Psychologists