Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Revising Hell's History: Col. Larry James, Interrogation Policies, and Calls for Accountability

If ever the collective mindset surrounding a single word has changed over the last decade, it can be argued that the word “torture” must be high on that list. Prior to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, one may have used the word in passing to describe sitting through a boring lecture in college or their feelings about their grueling nine to five work week. Torture. Nearly a decade later, when one utters the word, their mind probably flashes to images that came out of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the many reports that have been released detailing how this word, how torture, became official governmental policy of the United States. The 2000’s took the concept of torture from that of something unlawful that was only put into practice by brutal dictators, to accepted policy that was put into place by a democracy. Torture had been rebranded and even had a snappy new euphemism: “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Cleaner, professional, sanitized.

Debates on the topic of interrogation policy lit up our television and computer screens. Were we really condoning torture…is the United States justified in using these techniques on detainees…do these policies break laws and should we investigate? We saw a Vice President insist that we (as a country) needed to go to the “dark side” to get information and we saw some defenders of these policies line up in support of what they would have been the first to condemn if done to a U.S. Marine. These were extraordinary times.

In the midst of it all, time continued its relentless march toward the future. America chose a new President who, amidst all of the questions that still surrounded this issue, insisted that we “look to the future” and not get caught up in the past. This new President boldly declared that the old era was over while still continuing to advance policies like extraordinary rendition and indefinite detention without charge. Now, in 2010 we no longer are witnessing intellectual arguments over policies surrounding torture on the evening news and the eight years under the previous Administration seem like an old memory. While there may no longer be a robust collective debate on this issue, there are moments when we are reminded of the continued ramifications that remain unresolved.

Most recently Scott Horton, a reporter for Harper’s, wrote a lengthy piece in which he blew the cover off of the official story of three deaths of detainees that were being held at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba in 2006. At the time, the deaths were reported as suicides, but new witnesses have come forward to strongly suggest that an investigation needs to take place about the potential that these detainees were killed at a separate “black site” just outside of the official prison grounds. The soldiers who came forward in Horton’s piece did so after they had approached the Obama Justice Department with their story:

The Justice Department thus faced a dilemma; it could do the politically convenient thing, which was to find no justification for a thorough investigation, leave the NCIS conclusions in place, and hope that the public and the news media would obey the Obama Administration’s dictum to “look forward, not backward”; or it could pursue a course of action that would implicate the Bush Justice Department in a cover-up of possible homicides.

The Obama Justice Department did the politically convenient thing and told the soldiers that there was no justification for any such investigation into a cover-up of the deaths of these detainees. This behavior, that of refusing to look into potential criminal behavior by the Bush Administration, is nothing new. Though there is continued insistence that the United States is a land where the rule of law reigns supreme, the actions that can be observed in cases like this one tell a different story. These actions tell a story of concealed truths and a dark history that is eagerly being swept under the rug. While it is evident that some wish to keep that history hidden from sight, others have decided to take an active role in crafting a new, revisionist history. This is a history where those in power in 2002 did not advocate for torturous policies, but instead recognized the evil of the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” taking place in Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq. This revisionist history consists of a narrative where those in leadership positions not only saw abuse, but actively took steps to correct its spread.


Col. (Ret.) Larry James is the author of Fixing Hell: An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib. James spent 22 years in the Army as a Colonel and was the Chair of the Department of Psychology at Walter Reed Medical Center. Currently, James is the Dean of the School of Professional Psychology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. In Fixing Hell, James tells the story of how he was sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in January, 2003 and to Abu Ghraib in the summer of 2004 in lieu of the discovery of abusive interrogation tactics. James claims that he was sent to both locations because the leadership wanted these abuses stopped and wanted his services as a psychologist in order to design humane methods of interrogation. Here is a passage from right before he was sent to Cuba:

“I would have to deploy to Cuba and replace Major Leso myself. Colonel Cooper and Colonel Banks agreed that this was the right course of action, particularly because things were getting worse down there. Gitmo needed an experienced senior Army psychologist with a significant background in correctional and forensic psychology.”

In his book, James immediately establishes the narrative that the problems at Guantanamo Bay were structural. James doesn’t claim that the command structure at the prison was partly to blame, but insists that “all problems” at the prison could be attributed to this flaw. He also makes it known that once he arrived at the prison in January 2003, there was some inappropriate behavior taking place. He even describes witnessing one such interrogation, but instead of interfering or reporting the abuse, he lets it play out (emphasis mine):

“I heard lots of yelling, screaming, and furniture being thrown around. I saw Luther and three MPs wrestling with a detainee on the floor. It was an awful sight. I wanted to run back to my room and wash my eyes out with bleach. The detainee was naked except for the pink panties I had seen hanging on the door earlier. He also had lipstick and a wig on. The four men were holding the prisoner down and trying to outfit him with the matching pink nightgown, but he was fighting hard. My first instinct was to rush in and start barking orders at the men, demanding they stop this ridiculous and abusive wrestling match. But I managed to quell that urge and wait. I opened my thermos, poured a cup of coffee, and 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. I waited several minutes, but with no good end in sight I had to act.”

This is the only instance in the entire book where James describes witnessing inappropriate conduct in detail during interrogations and despite the initial reaction of wanting to “wash his eyes out with bleach”, his response to this instance is to pour himself some coffee and not “interfere without good reason”. After James does decide to act, he simply speaks with the interrogator, suggests that he instead give the detainee a McDonald’s fish sandwich and the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, and claims that this new “humane” and trust-building tactic began to spread like wildfire throughout the prison.

During the five months that James spends at Guantanamo Bay, he states that he had free reign to put policies in place to stop the abuses and that psychologists only accessed the medical records of detainees to protect them, not use the information in coordination with interrogators to maximize the effects of the torture. Then, when it was time for Col. James to leave Guantanamo in May of 2003, he says that he was proud to know that he has instituted polices that fixed all of the problems stating that there have been “…no incidents of abuse at Guantanamo Bay by either an interrogator or psychologist reported since my arrival in Cuba in January 2003”.

The accuracy of James’ statement is contradicted by mountains of reports and articles that have been written not only since he left Cuba in 2003, but since his book was published in 2008.

Still, after James left Cuba in 2003, he was summoned to Abu Ghraib in June 2004 to, as he states, clean up the practices at that prison as he did in Guantanamo Bay. In his book he often claims that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were the result of bad leadership and how this led a handful of troubled soldiers to cross the line and commit these abuses. James tells the stories of how sexual frustrations played a role in the chaos at the prison and uses his “psychological expertise” to tell the reader how he knew one of the soldiers at the prison was a lesbian:

“I didn’t have to ask her if she was a lesbian, but as a highly trained psychologist I spotted all the signals that made that a pretty safe conclusion. At the very least, this was one tough gal, no matter her sexual orientation. Her voice was deeper than mine, and if I had any tattoos I’m sure that I would have chosen more feminine ones than hers.”

James tells the same kind of story in Abu Ghraib as he told in Guantanamo and how he became the leader that the prison needed to get turned around. He even makes the claim that there were “no more incidents of abuse reported by an interrogator or a psychologist” after he arrived in June 2004.

Even though James is a psychologist and represents himself as a medical professional, he describes an internal struggle that he has surrounding his role as both a soldier and a healer. Despite this conflict, James picks a side:

“It was clear to me that I was no longer a doctor but rather a combatant with the sole purpose of helping the Army kill or capture the enemy.”

It is this conclusion that leads to questions about whether James felt that he was a combatant when he was interacting with detainees at Guantanamo Bay and when he expresses disdain for groups and individuals that have been critical of United States policy. Here is how James describes the International Committee of the Red Cross in his book:

“Like most other soldiers, I saw the ICRC representatives as a bunch of radical left do-gooders, mostly from Europe, who were as interested in giving America a black eye as they were in truly helping the innocent. Every ICRC rep I met had long, disheveled ‘60s and ‘70s hairstyles as well as Birkenstock sandals—the consummate hippie motif. They thought all of the detainees were completely innocent and only needed to be hugged more.”

James denies that he ever did anything inappropriate or criminal while he was at Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib and claims that his critics have no evidence to back up their charges. In fact, James claims that he was never at either location when abuses were occurring. This is a puzzling claim considering many publicly available documents that shed more light on the time period when James was stationed at Guantanamo Bay.


Col. Larry James, PH.D. arrived at the Guantanamo Bay prison facility in January 2003 as the Chief Psychologist of the Joint Intelligence Group and a senior member of the Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT). James’ stint at the prison facility lasted until May 5, 2003. According to what James wrote in Fixing Hell he was responsible for improving interrogation methods and his boss, Major General Geoffrey D. Miller, was also on board with implementing humane and respectful tactics:

“General Miller had discussed how I would be replacing Major Leso, and that it would be my job to teach the interrogators how to get intel without yelling, slapping, sleep deprivation, humiliation, or food deprivation.”


“While working with them [juvenile prisoners], I was still expected to oversee the rest of the interrogation process at Gitmo and to fix what had gone so wrong in the past.”

Through the words of James, it is quite clear that his role was to oversee the interrogation process and while he claims that he did, that abusive techniques were addressed, and that all the problems were fixed during his tenure, officially released documents tell another story.

In November 2008, the Senate Armed Services Committee concluded an investigation into the treatment of detainees that were held in U.S. custody. The bipartisan report was released on April 21, 2009 and covered military interrogations. Some of the conclusions that the report reached were as follows:

- Once President Bush made a written declaration on February 7, 2002 that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, it opened the door for techniques such as waterboarding, nudity, stress positions, and others to be used.
- High level Bush Administration officials and Cabinet members held meetings in 2002-2003 that specifically discussed interrogation techniques.
- Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of “aggressive interrogation techniques” on December 2, 2002 was a direct cause of abuse at Guantanamo Bay.
- When Major General Geoffrey Miller visited Iraq in August and September 2003, he encouraged interrogators to be more aggressive during interrogations.
- The detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not the result of a few soldiers acting alone, but the techniques depicted in the infamous photos were the result of their approval in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.

The 232 page report also details some of the behavior that transpired at Guantanamo Bay in the Spring of 2003, the same time period that Col. James was present and working to (in his words) “fix what had gone so wrong in the past”. Contrary to the statements made by James in his book regarding Maj. Gen. Miller, on Page 129 of the Senate Armed Services Report it states:

“General Hill’s March 21, 2003 memo stated that both he and MG Miller felt that approval of all of the previously authorized techniques (in Categories I, II and III) was “essential”. General Hill stated that ‘both Geoff Miller and I believe that we need as many appropriate tools as possible’ and called Category II and the one previously authorized Category III technique ‘critical to maximizing our ability to accomplish the mission, now and in the future.” The ‘critical’ techniques referred to by General Hill included stress positions, deprivation of light and auditory stimuli, removal of clothing, use of detainee phobias such as dogs, and the one Category III technique the Secretary had authorized, which included grabbing, poking and light pushing.

This was during a time period when Generals and a Working Group were looking into techniques that should be used and which techniques were appropriate at Guantanamo.

Also during this time period, the SASC Report states that a “Commander’s Inquiry” was launched to investigate claims that military personnel and military police were forcing detainees to participate in “physical training”. According to page 133 of the report, an interrogator, two analysts, and a member of the GTMO Behavior Science Consultation Team (the same BSCT team of which Col. James was a senior member) were interviewed for this inquiry. The report states that all of these figures “believed that the technique was appropriate, approved, applied properly, and was common practice…”

The report goes on to say that a subsequent memo (entitled a “Historic Look at Inappropriate Techniques used at GTMO”) was later filed and was very critical of the Commander’s Inquiry saying that it did not adequately review multiple claims of inappropriate behavior nor follow through with appropriate discipline. One of the incidents that was not reviewed, was one in which a female military interrogator wiped (what she told the detainee was) menstrual blood on his face and forehead. Furthermore according to the SASC Report, this “Historic Look” document concluded that:

"…the incidents occurring during the Spring of 2003 signif[ied] a consistent problem at GTMO.” It stated that it was “clear” that interrogators “may use several if not all of the techniques that require SECDEF notification.” The memo also concluded that the “interpretation of the SECDEF approved techniques has resulted in variations on how techniques are applied (i.e., is yelling, loud music and strobe lights environmental manipulation?)” and “[d]espite these revelations by interrogators, the supervisory chain of command reports that these techniques are not used.”

Not only does the SASC Report refute the claim made by Col. James that “…no incidents of abuse at Guantanamo Bay by either an interrogator or psychologist reported since my arrival in Cuba in January 2003”, but it also shows that these same patterns continued after James left GTMO in May 2003 after he claimed to have instituted policies “intended to prevent prisoner abuse at all military prisons.”

The SASC Report discusses the interrogation of Mohamadou Walid Slahi that began in July 2003 and went on through the end of that summer. Slahi was subjected to “variable light patterns” and “rock music to the tune of Drowning Pool’s ‘Let the Bodies Hit the Floor’”. Slahi was also shown a fake letter which contained information that Slahi’s mother had been captured and would soon be brought to GTMO. The fake letter also made sure to point out that she would be the first female prisoner at the “previously all-male prison environment.”

As the summer wore on, Slahi was reported to have been cooperative with interrogators yet his level of interrogation did not change. In an October 17, 2003 email that is highlighted in the SASC Report, that was sent from a GTMO interrogator to a member of the BSCT, it was discussed how Slahi was now hearing voices and knew that this was not normal. The member of the BSCT, LTC Diane Zierhoffer replied, “sensory deprivation can cause hallucinations, usually visual rather than auditory, but you never know…In the dark you create things out of what little you have…”

This is the same BSCT team that Col. James had been a senior member of only months earlier and where he claims he left in place policies that would prevent the abuse of future detainees.

It is clear through the SASC Report as well as through supplemental documents, that torture at Guantanamo Bay was instituted from the top down. It started with President Bush’s declaration that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to the detainees at the prison, continued with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s authorizations, and percolated right down into the individual cells of detainees. As much as Col. James wants his readers to believe that the abuse stopped upon his arrival, it is overwhelmingly clear that it did not. Abuses happened during James’ 5 month tenure at the prison facility and it is clear that health care professionals were involved with interrogations. It is also clear that these problems were not “fixed” once James left GTMO and the Scott Horton piece that I reference in the introduction is further proof that suspicious deaths even occurred 3 years after James supposedly installed measures to protect against abuse.

Major General Miller, who Col. James mentions was on board with treating detainees humanely, made a trip up to Iraq in June 2003. This was one month after Col. James departure from GTMO. The SASC Report mentions that Miller thought they were running a “country club” in Iraq and that they were not “getting the maximum” out of the prisoners. When Miller was asked by another Major General what he meant, Miller replied, “you haven’t broken [the detainees] psychologically” and that he would get back to him on “some techniques you can use” to break them. The Abu Ghraib scandal broke in late 2003 and Miller was put in charge of the prison in March 2004.

General Miller’s conduct both during and after the tenure of Col. James in GTMO, should raise serious questions about the claims that Miller was trying to implement policies that would allow for the humane treatment of detainees. What should also be cause for concern is the amount of fundamentally misleading and false statements that can be found in Col. James’ book. From the characterization of Gen. Miller, to the statement about the absence of abuse at the prison post-2002, and to his statements about the role that he played during his tenure at the prison. When there are so many statements that seem to contradict various reports and official documents, one would think that it would only be appropriate to further examine the actual role that Col. James did play when so many documented abuses were ongoing. No in-depth investigations have been conducted and James is still a licensed psychologist in Louisiana, Ohio and Guam.


Currently, Col. Larry James is retired from the military and is the Dean of the School of Professional Psychology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Though retired from the military, James is still very much involved in issues of terrorism and the psychology of terrorists. This week, on February 3-4, James is leading a “Psychology of Terrorism Executive Workshop” at Wright State University. The stated goals of the Workshop are to:

- Define Psychological Terrorism
- Identify Types of Psychological Terrorism
- Discuss the role of the media in counterterrorism efforts
- Identify how demographics are used to recruit teenage terrorists
- Understand the psychological make-up of the suicide bomber
- Discuss strategies to prevent psychological terrorism

The website indicates that the intended audiences for this Executive Workshop are law enforcement officials, members of the Department of Homeland Security, DOD, and the Border Patrol. According to the agenda, there will be a total of four presenters at this Workshop (including James) and the program fee is $2,000 (lodging and transportation are not included).

The Campus Anti-War Network is planning to protest this event and there are continued calls from the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Canadian Center for International Justice, and Physicians for Human Rights to investigate James and his potential involvement in the abuses that took place in Cuba and Iraq. These organizations feel that it is important for those who were responsible for carrying out and implementing policies of torture, to be held accountable for their actions. It is also important to recognize the difference between actual accounts of what took place in GTMO, Afghanistan and Iraq and the revisionist history that is found in books like Col. James’ “Fixing Hell”.

This piece is cross posted here.

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