Physicians for Human Rights says Doctors Aided in Torture

After reviewing the CIA inspector general’s (IG) report on prisoner abuse during and surrounding the Bush-era “war on terror”, the watchdog Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) says doctors not only attended and supervised prisoner abuse, but recorded information that “may amount to human experimentation”.

In a new 6-page white paper, “Aiding Torture: Health Professionals’ Ethics and Human Rights Violations Demonstrated in the May 2004 CIA Inspector General’s Report”, PHR reports on physicians aiding in the abusive interrogation techniques some now say amount to illegal torture.

According to the PHR analysis:

The report details how the CIA relied on medical expertise to rationalize and carry out abusive and unlawful interrogations. It also refers to aggregate collection of data on detainees’ reaction to interrogation methods. PHR is concerned that this data collection and analysis may amount to human experimentation and calls for more investigation on this point. If confirmed, the development of a research protocol to assess and refine the use of the waterboard or other techniques would likely constitute a new, previously unknown category of ethical violations committed by CIA physicians and psychologists.

In what may be the most alarming set of facts to emerge to date, there is now evidence that physicians working with the CIA were in fact studying human resistance to certain techniques. One PHR medical advisor says “Medical doctors and psychologists colluded with the CIA to keep observational records about waterboarding, which approaches unethical and unlawful human experimentation”.

The abusive treatment documented in the IG report include mock executions, the brandishing of guns and power drills, threats to sexually assault family members and murder children, “walling”—which entails repeatedly slamming an unresponsive detainee’s head against a cell wall—, and prolonged confinement in a small box that impedes nearly all motion. PHR also found that contrary to official claims, the presence of physicians tends not to and did not, in the case of CIA interrogations, limit the amount of abuse inflicted on prisoners.

In fact, says the PHR analysis, physicians’ presence permitted CIA interrogators to go far beyond the pre-determined limits for physical and psychological abuse. Steven Reisner, PHR’s Psychological Ethics Advisor and the report’s co-author, says the IG report shows that:

The required presence of health professionals did not make interrogation methods safer, but sanitized their use, escalated abuse, and placed doctors and psychologists in the untenable position of calibrating harm rather than serving as protectors and healers. The fact that psychologists went beyond monitoring, and actually designed and implemented these abuses —while simultaneously serving as ‘safety monitors’— reveals the ethical bankruptcy of the entire program.

The revelations open up an entirely new area of potential criminal liability, and may also feed into the contention that officials who ordered and oversaw the program of abusive interrogations, not only knew it was in violation of existing laws, but conspired to find ways to cover up illegal activity. There is no decision as yet on whether the special prosecutor will call CIA physicians to testify about their role in the abuse or about what actions they helped to craft.

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