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Reisner v. Leso

Accountability for One of the Psychologists Behind the Guantánamo Abuses

Reisner v. Leso

Accountability for One of the Psychologists Behind the Guantánamo Abuses


IN BRIEF | BACKGROUND | LEGAL PROCEEDINGS

IN BRIEF


CJA filed a complaint with the New York Office of Professional Discipline (OPD) on behalf of New York psychologist Dr. Steven Reisner against New York psychologist Dr. John Leso for his role in designing, implementing, and participating in a system of abusive interrogations at United States Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The OPD refused to investigate the allegations of the complaint.

On November 24, 2010, CJA and the NYCLU petitioned New York court for an order mandating an investigation into the allegations of professional misconduct advanced in CJA’s original complaint. On April 6, 2011, the New York Supreme Court in Manhattan heard oral arguments on whether to dismiss the petition.  This was the first time a U.S. court had considered whether a psychologist’s participation in abusive interrogations could violate professional standards.  On August 11, 2011, the court dismissed CJA’s complaint on a narrow, procedural ground.

Neither Dr. Leso nor any other U.S. official involved has ever been held accountable for the cruel treatment of detainees at Guantánamo. 

CJA calls on the American Psychological Association to investigate the case against Dr. Leso that has been before its Ethics Committee since 2007 and on the New York Assembly to enact the New York Anti-Torture Bill, also known as the Gottfried Duane Bill, which expressly defines professional obligations in the context of detention abroad and explicitly prohibits NY-licensed health professionals from any involvement in torture or other abuse of detainees.  Read CJA’s testimony  in support of the Gottfried Duane Bill at New York Senator Duane’s public forum concerning medical professionals, torture, and the law.

» Read a note from CJA's founder Gerald Gray on the significance of the case.

BACKGROUND


Documents made public by the United States Senate Armed Services Committee, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of Defense, among others, make clear that prisoners held in U.S. detention facilities in Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and in CIA-operated “black sites” around the world were tortured within the meaning of that term under international law.  Further, health professionals, and psychologists in particular, played a prominent role at every stage of the development and implementation of the program of torture used at these sites.

Dr. Leso led the first Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) at the United States Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (Guantánamo or GTMO) from June 2002 to January 2003.  While at Guantánamo, Dr. Leso co-authored an interrogation policy memorandum that incorporated illegal techniques adapted from methods used by the Chinese and North Korean governments against U.S. prisoners of war.  He recommended a series of increasingly psychologically and physically abusive interrogation techniques to be applied against detainees held by the United States.  Many of the techniques and conditions that Dr. Leso helped put in place were applied to suspected al-Qaeda member Mohammed al Qahtani under Dr. Leso’s direct supervision, as well as to other men and boys held at Guantánamo.  Eventually, similar techniques were also used on prisoners held in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dr. Steven Reisner speaks with Democracy Now on the ethics complaints filed against Maj. Gen. Leso and Col. Larry James.

LEGAL PROCEEDINGS


NEW YORK OFFICE OF PROFESSIONAL DISCIPLINE

Complaint

CJA filed a complaint before the New York Office of Professional Discipline (OPD) on July 7, 2010.  The complaint alleges that Dr. Leso violated the professional standards set forth by New York law for licensed psychologists, specifically New York Education Law section 6509 (2) (practice beyond authorized scope, gross incompetence, gross negligence) and subsection (9) (unprofessional conduct); Rules of Regents section 29.1(b)(5) (conduct exhibiting a moral unfitness to practice the profession) and subsection (b)(11) (unauthorized treatment); and Rules of Regents section 29.2(a)(1) (neglect of a patient in need of immediate care), subsection (a)(2) (willful abuse and harassment), and subsection (a)(7) (unwarranted treatment).  The allegations of the Complaint were supported in detail by numerous documents made public by the United States Senate Armed Services Committee, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of Defense, among others.

Dismissal and Request for Reconsideration

On July 28, 2010 the OPD denied jurisdiction over the complaint under a theory that Dr. Leso's conduct did not constitute the practice of psychology and thus was not governed by New York standards for professional psychologists.
CJA reiterated its request for an investigation of Dr. Leso for his clear violations of psychologists’ professional standards in an August 26th letter, noting that Dr. Leso's conduct at Guantánamo Bay falls squarely within the legal definition of psychology in New York. Moreover, Dr. Leso represented himself as a psychologist, for which New York requires a license. The OPD never responded to CJA’s request.

THE AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION

On August 26, 2010, CJA called on the American Psychological Association (APA), the largest association of psychologists worldwide, to expel Dr. Leso from its association and to recommend revocation of his license.  CJA renewed this call on September 21, 2012.  The APA has so far failed to investigate the case against Dr. Leso, which has been before its Ethics Committee since Dr. Trudy Bond filed it in 2007.

Read CJA Client Dr. Reisner and ally Dr. Trudy Bond’s open letter to Suzanne Bennett Johnson, President of the American Psychological Association requesting that she

  1. Open a full review of the practices of the APA Ethics Office with regard to the investigation and adjudication of cases alleging torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
  2. Ensure that the case against Dr. Leso now receives a prompt adjudication, five years after it was filed; and
  3. Move to rescind the current statute of limitations on cases of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment so that there can be accountability for psychologists who participate in classified abuses whenever the evidence of such abuses becomes available.

THE NEW YORK STATE SUPREME COURT

On November 24, 2010, CJA and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) filed a petition in New York State Court asking the Court to order the OPD to perform its duty to investigate the complaint against Dr. Leso, arguing that the OPD erred in its interpretation of the law and noting that The OPD’s duty to investigate allegations of professional misconduct is mandatory under both New York law and the agency’s own rules and regulations. On January 14, 2011, the New York Attorney General filed a motion to dismiss the petition.

On April 6, 2011, CJA argued the motion in the first U.S. court hearing on whether a psychologist’s participation in abusive interrogations could violate professional standards.   The hearing before the state supreme court in Manhattan filled the small courtroom with press, doctors and other interested members of the public. Read the transcript here. The court granted the Attorney General’s motion to dismiss our complaint on August 11, 2012. In its narrow procedural ruling, the court found that it did not have jurisdiction to rule on the merits of Dr. Reisner’s claims because Dr. Reisner lacked standing to bring the complaint. The ruling is unfortunate, as Dr. Reisner’s claims raise serious and fundamental questions that should have their day in court.

» View notable legal documents and accompanying exhibits here.

NEW YORK STATE ASSEMBLY

On November 15, 2011, CJA presented testimony in support of the Gottfried Duane Bill at New York Senator Duane’s public forum concerning medical professionals, torture, and the law.  This bill expressly defines professional obligations in the context of detention abroad and explicitly states that NY-licensed health professionals are prohibited from any involvement in torture or other abuse of detainees.  Such an explicit prohibition will ensure that in the future these fundamental ethical obligations will be unambiguously clear to healthcare professionals, the Office of Professional Discipline, and the courts.