DEAR READER: Finding the story behind an MU job candidate with ties to Abu Ghraib

Friday, January 11, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 1:42 p.m. CST, Friday, January 11, 2013

Dear Reader,

On Wednesday, John Farmer de la Torre reported that a finalist for a high-ranking job at MU’s College of Education had worked as a psychologist at two of the most notorious American prisons since 9/11.


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In doing so, he brought to our hometown many of the issues that have taken our attention on the national and international news pages.

Iraqi men were sexually humiliated and beaten at Abu Ghraib. The graphic photos that leaked out in 2004 created an international scandal and a debate at home over what constitutes torture. Eventually, nine American servicemen were convicted.

Closer to home, the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2004 alleged that psychological and physical interrogation techniques by the keepers of Guantanamo Bay detainees were “tantamount to torture,” according to reports at the time by The New York Times and others.

The controversy continues to play out. The AP reported this week that a defense contractor has settled a lawsuit by 71 former inmates at Abu Ghraib and other prisons for $5.28 million. It marks, the report said, the “first successful effort … to collect money from a U.S. defense contractor in lawsuits alleging torture.” Expect a trial against another contractor this summer.

Which brings us back to our small connection.

Last week, the Missourian received an email from Peggy Placier, a retired MU professor, who said she was speaking on behalf of faculty who were apparently afraid of repercussions for speaking. Her request: Check out this guy who is a finalist for the College of Education executive director’s job.

So de la Torre did.

Larry James’ CV is 32 pages long. It includes academic papers and accomplishments, military honors – including the Bronze Star – and other work in national policy and in management. I don’t know what the search committee is looking for, but there’s a boatload of stuff to choose from. (You can see the CV here.)

Under “Recent Military Deployments/Assignments,” there’s this:

  • Director, Behavioral Science Division, Joint Task Force, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, June 2007 to May 2008.
  • Director, Behavioral Science Division, Abu Ghraib, Iraq. June 2004 to October 2004.
  • Deputy Director Behavioral Science Division, Joint Task Force, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, January 2003 to 05 May 2003.

A quick Google search determined that James has been in the middle of the controversy over prisoner treatment for a long time.

De la Torre’s task was simple – there was little question whether a story should be done – and complicated, as he found out while trying to sift through reams of allegations and old clips while conducting interviews. De la Torre said supporting documents for a complaint to the Ohio Board of Psychology ran for a thousand pages. (James won.)

There are, or should be, questions about his role in the prisoners' treatment. James likens himself to a consultant; his detractors say he was a guy in charge. A Harvard Law School lecturer says he violated his medical oath to do no harm; James says he was trying to clean things up.

His fitness for the job will depend on the answers.

I was impressed by the frankness of professor Michael Pullis, head of the search committee. He didn’t duck the questions posed by de la Torre. But Pullis and the rest of the committee determined that James’ credentials and his response to the committee's questions of his activities was enough to make him a finalist.

I told de la Torre on Thursday that this isn’t one of those big one-and-done stories. The first article begs questions that will be answered in the second; the second will produce comments and questions that will produce a third.

The original email made the whole process public. As it should. Good deeds are rarely done in the dark.


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