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Retired Gitmo Psychologist Makes the Short List for University Job: Students and Faculty Protest Ties to Torture

Controvery surrounds the selection of Dr. Larry James, who is alleged to have facilitated torture at Guantanamo, as one of two semi-finalists for a top administrative position at the University of Missouri.

Controversy surrounds the selection of Dr. Larry James, who is alleged to have facilitated torture at Guantanamo, as one of two semi-finalists for a top administrative position at the University of Missouri.

A number of students, faculty and staff at the University of Missouri (MU) are protesting the selection of a controversial psychologist linked to torture at the US detention facility at Guantanamo as a finalist for a top slot at Mizzou.

Dr. Larry James, who is currently dean of the professional psychology program at Wright State University in Ohio made the selection committee’s short list for the position of division executive director at the university’s College of Education.

According to the school prospectus, the division consists of nine graduate academic programs with 60 faculty and 29 professional staff members.

James is a retired Army psychologist who was senior psychologist on the Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) at Guantanamo in early 2003. In 2010, the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) helped file a licensing complaint against James in Ohio, alleging numerous instances of misconduct and ethical violations related to his work at Guantanamo. (A similar, less detailed summary of the case against James was put together by Center for Constitutional Rights in relation to another licensing case in a different state.)

“Fixing Hell?”

James claims he was sent to Guantanamo to “fix” problems with interrogation abuse, and that, moreover, he succeeded in doing just that. His book, Fixing Hell: An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib was published with a forward by well-known psychologist and former American Psychological Association president Philip Zimbardo, who praises James highly. (James was Chief Psychologist at Abu Ghraib in 2004.)

According to a February 5 article in the Missourian, James told a public forum called by MU’s School of Education that he lacked the authority to stop the abuse he witnessed at Guantanamo. Nevertheless, he also has reportedly said, “The work I did there literally changed and outlawed all of those abusive tactics.”

But a 2008 investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) totally contradicts James’s contention. According to the SASC, during the period of James’ first assignment at Guantanamo “the incidents [of abuse] occurring during the spring of 2003 [during James’ tenure] signif[ied] a consistent problem at GTMO.”

The “incidents” included cases of forced “compulsive exercise” and sexual humiliation. One interrogator performed a lap dance on a detainee “making sexual affiliated movements with her chest and pelvis while… speaking sexually oriented sentences.”

Another “incident” involved a female interrogator wiping what the detainee was led to believe was menstrual blood on his face and forehead.

The report notes no evidence of any disciplinary action for these forms of physical and psychological abuse. A memo written at the time, “Historic Look at Inappropriate Interrogation Techniques Used at GTMO,” cited interrogator use of yelling, loud music and strobe lights on detainees, while other documents note use of forced shaving, sensory deprivation and “implied death threats.”

The anonymous author(s) of the “Historic Look” memo criticized those in charge of interrogations, and all but accused them of lying. “Despite these revelations by interrogators, the supervisory chain of command reports that these techniques are not used,” the report said.

In his 2008 book, Fixing Hell, James said that he witnessed an interrogation, which is also described in the IHRC report: A detainee was “forced into pink women’s panties, lipstick and a wig … then pinned … to the floor in an effort ‘to outfit him with the matching pink nightgown.'”

James admittedly did not intervene to stop this interrogation, but instead poured himself a cup of coffee and, in his own words, “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.”

According to his narrative, James ultimately was forced to intervene “several minutes later” after he determined “Someone is gonna get hurt” (italics in original). Nevertheless, James never mentioned problems with the interrogation or the use of sexual humiliation to the interrogator, nor did he mention reporting or disciplining him.

According to a story by Associated Press, James told those who attended a public meeting in Columbia, Missouri on February 5, “I was sent to Guantanamo not to aid these CIA operatives, but to teach these young men and women, how do you sit down and interview someone without any abusive practices whatsoever…. That’s what my mission was.”


The selection of James as one of two finalists for the College of Education position has led to demonstrations on campus, news conferences, public meetings to defuse the controversy and a letter from more than 30 faculty and staff protesting any hiring of James.

The letter to University of Missouri Chancellor Brady Deaton states, “[James’] possible appointment raises unresolved and extremely controversial issues. An ethical and moral cloud hangs over Dr. James’s work and reputation, and, if he assumed a high-profile post here, that cloud would hang over MU, generally.”

On February 1, according to the student newspaper, The Maneater, “About 30 students and Columbia residents marched from the Islamic Center of Central Missouri to Hill Hall” on the MU campus to protest the selection of James as a semi-finalist for the position.

Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation Coordinator Jeff Stack reportedly organized the protest.

“This decision is obscene to us as people of good will in our society,” Stack told the crowd. “We are standing with the people who have been oppressed. We are not standing with the torturers.”

The Barbara Peterson, director of strategic communications at MU’s College of Education, told Truthout that College of Education Dean Daniel Clay had read James’ book, Fixing Hell, and “all the documents” from the complaints against him.

According to the Associated Press, Clay stated James “was selected … as a finalist because the search committee believed his leadership and management experiences aligned well with the minimum and desired qualifications for the position.”

The Maneater quoted Clay’s comments about the charges against James:

I felt strongly that in the interest of fairness and transparency that, um, you know, we can’t discriminate against an individual based on unfounded allegations…. ” As much as, uh, the thoughts of this turned my stomach and may turn yours, um, the reality is that he’s not been, uh, indicted or found guilty of any ethics or, uh, legal or, uh, licensing board violations through this process.

James told AP that he was innocent of all the allegations, and called “the continued scrutiny of his military record ‘an old story.'”

“Why do these people continue to try a decorated, disabled military veteran?” James said. “They cannot produce a patient, a prisoner, a government official or any official document that shows I have harmed any person.”

Truthout asked the head of the School of Education Selection Committee, Dr. Michael Pullis, to respond to questions, but he referred all inquiries to Peterson. Pullis, who also is listed in the University of Missouri’s Grants Manual Handbook as the official in charge of research grants, did not return further requests for comment.

Interestingly, MU is a recipient of millions of dollars of Department of Defense research grants, like a $5.3 million grant [URL: ] in November 2011 to evaluate combat casualty care.

On February 6, the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) held a news conference at MU’s Student Center. According to an account in the Missourian, other groups present included “the MU Muslim Students Organization, the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation and concerned MU faculty members.”

CAIR-St. Louis executive director, Faizan Syed, told the audience, “Mizzou has a high standard of ethics, and his possible hiring would put a black tarnish on that.” He indicated CAIR intends to further organize faculty and students at other University of Missouri campuses across the state to oppose any James hiring.

According to the Missourian, “A CAIR petition opposing James’ hiring had 289 signatures [as of Wednesday evening], but the organization will not present the petition to university officials until it reaches 1,000 signatures, Syed said.”

James and the Rendition of Children

The IHRC report highlighted James’ role as the leader of a military team sent to Afghanistan in early spring 2003 to render three young teenage boys from Bagram to Guantanamo. According to IHRC, James supervised the forceful and arbitrary detention of the Afghan boys, “transported thousands of miles away from their families and denied them access to counsel.”

An April 2011 Truthout story described numerous media reports about the bereft parents, who were never informed by James or any US personnel that their children had been taken into custody, much less whisked off to Guantanamo.

The children told news media after their release they had not seen or heard from their families for many months after they were seized. They complained of homesickness during their incarceration. Though the UK Telegraph quoted one 15-year-old prisoner (some reports said he was 13) as praising the soldiers who watched over him; he also 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,” the young teen 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 a February 2004 story in The Washington Post, 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,” the father said.

Another boy’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 ask the Americans about their son’s whereabouts, but “no one knew about him.” His father sold his land to acquire the several thousand 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 child detainees. “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.”

As for the boys, for whom no evidence of terrorism was ever described or revealed, James still referred to them in his book as “far from innocent” and “teenage terrorists.” Still, the psychologist in James also noted that the boys were terribly traumatized, “”not only terrified, but also disheveled and lost.”

James wrote they were “the most fragile – psychologically, medically and academically – children I had ever met.” Even so, he saw them also as a “case study” for his “softer” style of interrogation – “exactly the kind of prisoners I needed to test my philosophy on interrogation.”

Asked about the actions of James in the matter of the rendition of the teenaged boys, and the failure to notify the parents, Dr. Pullis would not respond.

According to an Open Letter to the American Psychological Association by two psychologists – Trudy Bond and Steven Reisner – the APA dismissed without investigation a 2007 ethics complaint by Bond against James which highlighted the rendition of the boys and the failure to notify the parents.

James has also been the subject of license board complaints in Ohio and Louisiana. His BSCT associate, Dr. John Leso was the subject of a licensing complaint in New York State, and Dr. James Mitchell, one of the chief architects of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” faced a similar complaint in Texas. All of these complaints were dismissed by state boards for one reason or another.

Bond and Reisner have called for APA to conduct “a full review of the practices of the APA ethics office with regard to the investigation and adjudication of cases alleging torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Forgotten in all the controversy, Matthew Burns of the University of Minnesota, the other finalist for the division executive director position, quietly interviewed for the job last week on the MU campus. No decision on the final selection is expected until early March.

This story includes in part reporting that was used in a previous Truthout story.

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