Controversy over retired Army psychologist up for post at University of Missouri
Retired Col. Larry James, a former Army psychologist, went into both Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to address and correct known human rights violations – hence the name of his 2008 book, Fixing Hell: An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib.
“This is very, very important conversation to have in a variety of venues, and it’s very important to understand what went wrong at these awful places,” said James – now dean of the School of Professional Psychology at Wright State University – of why he wrote the memoir. “If we keep things in secret we’re destined to repeat it again.”
But some of the revelations in Fixing Hell are being levied against him as he tries to secure an administrative post at at the University of Missouri at Columbia. An on-campus protest was held earlier this month as James’s name surfaced as one of two finalists for the position, division executive director in the College of Education. As such, he’d oversee 60 faculty and 29 staff members in three units, including the Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology.
Aamer Trambu, a business graduate student and member of the Muslim Student Organization, attended the protest, along with members of the St. Louis Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace group. He also attended a Mizzou forum last week at which James answered questions for more than an hour. A petition against James’s candidacy with at least 60 names was turned over to university administrators. (The American-Islamic relations council chapter also launched an online petition. Leaders did not respond to requests for comment.)
Trambu said he protested James’s candidacy for a number of reasons, but “the most simple one is that of respect. I just think he didn’t express respect to the detainees [at the prisons].” Although there were many who were terrorists, many were eventually found to be innocent, he said. “There were a lot of wrongs that happened when [James] was there.”
Many of the protesters’ objections were taken from the pages of Fixing Hell. James’ memoir details his work assessing and correcting unethical procedures for interrogating suspected terrorists as director of behavioral science both at Guantanamo Bay, starting in 2003, and at Abu Ghraib in 2004. In addition to how his experiences affected him mentally and emotionally (James suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder), the book includes sometimes-graphic depictions of abuses he witnessed, and recommendations for how they could have been avoided.
But to some critics, witnessing what went on in those places while serving in the military -- even if he subsequently tried to change things -- is disqualifying for an academic position. One particular episode at Guantanamo, during which a detainee named Luther was forced to wear women’s underwear and a wig during a night interrogation that James hoped to observe and critique, sparked questions at the forum last week.
“My critics are adamant to make it sound as though three days went by before I intervened,” James told the crowd, according to a report in The Columbia Daily Tribune. “It was actually five minutes…. The challenge I faced was everything I saw there was legally approved."
Critics also pointed out that James contributed to a controversial 300-page document on protocol for dealing with detainees. James, however, said that he didn't add the controversial portion on isolation and sleep deprivation for new detainees and wrote only recommendations for "mundane, day-to-day issues," such as uniforms and work hours.
Trambu was disappointed with some of James’s responses. “I was hoping that he would deny [wrongdoings], but in my opinion, he did not accept or deny any of the allegations," he said. "The justification he gave was, ‘I saw it happen, but I didn’t have the legal authority to stop it.’ ”
Other members of the crowd took a different view. Michael Pullis, a faculty search committee member who serves as associate dean for administration and research and chair of the department of special education at Mizzou’s College of Education, said he and committee colleagues were satisfied with James’ “openness and willingness to answer questions. He didn’t receive any questions we had not anticipated. The search committee asked him many of those same questions in the initial interview.”
Dan Clay, dean of the College of Education, said the university was dedicated to an open selection process and encouraged the community to come and vet James, who was thoroughly investigated by the university before becoming a finalist. “[James] has not been sanctioned for any professional or ethical misconduct by any state or appeals board court or any licensing board or accrediting body.”
James retired from the military five years ago, after 22 years, and has worked at Wright State since. Steve Angle, senior vice president of Wright State, helped hire James and said similar concerns arose upon his initial candidacy there.
“We seriously considered the issues and made numerous reference calls,” said Angle. "From everything we could determine, the allegations against [James] had no basis in fact…. He has fulfilled our expectations and is a valued member of our leadership team.”
Clay is expected to announce a new executive director next month.
Some prominent psychologists have supported James's candidacy for the Mizzou post.
Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University and architect of the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which had to be shut down after just six days due to inhumane treatment of student “inmates” by fellow Stanford student “guards” involved in the study on prison-inmate interactions, wrote the foreword to James’s book after studying Abu Ghraib extensively.
“Abu Ghraib was a disaster,” said Zimbardo. “But [James] had nothing to do with encouraging military police to abuse prisoners.” Any “contention” surrounding James’s involvement in drafting detainee procedures at Guantanamo Bay must be seen through the lens of the time, less than two years after Sept. 11, 2001, he added, when the American Psychological Association supported the use of some psychological principles in interrogating suspected terrorists.
“Not only did Col. James put into place a set of explicit operational procedures that are a model for all correctional facilities, but before leaving [Abu Ghraib] he ensured that staff learned and practiced them faithfully,” earning a Bronze Star Medal, Zimbardo said in Fixing Hell.
To James, the controversy is old news; different entities have investigated his involvement at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib eight separate times, he said, turning up no evidence of involvement in any wrongdoing. He said he left each place better than how he found it and remains proud of his work – despite the stigma that both prisons’ names carry.
“I wore a military uniform for 22 years, and so the right of every American to express him or herself is near and dear to my heart, and I welcome open dialogue,” he said. “But the data clearly shows this has been thoroughly investigated over and over and there hasn’t been one thread of credible evidence to suggest I did anything wrong.”
Comparing some of the Internet and on-campus backlash to his candidacy at Wright State and now Mizzou to a metaphorical “egg-throwing” that some veterans of the Vietnam War experienced, he said, “Why do these people keep bringing this stuff up if the data doesn’t support it? That’s a question I can’t answer for you."