White House Denies Existence of “Task Force” Ex-Guantanamo Psychologist Claims He Was Appointed to by Michelle Obama

The White House has categorically denied that it set up a task force to address the psychological well being of military families and had First Lady Michelle Obama appoint as one of its members the former chief psychologist at Guantanamo, who allegedly oversaw the torture of some “war on terror” detainees, including children.

Kristina Schake, Michelle Obama's communication's director, told Truthout there is no such task force.

But Schake said she did not know whether retired Army Col. Dr. Larry James, now the dean of the School of Professional Psychology (SOPP) at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, has provided any advice to more than a dozen federal government agencies involved with carrying out a May 2010 presidential directive, at the time announced by the first lady, which requested recommendations for “supporting and engaging military families.”

Nor could Schake state whether James, who has been the subject of several ethical complaints filed with psychology boards over his alleged role in supervising the torture of Guantanamo detainees in 2003, played any role in shaping a comprehensive report that was the product of the presidential directive. The report, entitled, “Strengthening Military Families,” was unveiled at a White House ceremony in January by President Barack Obama, the first lady, and Jill Biden.

Calls to spokespeople at government agencies that contributed to the study, including the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration, were not returned Monday.

The latest controversy surrounding James erupted Friday morning after he sent an email to the “SOPP community” announcing that he was “appointed” by the First Lady to a White House Task Force entitled “Enhancing the Psychological Well-Being of The Military Family.”

James appears to have lifted the name of the “task force” directly from the White House report, which is one of the document's four priorities (although James slightly misquoted the title): “Enhance the well-being and psychological health of the military family.”

Last month, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, both of who are leading the Strengthening Military Families effort, announced the launch of a campaign, which began this month, “designed to rally citizens, businesses and nonprofit organizations to provide support for US service members and their families.”

James did not return phone calls and emails sent over the weekend and on Monday seeking comment. Truthout was later advised by Wright State University's press office to leave a voicemail message for spokesman Seth Bauguess as he was identified as the university official who would respond to inquiries about James' email. However, Bauguess did not return that message nor did he respond to several follow-up phone calls and an email sent to him at the university.

In his SOPP email, James said the first meeting of the “task force” would take place at the White House today. He indicated that he would be in attendance and that he felt “honored” to represent the university, the psychology department and the American Psychological Association(APA).

James' email caught the attention of Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald, who reported the contents of it and was harshly critical of the administration for tapping James to serve on the “task force.”

“This isn't exactly a powerful Task Force, but what this appointment does is have the White House – yet again – signal that it does not really take very seriously the Bush torture regime,” Greenwald wrote.

Schake told Truthout Saturday the task force isn't “powerful” because it does not exist.

“Dr. James has not been appointed to serve in any capacity with the White House,” Schake said. “Nor was Dr. James to meet with the First Lady.”

Greenwald updated his story Saturday with a statement from Schake, which was identical to one she provided to Truthout. But her denial of the existence of the “task force” was not included in the addendum Greenwald attached to his story.

Schake said the APA, which was invited to today's meeting, where “multiple” mental health professionals will discuss “military families issues,” with White House staffers, may have been one of two organizations that “indirectly” asked James to attend.

It's unknown who will be attending the meeting or what the agenda items are. Schake said the White House does not release “agendas or attendance lists for staff meetings.”

Truthout queried the APA to find out if the organization invited James to the White House meeting and, if so, whether APA officials also provided him with any information that led him to believe he was appointed to a White House “task force” dealing with the mental health of military families.

Kim Mills, APA's deputy executive director of Public & Member Communications, failed to specifically address Truthout's question about whether the APA invited James to the meeting. Instead, in a carefully worded statement, Mills said the APA is “happy to work with the White House to recommend psychologists who have experience in helping military families.”

“It is our understanding that this White House group plans to make available a broad range of resources for families dealing with the psychological stressors of deployment,” Mills said. “Because of the importance of this effort, APA has made available the materials we have developed for military families … However, to date, APA has had no input into who would be invited to the group's meeting.”

Mills did not return numerous calls Monday nor did she respond to emails requesting she clarify her remarks and respond to specific questions about whether the APA asked James to attend the White House meeting and if APA told him that he was being appointed to a “task force.”

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration(SAMHSA), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is the other group attending the meeting today that Schake said might have invited James.

Brad Stone, a spokesman for SAMHSA, said the agency does not have anything additional to add to Schake's statement. Although Schake said she understood that James is affiliated with SAMHSA in some capacity, a search of the agency's web site did not turn up a single record citing James nor was there a mention of James and SAMHSA in an Internet search Truthout conducted and a search through LexisNexis archives.

It would not be a surprise if the APA did invite James to the White House meeting or recommend that he advise the administration on its military families program given that James was the president of the APA's Division 19/Society for Military Psychology from 2009-2010.

According to its About Us page, “The Society for Military Pyschology [sic] represents an 'intellectual town hall' for pyschologists [sic] who share in common an interest in pyschological [sic] issues pertaining to military personnel and their families.”

Ironically, five years ago, James was appointed to a task force by then-APA President Gerald Koocher, which, not unlike the nonexistent White House “task force” James said he was appointed to, was charged with studying the mental health needs of military personnel and their family members and developing a “strategic plan for working with the military and other organizations to meet those needs.”

In February 2007, after seven months of research, James and other task force members co-authored a report, “The Psychological Needs of U.S. Military Service Members and Their Families,” which maderecommendations that are similar to those contained in portions of the White House's “Strengthening Military Families” report.

That was not the first task force on which the APA asked James to serve. He was also one of ten members of the APA Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). The PENS task force controversially recommended in a report that “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.”

A number of APA members complained that the PENS task force was stacked with psychologists who had close ties to the military and intelligence communities and that APA did not take seriously evidence that psychologists were involved in the creation and promulgation of abusive interrogation techniques. One member of the PENS task force later resigned in protest and another later spoke out publicly on irregularities during the task force proceedings.

The APA has defended allegations leveled against James regarding his alleged involvement in overseeing the torture of detainees at Guantanamo. The APA said when James was sent to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where he also served as chief psychologist, it was so he could “implement procedures to prevent future abuse.”

The lack of clarity and refusal by a wide-range of officials to address specific questions about James underscores the extent to which he has become a controversial figure in recent years.

In his 2008 book, “Fixing Hell,” James stated that he witnessed abusive interrogations of detainees, but did not report it and, in at least one instance, did not intervene to stop it. In addition, he supervised the rendition of three children, ages 10 to 15, from Afghanistan to Guantanamo, including the hooding and shackling of the children and interrogations after they arrived. The families were not informed of their children's whereabouts. Although these children were subsequently placed in humane surroundings at specially-built Camp Iguana, at least nine other children under 18 were incarcerated in the adult camp, kept in isolation and suffered other abuse, all while then-Col. James was chief of psychology of the Joint Interrogation Group at Guantanamo.

In September 2009, James issued a statement saying he opposed the Justice Department's decision to appoint a special prosecutor to determine if there was enough evidence to launch a full-scale criminal probe of less than a dozen torture cases that were closed for unknown reasons by the Bush administration.

“Being an interrogator is a stressful, challenging and dangerous job,” James said. “If there is new evidence that suggests crimes have been committed, then it would make sense to move forward with an investigation. However, since at the time of the interrogations they were deemed legal and acceptable by that sitting administration, I do not believe the investigation is warranted or necessary. I advise the president to be supportive of our current mission and be very careful as he moves forward in this sensitive area.”

Last July, Harvard Law School's International Human Rights Clinic filed a complaint against James with the Ohio Psychology Board calling for the panel to launch an investigation into James for “causing [the] psychological devastation to people he was duty-bound to protect.” But the board did not act on the complaint and in early February it was dismissed.

Deborah Popowski, a legal fellow at the law school's Human Rights Clinic who drafted the complaint, said at the very least, James should not be permitted to provide any psychological advice to military families. “Dr. James was chief psychologist of a prison where psychological torture was the weapon of choice,” Popowski said. “It would be an affront to military families to put him anywhere near a discussion on how to care for the spouses and children of our service members.”