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Guantanamo Psychologist Led Rendition and Imprisonment of Afghan Boys, Complaint Charges

Leg shackles in a classroom at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are photographed on October 4, 2007. (Photo: Todd Heisler / The New York Times) Four Ohio residents filed court papers last week seeking to compel the Ohio State Psychology Board to investigate Dr. Larry James, a retired Army colonel and former chief psychologist for the intelligence command at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, who oversaw the brutal torture of detainees, including children. The motion was filed by Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas on behalf of the four residents, which includes a psychologist, a veteran, a minister and a long-time mental health advocate. Earlier this year, the psychology board had dismissed a complaint first filed by the same Ohio residents last July, stating, “It has been determined that we are unable to proceed to formal action in this matter.”

Four Ohio residents filed court papers last week seeking to compel the Ohio State Psychology Board to investigate Dr. Larry James, a retired Army colonel and former chief psychologist for the intelligence command at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, who oversaw the brutal torture of detainees, including children.

The motion was filed by Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas on behalf of the four residents, which includes a psychologist, a veteran, a minister and a long-time mental health advocate.

Earlier this year, the psychology board had dismissed a complaint first filed by the same Ohio residents last July, stating, “It has been determined that we are unable to proceed to formal action in this matter.”

The original complaint, filed with the Ohio Board of Psychology, was supported by over a thousand pages of documentation, including reports from the US military, the Department of Justice, the Central Intelligence Agency and statements from survivors and witnesses. But the board did not provide a rationale as to why it was unable to probe the allegations leveled against James.

James was head of the Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT), which was made up of psychologists and other mental health professionals who assisted interrogators at the prison facility during the first half of 2003. From 2004 to 2006, he served as chief of psychology at the Abu Ghraib prison facility in Iraq, and in 2007 he returned to Guantanamo. He retired in 2008.

James is currently dean of the School of Professional Psychology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He was licensed to practice psychology in Ohio in 2008.

According to the complaint, during James' tenure at Guantanamo, “boys and men were systematically abused” and were subjected to “rape and death threats” and torture techniques such as “forced nudity; sleep deprivation; extreme isolation; short-shackling into stress positions; and physical assault.”

Moreover, the complaint states that James supervised the forceful and arbitrary detention of three Afghan boys, “transported thousands of miles away from their families and denied them access to counsel.”

James did not return an email request for comment.

In their verified complaint filed with the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, seeking a writ to compel the Ohio Board of Psychology “to proceed to 'formal action' against Dr. Larry C. James,” the complainants quote an affidavit by former American Psychological Association (APA) Practice Directorate Chief, Dr. Bryant Welch, that the allegations in the complaint, “if true, represent the most serious ethical breaches I have seen in my thirty-five years as a psychologist. They also have the most far reaching implications for the profession of psychology of any ethical or licensing issue I have yet encountered.”

IHRC's earlier complaint (PDF link) was damning.

He was accused of numerous instances of professional misconduct and violations of the law, including failure to protect his clients from harm, exploitation of those with whom he worked, failure to protect detainees' confidentiality and failure “to represent honestly his own conduct, experience and the results of his services.”

Indeed, in “Fixing Hell,” a book James published in 2008 about his experiences at Guantanamo and at the Abu Ghraib prison facility in Iraq, he claimed that he was “righting the wrongs” at both prisons and that there “have been no incidents of abuse at Guantanamo Bay by either an interrogator or psychologist reported since my arrival in Cuba in January 2003.”

Ironically, in his book, James wrote of at least two incidents of such abuse during his 2003 tenure, which as the IHRC complaint explains, he failed to report to proper authorities.

A fair amount of James' narrative about his time at Guantanamo concerns his actions after his commander, Gen. Geoffrey Miller, put him in charge of three young teenage prisoners, all younger than age 16 and one perhaps as young as 12 years old, in February 2003. James was in charge of rendering the boys from Bagram, Afghanistan, where they were then held, arranging their Guantanamo housing and attending and supervising their interrogations. James wrote that the boys were “very traumatized” upon arrival at Guantanamo. While he presents his treatment of these children as a “case study” for his “softer” style of interrogation – “exactly the kind of prisoners I needed to test my philosophy on interrogation” – a closer, more nuanced look presents a very different picture.

“Teenage Terrorists”

The story of these young detainees had previously been documented in news reports and is also retold in the IHRC complaint, which redacts the boys' personal information, something James failed to do in his book.

While James doesn't mention the fact in his book, there were at least a dozen underage, minor children or teenagers held at Guantanamo. US authorities in Iraq and Afghanistan have allegedly held thousands of other juveniles. The IHRC complaint refers to torture and abuse suffered by two of the Guantanamo minors, Omar Khadr and Mohammed Jawad, during the period James was chief psychologist. These teens, as well as all the others but the three held at Camp Iguana, the special camp built to hold them at the Guantanamo base, were kept with the adult prisoners at Camp Delta and other sites at the prison.

According to James, when he arrived at Bagram to pick up his new prisoners, he found them looking “not only terrified but also disheveled and lost.” Nevertheless, he believed them to be “far from innocent,” “teenage terrorists.” “These juveniles were not sweet kids,” James wrote.

Yet, he also found that the trauma they endured was very real. James wrote that the boys were “victims of rape, illiterate, one certainly had PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]”; they were, according to James, “the most fragile – psychologically, medically and academically – children I had ever met.”

James glosses over in his book the circumstances of the 20-hour flight from Bagram that brought the children to Guantanamo. But news reports published after the children were released in January 2004 provides more detail about their time held by US forces in Afghanistan and their subsequent transport to Guantanamo.

In his book, James states that all three children “had been captured while fighting in a combatant role against US forces in Afghanistan.” But James failed to provide any evidence to support such an assertion, which is contrary to reports the boys made themselves. According to a report published a Guardian UK article, two of the boys were caught while US forces were “looking for a local commander, Mansoor Rahman Saiful, who had fought against the Taliban for years, but joined the radical Islamists when America attacked Afghanistan.”

Naqibullah, age 13, “a local imam's son, said he stumbled into the raid while cycling from a friend's house,” and was interrogated daily about his knowledge of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

“I told them, 'I don't know these people and I am too young to give anything to anyone without my father's authority.'” After two weeks, Naqibullah said, he was asked whether he had any objection to being taken to “another place.”

“I said, 'What can I do? You will take me wherever you want to.' That night, bound, blindfolded and fitted into orange overalls, he was loaded on to a cargo plane and flown non-stop to Cuba. Naqibullah's first 10 days in Guantanamo were the worst of his life, he said.”

According to a March 2004 story by The New York Times, another child prisoner, Asadullah, age 12 or 13, believed to be the youngest of the prisoners, said he was interrogated daily for several months while held in Afghanistan. The beatings he endured in the first five days of his captivity still bothered him when he arrived in Guantanamo.

As with Naqibullah, the third child prisoner, Mohammed Ismail Agha, age 13, told a foreign journalist, as reported in The Washington Post in February 2004, that he had been arrested because a friend with whom he was looking for work was supposedly identified as a Taliban. He spent a month and a half at Bagram before being “warned that if he did not confess he would be sent to a terrible and distant place called Guantanamo.”

Agha was subjected to sleep deprivation and stress positions during his time at Bagram in an effort to get him to make a confession.

“It was a very bad place. Whenever I started to fall asleep, they would kick on my door and yell at me to wake up,” he said. “When they were trying to get me to confess, they made me stand partway, with my knees bent, for one or two hours. Sometimes I couldn't bear it any more and I fell down, but they made me stand that way some more.”

Agha's story of his rendition is similar to that of Naqibullah. He was “put on a plane with other prisoners, chained by the wrists and ankles, with a hood placed over his head.”

“It was hard to breathe,” he said.

Supervising the transport back to Guantanamo on the large C-17 transport plane, complete with medical team, military police and Air Force Special Forces shooters, was Col. Larry James. The former chief psychologist never states whether he reported the treatment received by these child prisoners at Bagram to any authority.

“I Prayed to God, I Asked, 'Where Is My Son?'”

While James and the Guantanamo authorities apparently did try to make the boys' treatment much improved over that of prisoners in the rest of the camp, including at least eight or nine other teens held at roughly the same time, the young prisoners were not entirely grateful.

According to the Guardian report, “The boys played football every day and sometimes basketball and volleyball with their guards.” But Asadullah told his interviewer, “I was very sad because I missed my family so much…. I was always asking, 'When can I go home? What day? What month?' They said, 'You'll go home soon,' but they never said when.”

According to a February 2004 story in the UK Telegraph, Ismail Agha (who is reported as 15 in this article) said, “At first I was unhappy … For two or three days [after I arrived in Cuba] I was confused but later the Americans were so nice to me. They gave me good food with fruit and water for ablutions and prayer.”

The boys lived in shared bedrooms and appear to have been treated humanely by their guards. According to James' account, they were assigned a Navy child psychologist, Dr. Tim Dugan. They attended school classes. A pediatrician provided “thorough medical care.”

James states that he attended the interrogations of the boys every day from 9:00 AM to 11:00 AM, which he said provided “useful intelligence.”

Meanwhile, the children had not seen or heard from their families for many months. They complained of homesickness. Though one paper quoted Agha as praising the soldiers who watched over him, he was critical of US authorities for not notifying his parents for ten months of his incarceration, even though he says he gave the Red Cross letters from the first months of his incarceration. “They stole 14 months of my life and my family's life. I was entirely innocent: just a poor boy looking for work,” Agha said.

The families by most accounts were desperate to find out what happened to their children. No US authority or the Red Cross informed them about the fate of their sons for many months. James never raises the issue of the boys' parents in his book.

According to the Post article, Nayatullah, “an illiterate farmer of about 60,” traveled to work sites throughout his area, asking if anyone had seen his son. No one had. “Finally I thought he must be dead,” Agha's father said.

Asadullah's mother spoke through a translator to a Guardian UK correspondent about how she suffered not knowing her son's fate. She cried “every night thinking about my son.”

“I prayed to God, I asked, 'Where is my son?'” she continued. “He was just a boy, much too young to disappear on his own.”

The family and other villagers looked high and low for the boy. Family members and friends went to Bagram, Logar and Gardez to inquire from the Americans regarding their son's whereabouts, but “no one knew about him.” Asadullah's father sold his land to fund the several thousands dollars it took to fund the search for his son. It took the family seven months before they found out where their son was held.

At last, with no explanation or apology, the boys were released in January 2004. James had left Guantanamo after May 2003, but in his book, he wrote proudly of his work with the inmates of Camp Iguana. “This is how my country handles prisoners,” he said. “It's not all about abuse. We can take juveniles like that and send them home better than we found them.”

An Exploitation Program

News of the incarceration of minors at Guantanamo, including the capture of the three boys held at Camp Iguana, leaked out in early 2003, the same time James was supposedly “fixing” the prison facility. An April 2003 Guardian UK report quoted Angela Wright, an Amnesty International official, as saying that “holding the children was 'wholly repugnant and contrary to basic principles of human rights' … and contravened UN rules with 'near-universal acceptance' regarding the treatment of juveniles.” Moreover, Wright said, the incarceration of the children at Guantanamo, with no access to counsel and under conditions of indefinite detention, was contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and “is clearly totally at odds with the purpose of the treaty.”

The Center for Human Rights in the Americas at UC Davis has noted that the youngest children held at Guantanamo were Naqibullah, Assadullah and Abdul Qudus, all of whom were born in 1988. Naquibullah and Assadullah were sent to Camp Iguana, but Qudus, who was imprisoned at Guantanamo as early as February 7, 2002, was held along with the adult population and presumably treated the same as other adult prisoners. He is reported to have been released in 2005 or 2006.

Other Guantanamo teens under age 16 included Omar Khadr and Mohammed Jawad, both of whom made claims of extensive torture and use of solitary confinement.

When the Camp Iguana children were released in January 2004, the Anglo-American press made a great deal about their supposed humane treatment.

Carlotta Gall at The New York Times stated, “Aside from homesickness, the boys did not suffer at Guantanamo.” James Astill at The Guardian UK noted the “gentle treatment” of the boys, while the headline to the article stated, “Cuba? It was great, say boys freed from US prison camp.”

Such was the general propaganda theme surrounding the release of the boys. “I had a good time at Guantanamo, says inmate,” was the headline in the February 7, 2004 UK Telegraph.

A February 11, 2004, Washington Post story by Pamela Constable concludes with Agha's father smiling and saying, “My son got an education in America.” Agha is said to be proud of his education, too. This mirrors James' own assertion that he took boys who “were flat-out dumber than a bag of rocks” and returned them home “all functioning at the sixth to eighth grade academic level.” How James took illiterate children and lifted them to this grade level in approximately a year isn't explained.

Despite claims of humane treatment of the Camp Iguana minors, given the fragile psychological condition of these youth, as reported by James himself, their incarceration was certainly at odds with standards of mental health even within the military itself. In the 2006 book “The Military Family,” part three of the “Military Life” series, published by Praeger Security International, an entire chapter is devoted to the “pain and loss” of family separation. The stress of unexpected combat deployment on military families, that is, sudden separation with unknown outcome for one family member, is compared with “catastrophic stress” and “immobilizing crisis” (p. 19).

Whatever the nature of the treatment of the boys at Camp Iguana, other children or teens held at Guantanamo during James' tenure (and afterward) was significantly abusive, amounting in many cases to torture. Omar Khadr's affadavit regarding his torture has been posted as a PDF online. He alleges beatings, isolation, exposure to cold, short-shackling, threats, and other abuse.

In August 2008, another Guantanamo BSCT psychologist, US Army Lt. Col. Diane M. Zierhoffer, refused to testify in Mohammed Jawad's military tribunal hearing, pleading the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. According to a Newsweek article, Zierhoffer (who was identified separately in an article at Daily Kos), working with interrogators, “encouraged them to continue to dial up the emotional pressure on Jawad: 'He appears to be rather frightened and it looks as if he could break easily if he were isolated from his support network and made to rely solely on the interrogator,' according to an excerpt of the report read to Newsweek. The psychologist recommended that Jawad be moved to a section of the prison where he would be the only Pashto speaker and be moved again if he somehow began to socialize in his new block. The psychologist also suggested that interrogators emphasize to Jawad that his family appeared to have forgotten him: 'Make him as uncomfortable as possible. Work him as hard as possible.'”

Other reports of abuse or torture by underage children held at Guantanamo also exist. Most recently, the youngest prisoner at Guantanamo Bay at the time of his release in June 2009, Chadian citizen Mohammed el Gharani, who was 14 years old when grabbed by the Americans, told a Miami Herald reporter that beatings and tear gassing occurred as late as 2009. Prior to that time, according to the British charity organization Reprieve, he had been subjected to sleep deprivation, freezing cold, strobe lights, blasting music, being burned by a cigarette and more beatings. As a result, the boy who entered Guantanamo at age 14 or 15 attempted suicide more than once, “including slashing his wrists, trying to hang himself and running head-first into the wall as hard as he could.”

When putting the treatment of the Camp Iguana boys next to that of other children and teens held at Guantanamo and other US sites, it can only be inferred that the Camp Iguana children were primarily a demonstration project for public propaganda purposes. While little or no attention was spent on the impact of separation from family on these three children, or on the effect upon other family members, and while the abuse and difficulties of their initial stay at Camp Iguana, as reported by the children themselves, was never pursued by those who interviewed them, the emphasis on the supposed good treatment of these children appears to be aimed at promoting a picture of basic treatment of the children that is at odds with the treatment that most minors incarcerated by the United States received.

The construction of a “model” camp for children at Camp Iguana, never used again for other minors after the three Afghan boys left in January 2004, is consistent with a program of exploitation of prisoners for propaganda purposes that was revealed in a recent set of notes by former CIA psychologist contractor, Bruce Jessen, in an article at Truthout last month.

Recently, James emailed members of the Wright State University School of Professional Psychology community to announce that he was “appointed” by First Lady Michelle Obama to a White House Task Force entitled “Enhancing the Psychological Well-Being of The Military Family.”

According to a story at Truthout, the White House subsequently denied any such appointment, or even the existence of such a task force. The APA would not directly deny a report that they or another group may have “indirectly” invited James to a White House meeting on military families, but a spokesperson said the APA is “happy to work with the White House to recommend psychologists who have experience in helping military families.”

James has served on other matters for APA in the past. In 2005, James served on the APA's president's task force on Psychological Ethics and National Security. The task force controversially recommended in a report, “Psychologists may serve in various national security-related roles, such as a consultant to an interrogation, in a manner that is consistent with the Ethics Code and when doing so psychologists are mindful of factors unique to these roles and contexts that require special ethical consideration.”

In the press release by IHRC, Dr. Trudy Bond, a Toledo-based psychologist and one of the four complainants against James, commented on the dismissal of the complaint against the former Guantanamo psychologist. “The Board disregarded ample and credible evidence that an Ohio psychology dean had overseen torture,” Bond said. “When the ethics watchdog apparently finds it appropriate to dismiss a complaint like this without conducting a proper investigation, or even justifying the decision, it shows that our system is broken.”

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