U.S. military doctors designed, enabled and engaged in the torture of suspected terrorists held at American detention centers during the past decade, violating globally recognized ethics and medical principles that bar physicians from inflicting harm, according to a study released Monday.
The medical personnel involved — physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists who work in military branches or for U.S. intelligence agencies — allowed “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” of prisoners while acting at the direction of military leaders under both the Bush and Obama administrations, reports a 19-member independent task force of doctors, lawyers and ethics experts.
“This is a big, big striking horror,” said Dr. Gerald Thomson, professor of medicine emeritus at Columbia University and a member of the task force. The panel is supported by the Institute on Medicine as a Profession (IMAP), a health care policy think tank based at Columbia that identifies itself as nonprofit and nonpartisan.
“This covenant between society and medicine has been around for a long, long time — patient first, community first, society first, not national security, necessarily,” Thomson said. “If we just ignore this and satisfy ourselves with the (thought that), ‘Well, they were trying to protect us,’ when it does happen again we’ll all be complicit in that.”
A spokesman for the Department of Defense, Lt. Col. J. Todd Breasseale, reviewed the allegations and called them “wholly absurd.”
“It’s worth noting that other than the habeas counsel (pro-bono lawyers for detainees at held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) who have some very specific motivations in their scorched earth approach to zealously representing their clients, not one of the (task force) claimants have had actual access to the detainees, their medical records, or the procedures” used by the Joint Task Force (JTF) — the U.S. military command at Guantanamo Bay, Breasseale said.
“The health care providers at the JTF who routinely provide not only better medical care than any of these detainees have ever known, but care on par with the very best of the global medical profession, are consummate professionals working under terrifically stressful conditions, far from home and their families, and with patients who have been extraordinarily violent,” Breasseale added.
The task force of medical ethicists spent two years reviewing public records on the U.S. military’s treatment of combat detainees at Guantanamo Bay as well as those at prisons on American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. The documents informing their findings include, among other items, recently published accounts of force-feeding hunger-striking detainees at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba, a 2008 Senate report on the handling of terrorists in custody, and a Red Cross investigation of Central Intelligence Agency interrogation tactics that ultimately was leaked to the New York Times.
The IMAP panel asserts that the DOD and CIA involved their doctors and psychologists in “abusive interrogation” techniques, including “consulting on conditions of confinement to increase the disorientation and anxiety of detainees.” The study authors couldn't determine how many military doctors were involved in what they deemed unfit treatment of prisoners.
In one instance, the CIA contracted with a psychologist who earlier had been part of the military's in-house program to train U.S. troops to withstand abusive detention and torture. The agency and the psychologist collaborated to use those same training techniques to design "enhanced interrogation" methods for suspected terrorists — tactics meant to "induce hopelessness" and to “psychologically ‘dislocate’ the detainee, maximize his feeling of vulnerability, and reduce or eliminate his will to resist" as part of efforts to extract intelligence secrets, the task force wrote.
These strategies, the medical ethicists added, included sensory deprivation, isolation, and forcing detainees into "stress positions for long periods of time."
The DOD and CIA also used medical information obtained by doctors from the detainees to later interrogate those detainees, the task force claims, also alleging that military doctors participated in the force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay. Hundreds of detainees at the prison used a hunger strike in March to protest their detention. Some still are not eating. Human rights advocates have decried the way detainees are force fed — a tube is inserted into the nose of a chair-restrained detainee and food is then pushed through that hose and into the body.
"It’s still going on, and you have evidence of that with the (recent) hunger strikes," Thomson said. "What really needs to happen here has not yet happened, in our view. That is, to have rules in detention centers — regulations on caring for (detainees) that are in line with accepted, medical-ethical standards, so that when the (military) physicians are directed to do this or that, (their actions) are not out of line in terms of medical ethics."
But one medical ethicist who has closely studied the tales of water-boarding, force-feeding and larger accusations of detainee torturing at American military facilities is not convinced, he said, that the doctors were simply following orders.
The presence or the possible involvement of physicians and psychologists during the interrogations of suspected terrorists pulls medicine into a morally gray zone, far from the black-and-white divide that some experts place on the issue, said Arthur Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center and a frequent NBC News contributor.
"If you join the CIA as a physician or if you work to monitor water-boarding (as a doctor), you work as part of a group that believes it to be morally correct. That belief could be distorted," Caplan said. "But I don’t believe that people go to work every day and say: ‘I’m doing something terrible. I shouldn’t be doing it. But I guess I’ll manage to do it anyway.’
"What I’ve seen over the years is that people (doctors) who don’t want to do that, don’t. They find ways to avoid it, get out of it, or get reassigned," Caplan added. "But for someone who does it, that doctor’s impulse may be to say: 'I want to fight terrorism. I want to get information that protects the American people.' They think they’re doing the right thing."