At MU, debate over candidate Larry James’ Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib role
COLUMBIA — As questions continue about his involvement in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, retired Army psychologist Larry C. James arrives this week as a finalist for a senior administrative position with the MU College of Education.
James has been accused of medical ethics violations in connection with the coercive tactics used on detainees. He was a consulting psychologist both at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba. Since 2008, he has been dean of the School of Professional Psychology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
Last month, it was announced that James had been selected as one of two finalists for the position of division executive director with the College of Education.
If hired at MU, he would lead a team of about 65 faculty. His expertise would contribute to the school’s academic training programs in counseling, according to Michael Pullis, search committee chairman for the college.
Pullis said James’ credentials were of such superior quality that the committee was obliged to offer him an interview as a finalist.
The other finalist is Matthew Burns, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota. Burns has already been through the interview process.
James will be in Columbia from Monday through Wednesday. On Tuesday at 3:15 p.m., he will hold a 60-minute forum for College of Education faculty, staff and students.
Daniel Clay, dean of the College of Education, reconfirmed Friday afternoon that the interviews would continue as scheduled.
“This has been, and will continue to be, an open and transparent search,” Clay told a media gathering. “The search committee was aware of the allegations against James and investigated those allegations thoroughly.”
Clay’s statement was made to the media 15 minutes before several dozen protesters met to formally object to James’ candidacy. They presented petitions to the College of Education and Chancellor Brady Deaton asking that James be removed from consideration.
James was deputy director of the behavioral science consultation team at Guantanamo Bay from January to May 2003 and served as director from June 2007 to May 2008.
He was director of a similar team from June to October 2004 at the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center at Abu Ghraib prison, according to the curriculum vitae he provided to the College of Education search committee.
During those periods, reports surfaced about the abuse of the detainees in custody. James has said that no adjudicatory body has ever found probable cause to initiate sanctions against him because of his connections to the interrogations in Cuba and Iraq.
His critics said a thorough investigation of his possible involvement in the abuses has never taken place. They also asserted that his ethical decisions at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib should disqualify him to practice psychology.
“There has never been any evidence whatsoever for any of these boards to have the slightest cause to investigate,” James told the Missourian in early January.
After he joined Wright State, a 2010 complaint filed with the Ohio Board of Psychology alleged that he exploited detainees’ psychological vulnerabilities as part of a regimen of enhanced interrogation techniques in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
The board granted James his license to practice in Ohio in 2008, and that license remains active.
The complaint to the board was filed by psychologist Trudy Bond and three other Ohio residents with the help of Deborah Popowski of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School.
The complaint called James’ role in the development and use of interrogation techniques “integral.”
“Dr. James commanded the Guantanamo Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT), a small but influential group of mental health professionals whose job it was to advise on and participate in the interrogations, and to help create an environment designed to break down prisoners,” the complaint stated.
During interrogations, detainees were threatened with rape and death for themselves and their families, according to the complaint.
They were subjected to sexual and religious humiliation as part of an interrogation program designed to exploit the prisoners’ mental and physical vulnerabilities, the complaint continued.
The complaint said James, as a board-licensed psychologist, should have avoided using his healing skills to harm or exploit anyone under his care.
The complaint also alleged that James broke board ethics rules by maintaining conflicts of interests and by misrepresenting his professional work when he obtained his license.
The Ohio State Board of Psychology dismissed the case six months after it was filed. The board said it was unable to proceed with formal action.
“We conducted an investigation, contrary to what some people might assert,” said Ronald Ross, executive director of the board.
“Based on all the information given to us, which was voluminous, we conducted our standard review of the materials and we could not identify a basis to proceed against him formally,” he said.
Bond and the International Human Rights Clinic later took the board to court and filed legal pleadings asking for a justification about the James decision.
The case has been in Franklin County Court of Appeals since September 2011.
The complaint points to James’ memoir, “Fixing Hell: An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib,” as a chronicle of the events there and at Guantanamo. Declassified government documents were included in the complaint about the development and use of enhanced interrogation techniques by psychologists that James supervised at both sites.
The history of enhanced interrogationsagainst alleged terrorists began under George W. Bush after 9/11. In early 2002, his administration pushed for more aggressive interrogations to produce actionable intelligence, but the Pentagon needed legal clearance and new techniques to stay within the limits imposed by international law.
Once that clearance was achieved, the interrogations stepped up, which critics said amounted to torture. The military recruited psychologists at the same time to consult on the development of enhanced interrogation techniques.
The use of enhanced interrogation techniques had been reported in Cuba by the time James arrived at Guantanamo as chief psychologist in 2003 to head the behavioral science consultation team. According to his book, he was dispatched to “clean up.”
By fall 2003, the techniques had migrated to Afghanistan and then to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. By early 2004, reports had circulated about abuses in the prison. James said he was sent to Abu Ghraib in July 2004, again to “clean up.”
Two ethical situations in his book are cited by critics as key reasons to investigate his role in the interrogations.
One involved James traveling to Afghanistan to retrieve juvenile detainees whom he later interrogated.
“I was responsible for putting together a team to handle the three juvenile enemy combatants,” he wrote in the book. James also wrote that he tended to the boys’ health and then focused on their interrogation.
The second incident involved James witnessing a questionable interrogation and failing to stop it. According to his book, four men were holding an agitated prisoner down and trying to dress him in a wig, pink nightgown and lipstick.
He said his first instinct was to stop what he saw but did not.
“I managed to quell that urge and wait,” he wrote. “I opened my thermos, poured a cup of coffee, and watched the episode play out, hoping it would take a better turn and not wanting to interfere without good reason, even if this was a terrible scene.”
He has also written that his true focus was following the military mission. “It was a requirement of Maj. Gen. Miller that in order for any interrogations to be conducted, I had to be present the entire time.”
According to bioethicist Steven Miles of the University of Minnesota, who researches medical ethics during wartime, “medical ethics went off the rail” during the terrorist interrogations in the mid-2000s.
Miles also serves as an adjunct faculty member with the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and has testified against physicians accused and convicted of war crimes.
Documents related to the Ohio complaint and enhanced interrogation techniques that were initially classified are becoming publicly available and might shed more light on the activities of the interrogators.
More information might be forthcoming. The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has seen and approved a classified 6,000-page report that was critical of the enhanced interrogation techniques, according to The New York Times.
Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee chairwoman, issued a statement in December that the report “uncovers startling details about the C.I.A. detention and interrogation program and raises critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight.”
Clay told the media Friday that James would be given “the opportunity first-hand to respond to these concerns.”
James has three days of interviews scheduled next week with education administrators and other university officials.
In addition to his military and academic service, James is past president of the American Board of Health Psychology and president-elect for the division of military psychology of the American Psychological Association.