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

on August 18, 2011

Did a psychologist violate his professional ethics when he developed abusive interrogation techniques for use on Guantanamo Bay detainees? Last week, a New York state court dismissed a petition which would have forced the New York Office of Professional Discipline to answer that question.

The New York Office of Professional Discipline, which oversees standards for psychologists, had decided not to investigate the actions of John Leso, a psychologist who advised Guantanamo military authorities on “harmful and abusive psychological techniques.” The lawsuit, brought by NY psychologist Steven Reisner, alleged that Leso’s advice on techniques including sleep deprivation and the withholding of food must 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 right to question the agency's decision.

Human rights groups and psychologists have been pressing regulators in several states to investigate this very issue. The Reisner lawsuit exemplifies this attempt to shed a much-needed light on psychologists’ role in terror suspect investigations. In 2005, the media reported on a leaked military log which indicated that Leso observed the questioning of a prisoner and advised interrogators on how to increase the prisoner’s level of stress. Leso’s suggestions included isolating the prisoner, threatening the prisoner with a dog, shackling the prisoner and other techniques. Court documents also indicate that Leso led a behavioral science consultation team at Guantanamo in 2002 and 2003 and recommended interrogation tactics such as exposing detainees to severe cold, depriving them of sleep and forcing liquids into them intravenously. 

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

Although acting Supreme 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 licensing boards in California, Louisiana, Ohio and Texas have also rejected complaints about psychologists who were said to have participated in abusive interrogations of detainees at Guantanamo. Despite these failures, psychologists should be held accountable for their violations of ethics codes. Since licensing boards appear unwilling to do their job and enforce ethical standards among their members, it is time for the states to step in. PHR supports state legislatures in passing legislation that would make “ethical standards” and “accountability” mean something.  NY and Massachusetts are currently contemplating such legislation.

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