Critics are taking legal action to seek punishment for psychologists who, they say, designed and consulted on abusive interrogation techniques used on suspected terrorists.
The psychologists violated professional ethics rules, the critics say, because, they claim, the interrogations amounted to torture.
In one lawsuit, in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, a human rights group based in San Francisco is trying to force New York State to investigate Dr. John Francis Leso, a psychologist whom the group accuses of overseeing abusive interrogations at Guantánamo nearly a decade ago.
A similar lawsuit to force state authorities to take action against a former military psychologist has been filed in Ohio, and another is expected to be filed soon in Texas.
Steven Reisner, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine who filed a complaint against Dr. Leso with a state disciplinary board, said, “The significance is this: There has been no one held accountable for the Bush administration’s torture program.” Because the federal government has been unwilling to bring criminal prosecutions, Dr. Reisner said, “we’re trying to bring an ethical complaint so they’re at least held accountable for their licensure.”
So far, none of the legal efforts, which involve a small number of cases, have succeeded. But raising the issue in court has prompted fierce debate over the precise role that psychologists played in the interrogations and whether they were simply following the orders of high-ranking government officials.
The cases have also laid bare the grueling specifics of coercive techniques, like isolating detainees for 30 days, depriving them of food for 12 hours, exposing them to cold temperatures or water until they begin to shiver, waterboarding them and slamming them against walls.
Dr. Reisner filed a complaint against Dr. Leso last July with the Office of Professional Discipline, a division of the New York State Education Department, which oversees the licensing of psychologists.
Dr. Reisner asked the state to investigate Dr. Leso for his work at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in 2002 and 2003 as a member of the behavioral science consultation team, a group of medical professionals assigned to consult on the interrogations of detainees.
The complaint accused Dr. Leso, who was then in the Army Reserve, of developing a plan of coercive interview techniques, including isolation and sleep and food deprivation.
But the agency said the claims against Dr. Leso did not involve the practice of psychology as defined under New York State law, citing several reasons, including the lack of an established doctor-patient relationship. The agency closed the complaint.
That led the Center for Justice and Accountability, the San Francisco human rights organization, to sue on Dr. Reisner’s behalf last November, seeking to force the Office of Professional Discipline to open an investigation and ultimately revoke Dr. Leso’s license.
Dr. Leso, who left the Reserve in 2004, could not be reached for comment recently.
Whatever role psychologists played in the interrogation techniques that were used may be irrelevant to what courts are being asked to decide — which is whether state regulatory authorities must investigate complaints against psychologists for work they did as part of military interrogations.
“As a matter of moral turpitude, I might agree 100 percent that that psychologist should not have done that,” Justice Saliann Scarpulla said during a recent hearing in Dr. Leso’s case. “It’s not my moral turpitude or my moral sense that governs here.”
If regulatory authorities determine that Dr. Leso’s conduct did not involve the practice of psychology, the case, Justice Scarpulla said, “ends as far as I’m concerned.”
A lawyer for Dr. Reisner, L. Kathleen Roberts, said the state agency’s position that Dr. Leso was not practicing psychology would exclude psychologists who worked for institutions like prisons and schools from scrutiny.
James M. Hershler, an assistant New York attorney general representing the state in the case, said in court that the board had reviewed the complaint and determined that it was outside its purview.
“Their business is to go after real problems,” he said. “This happened eight years ago under unique circumstances.”
William J. Strickland, the Society of Military Psychologists’ representative on the American Psychological Association, said the accusations against military psychologists regarding their role in interrogations were highly speculative, based solely on the basis that they spent time at Guantánamo and not on any clear evidence of wrongdoing.
A suit filed this month in Ohio accuses Dr. Larry James of overseeing abusive interrogation techniques while working at Guantánamo in 2003, 2007 and 2008.
The suit, filed by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, asked the court to force the Ohio State Board of Psychology to either sanction Dr. James or investigate his conduct further.
The board dismissed an ethics complaint against Dr. James in January, saying it was unable to proceed.
Critics of Dr. James have also asked Louisiana regulators to revoke his license there. The State Board of Examiners of Psychologists closed that complaint without taking any action, prompting a psychologist to file a suit seeking to force the board to investigate further.
Last year, a Louisiana appeals court upheld the board’s decision, saying that there was no law requiring the board to act and that the person who filed the complaint had no special interest and suffered no specific harm because of the board’s decision. Dr. James did not respond to e-mails and telephone calls.
In February, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists dismissed a complaint against a former military psychologist, Dr. James E. Mitchell, saying in a one-page letter that there was “insufficient evidence.”
But Joseph Margulies, a law professor at Northwestern University who helped to file a complaint against Dr. Mitchell last year, disagreed with the board’s finding.
Mr. Margulies’s complaint accuses Dr. Mitchell of designing and participating in abusive interrogations at secret Central Intelligence Agency prisons. Dr. Mitchell did not answer e-mails seeking comment, and his lawyer declined to comment.
“These boards are subject to political oversight, and no one wants to stick their neck out, which is really an exercise in professional cowardice,” said Mr. Margulies, adding that he planned to file suit this month asking the court either to sanction Dr. Mitchell or force the board to do a more thorough investigation.
Without speaking specifically about Dr. Mitchell’s case, Sherry L. Lee, the executive director of the Texas board, defended its process, saying federal laws and military confidentiality would make it difficult to investigate some cases properly.
“This board does what it can do and processes the cases and goes forward when it believes it has the evidence,” she said.
State courts would be reluctant to intervene in complaints against military psychologists because they would “tend toward the view that these are matters of federal policy and federal law” that the government should address, said Dr. M. Gregg Bloche, a professor at Georgetown University who is both a lawyer and a doctor.
The psychologists may also benefit from circular reasoning by the government and ethical authorities, said Dr. Bloche, whose book, “The Hippocratic Myth,” explores the tension of doctors’ ethical commitments.
While the Justice Department under President George W. Bush said its interrogation guidelines were legal because psychologists designed them, the American Psychological Association has said that the psychologists who consulted on interrogations had a duty to follow government guidelines, Dr. Bloche said.
Source: John Eligon, “Advisers on Interrogation Face Legal Action by Critics,” New York Times, April 27, 2011.