New York Court Refuses to Look at Psychologist’s Role at Guantanamo

Did a psychologistviolate his professional ethics when he developed abusive interrogationtechniques for use on Guantanamo Bay detainees? Last week, a New York statecourt dismissed a petition which would have forced the New York Office ofProfessional Discipline to answer that question.

The New York Office ofProfessional Discipline, which oversees standards for psychologists, haddecided not to investigate the actions of John Leso, a psychologist who advisedGuantanamo military authorities on “harmful and abusive psychologicaltechniques.” The lawsuit, brought by NY psychologist Steven Reisner, alleged thatLeso’s advice on techniques including sleep deprivation and the withholding of foodmust be investigated by the agency. However, recently the court decided that Dr.Reisner did not have legal standing in the case and he did not have the rightto question the agency's decision.

Human rights groupsand psychologists have been pressing regulators in several states toinvestigate this very issue. The Reisner lawsuit exemplifies this attempt toshed a much-needed light on psychologists’ role in terror suspectinvestigations. In 2005, the media reported on a leaked military log which indicated that Leso observed thequestioning of a prisoner and advised interrogators on how to increase theprisoner’s level of stress. Leso’s suggestions included isolating the prisoner,threatening the prisoner with a dog, shackling the prisoner and othertechniques. Court documents also indicate that Leso led a behavioral science consultationteam at Guantanamo in 2002 and 2003 and recommended interrogation tactics suchas exposing detainees to severe cold, depriving them of sleep and forcingliquids into them intravenously. 

“In this case, theviolation of ethical standards is obvious,” Dr. Reisner stated. 

Although actingSupreme Court Justice Saliann Scarpulla didn’t necessarily disagree stating,“My sensibility is with you…I do think it has a huge moral implication here,”she ultimately threw out the case on the technicality of no ‘standing.’ 

Psychologist licensingboards in California, Louisiana, Ohio and Texas have also rejected complaintsabout psychologists who were said to have participated in abusiveinterrogations of detainees at Guantanamo. Despite these failures, psychologistsshould be held accountable for their violations of ethics codes. Since licensingboards appear unwilling to do their job and enforce ethical standards amongtheir members, it is time for the states to step in. PHR supports statelegislatures in passing legislation that would make “ethical standards” and“accountability” mean something.  NY andMassachusetts are currently contemplating such legislation.

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