Complaint alleges Army psychologist advised interrogators in torture techniques

April 26, 2011

Psychologist Steven Reisner is an outspoken critic of those in his profession who participated in coercive interrogations, or torture, which he says is defined as treatment that injures a prisoner for the purpose of extracting information. Reisner maintains that torture takes many forms, but that emotional and psychological torture techniques -- such as sleep deprivation, isolation and humiliation -- leave more serious, though invisible scars, than the physical tactics usually thought of as torture, such as applying electric shocks or waterboarding.

In early April, Reisner appeared in New York District Court to press his complaint against fellow psychologist Army Maj. John Leso, who Reisner accused of unethical conduct for his role in the torture of prisoners at the U.S. military’s Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba. The complaint accused Leso of recommending the interrogation methods employed against Mohammed al-Qahtani, an alleged 9-11 conspirator, that Reisner says included forced hydration, induced hypothermia, 20-hour interrogations, forced nudity and religious "disgrace."

The complaint which charges Leso of violating New York state professional standards, was supported by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Justice and Accountability. The Pentagon didn't respond to a request for comment on Reisner's complaint against Leso. Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Steven Reisner about torture and what he believes to be the major ethical position a psychologist should hold regarding the issue.

STEVEN REISNER: Then there's the question of what is torturous, in terms of people's experience of torture, and I can tell you from having treated torture survivors that the non-physical forms of torture have a much more traumatizing and long-lasting effects than the physical forms of torture. So when you put electrodes on somebody or give them a bunch of little cuts, or beat them up, it's terrible, but they don't have as hard a time being able to talk about being tortured than when they've been humiliated or have gone crazy or been put in stress positions that make them feel that if only they hadn't moved in just this position it wouldn't have hurt so much and they could have avoided talking. The psychological pressures that lead people to break, the research shows that they have much longer lasting scars and effects on people than the physical tortures.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Would you say that since Bradley Manning -- the alleged whistleblower in the WikiLeaks case -- or any prisoner -- is kept in isolation 23 hours a day that's torture?


BETWEEN THE LINES: And the isolation alone, even if no other factors are there, has a really horrible detrimental effect for years afterward?

STEVEN REISNER: Not necessarily. It depends on the character of the person. Some people don't get traumatized.

There are certain things we've just decided over the centuries are wrong, and abusing prisoners as punishment or to get information from them is universally condemned, except at certain periods of time by certain regimes that -- until the Bush administration -- our government joined in condemning.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Steven Reisner, Isn't it true that the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association prohibit their members from being involved in coercive interrogations? What's the difference between these two groups and the American Psychological Association?

STEVEN REISNER: The difference is that the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association follow the World Medical Association; they basically say the role of a health practitioner is to help people and not hurt people. It's based on the ethical principal of do no harm. And the American Psychological Association has decided that their people can participate in coercive interrogations whose aim is to cause prisoners to speak against their will. And the American Psychological Association has joined the Justice Department under the Bush administration in deciding that the standards have to do with…how can I put this?... that the same standards that apply to any interrogator should apply to a psychologist. And that’s different than other health professionals. Other health professionals see themselves first as health professionals. The American Psychological Association has created a new category of "operational psychologist" and has basically joined with the military in saying that clinical psychologists can be military combatants whose aim is to debilitate the enemy, get information, and use people as if we're at war with them to undermine their mental and physical state if it helps the war effort.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You were in court last week, with support from the American Civil Liberties Union and the regarding the behavior of a fellow psychologist. I know you won't have a resolution for awhile yet, but can you explain what it's all about?

STEVEN REISNER: The story is that I have brought an ethics case against John Leso, [Army] Maj. John Leso, who was one of the health professionals at Guantanamo on the team that created the torture protocols that were used on two detainees very specifically and generally on just about all the detainees – some aspects of it were used on all the detainees. He's a clinical psychologist licensed in the State of New York. Unfortunately, the Board of Professional Discipline simply refused to investigate, so we brought a case in New York State Supreme Court to have the court order the Office of Professional Discipline to open an investigation. My argument was that a clinical psychologist who uses his psychological expertise, who's hired as a clinical psychologist for a client, which was the military, is hired to do harm to individuals, is violating the ethical principles of the New York psychology, of the code that we are all beholden to, in such a way that he should be investigated and his license should be taken away from him if it turns out that, based on the investigation, that this allegation is true.

See Steven Reisner's torture complaint against Army psychologist John Leso. 

Source:  Melinda Tuhus, "Complaint alleges Army psychologist advised interrogators in torture techniques," Between the Lines, April 20, 2011. (URL:,


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