The case of Mohammed Al-Qahtani and John Leso

By Neil Altman

Participants in a rally sponsored by The World Can't Wait are dressed as hooded detainees on January 4, 2007. Photo by Ben Schumin.
Participants in a rally sponsored by The World Can’t Wait are dressed as hooded detainees on January 4, 2007. Photo by Ben Schumin.

In 2008, the Convenor of the Military Tribunal at Guantanamo Bay, Susan Crawford, declined to pursue charges against detainee Mohammed Al-Qahtani. In an interview in 2009 Crawford said that she did so because Al-Qahtani’s self-incriminating statements (later retracted) had been obtained by “torture” (“Mohammed Al-Qahtani”, 2012 ; Glaberson, 2009) As of this writing in 2015, Al-Qahtani remains in the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, never having been charged with or found guilty of any crime. In a cruel Catch-22, Al-Qahtani has been denied due process indefinitely precisely because he was mistreated. Guilty or innocent, the consequence of torture is further cruel and inhuman treatment.

In 2014, the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Committee refused to open an inquiry into the actions of the psychologist member of the Behavioral Science Consultation Team that directed the torture of Al-Qahtani, John Leso. The Deputy Director of the APA’s Ethics Office, Lindsay Childress-Beatty, commented that Military Psychologist Leso’s actions were not defined as unethical at the time Leso was working at Guantanamo Bay (Ackerman, 2014). Childress-Beatty was referring to a provision in the 2002 version of the APA ethics code that allowed psychologists to comply with the demands of their organizational employers when these demands conflicted with the Ethics Code. Since Leso was only following orders in implementing “enhanced” interrogation techniques, i.e. torture, he was not considered to have violated the Ethics Code. This position despite the fact that under later versions of the Ethics Code his behavior would have been considered unethical.   Al-Qahtani was, and continues to be treated in a cruel and inhuman fashion because he was tortured; Leso walks free because APA considered it ethical to participate in torture at the time he did. The Nuremberg trials and the Geneva Conventions notwithstanding, it’s evidently acceptable to torture someone if he or she is officially presumed guilty, or is thought to have information potentially leading to the capture of parties presumed to be guilty, and if torture is officially defined as ethical and legal at the moment it is performed.

John Leso had no training or experience in interrogations when he was assigned to a Behavioral Science Consultation team, known as BSCT, at Guantanamo Bay to design programs of interrogation.   Among the techniques used with Mohammed Al-Qahtani were waterboarding, sleep deprivation (48 days, with 20 hours of interrogation out of 24), stimulus deprivation, forced nudity, sexual provocation and humiliation by men and women, religious humiliation, coercion to perform acts prohibited in Islam, threats with dogs, prolonged stress positions (John Leso, 2013).

These acts dehumanized Mohammed Al-Qahtani.. Perhaps he was already vulnerable to being objectified and dehumanized by U.S. officials as a Saudi citizen, one who, in August 2001 attempted unsuccessfully to enter the United States. Immigration authorities turned him away, reportedly because he had so little money with him that it seemed unlikely he would be able to maintain himself for even a short period as a tourist. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, Al-Qahtani was picked up by Pakistani troops in the battle of Tora Bora, and turned over to U.S. authorities that transported him to Guantanamo Bay for interrogation. In the media he was portrayed as the “twentieth hijacker” on the assumption that he had tried to enter the U.S. to participate in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (Zagorini, 2006).

It would be tempting at this point to draw from this narrative of Al-Qahtani’s life and actions a sense of his guilt or innocence in relation to the events of September 11, 2001. It may be plausible that he would have information that would be helpful in preventing another such crime. But to present such a narrative would subvert the point that, under a rule of law, the presumption of innocence does not depend on whether a narrative of events can be constructed that supports that presumption. The evaluation of such a narrative must, under the rule of law, occur with “due process”, i.e. in a court of law. The use of torture, authorized at the highest level of U.S. Government and implemented by psychologists in a central role, has made due process impossible. In more than one way, the use of torture has subverted the rule of law, a core element in what makes this country worth defending.

Are non-U.S. citizens subject to the rule of law? What about those who are in the U.S. legally? Is international law “obsolete”, (Gonzales, 2002)as stated by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez? If so, this point adds another ominous note to the debate over immigration policy in the U.S., especially at a time of undeclared war on an elusive enemy (“terrorism”).

Finally, it goes without saying that summary execution (these days by drone) subverts the rule of law in a more profound way than torture. If people who have been tortured cannot avail themselves of due process, the dead (including those who are killed by accident or by mistake) certainly cannot protest. We can only accept this situation without protest if we believe that the presumption of guilt (based, often enough, on information obtained through torture) justifies killing people.



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