NEW YORK – A judge has declined to force an investigation into whether an Army psychologist developed abusive interrogation techniques for detainees at Guantanamo Bay and should be stripped of his license, halting what civil-rights advocates have called the first court case amid a push to shed light on psychologists' role in terror suspects' interrogations.
The person who brought the case — another psychologist — doesn't have legal standing to do so, Manhattan Civil Court Judge Saliann Scarpulla said in a ruling filed Thursday.
Rights activists and some psychologists have pressed regulators in several states — unsuccessfully so far — to explore whether psychologists violated professional rules by designing or observing abusive interrogations.
In New York, rights advocates focused on John F. Leso, saying he developed "psychologically and physically abusive" interrogation techniques for use on detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The state Office of Professional Discipline, which oversees psychologists, declined last year to look into Leso. The agency said that his Army work is outside its purview and that the agency isn't in a position to address larger questions about the appropriateness of detainee interrogation methods.
The decision spurred the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, the New York Civil Liberties Union and psychologist Steven Reisner to sue the agency last fall and ask the judge to force a review of techniques developed by Leso, who holds a New York psychologists' license.
"The ruling is unfortunate, as Dr. Reisner's claims raise serious and fundamental questions that should have their day in court," Center for Justice and Accountability lawyer Kathy Roberts said in a statement.
She said the groups are considering an appeal but also keeping their eye on proposed state legislation that would require investigating any allegation that a health care professional has participated in torture or other improper treatment.
Representatives for the state professional discipline office and the state Attorney General's office didn't immediately return calls. No contact information was immediately available for Leso, who isn't named in the court case and never chose to weigh in with a filing of his own. An Army spokesman didn't immediately return a call about Leso.
While leading a behavioral science consultation team at Guantanamo in 2002 and 2003, Leso recommended interrogation tactics such as exposing detainees to severe cold, depriving them of sleep and forcing liquids into them intravenously, and he participated in at least one interrogation that used some of those methods, the Center for Justice and Accountability says. It said it based its allegations on government documents, some of them redacted, as well as academic journal articles and other sources.
The group and Reisner, who specializes in addressing the effects of trauma, say Leso's alleged activities amount to professional misconduct and need to be explored.
"Our country is still in a quandary as to how to hold itself and its officials accountable for this dark chapter in our history, and in particular it is in a quandary with respect to those professionals who are answerable to the higher standards embodied in professional ethical codes," Reisner said in a statement Thursday.
Scarpulla told the advocates in April that she shared their "sensibility" but wasn't sure about their legal argument.
They argued that as a psychologist licensed in New York, Reisner has a personal interest in preserving the field's reputation and the value of his license. But the judge said that didn't add up to grounds to force action by the professional discipline office, which is part of the state Education Department.
"The court finds that nothing in the New York Education Law guarantees a right to each and every person that the OPD formally investigate every single complaint of professional misconduct," she wrote. "The fact that pursuant to (the law) 'any person' is permitted to file a complaint against a psychologist does not by itself grant every person a right to have the complaint investigated."
A state lawyer told the judge at the April hearing that the complaint about Leso concerned unique circumstances that had nothing to do with New York state or the patient-focused psychology practices the professional discipline agency usually examines.
"The intention here was to avoid another Sept. 11, and that's an important fact that can't be overlooked," Assistant Attorney General James M. Hershler added at the time.
The American Psychological Association voted in 2008 to ban members from taking part in interrogations at the Guantanamo prison and other military detention sites where the professional group believes international law is being violated.
But psychologist licensing boards in California, Louisiana, Ohio and Texas also have rejected complaints about other military psychologists who were said to have played a role in abusive interrogations of detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Some activists in Ohio also have turned to a court to seek to force an investigation of a retired Army psychologist there.
Jennifer Peltz can be reached at http://twitter.com/jennpeltz