Report: Medical Professionals Participated in Torture of Terror Suspects

In this April 16, 2013 video frame grab reviewed by the U.S. military, a shackled detainee meets with medical personnel in Camp 6, at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, in Cuba. (AP Photo/Suzette Laboy)

In this April 16, 2013 video frame grab reviewed by the U.S. military, a shackled detainee meets with medical personnel in Camp 6, at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, in Cuba. (AP Photo/Suzette Laboy)

November 4, 2013

Medical professionals helped to force-feed detainees, participated in waterboarding, and failed to report abusive treatment, according to a new report released today by Columbia University’s Institute on Medicine as a Profession and the Open Society Foundations.

The report, which was the culmination of a two-year review by 19-member task force that included doctors, lawyers and at least one former Army brigadier general, found that medical professionals working for the Department of Defense did so under guidelines that released them from the basic ethical guidelines of the profession.

The Hippocratic mandate to “do no harm” did not apply to detainees under the new rules, the DoD decided, because they weren’t receiving clinical treatment. The only requirement was that medical professionals were not to treat any detainees “inhumanely,” according to the report.

“We’re very much aware of the absurdities alleged in the report,” said Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, adding that “numerous investigations” over the years had never substantiated such claims.

At the CIA, medical officers could engage in any act short of imposing “severe physical or mental pain and suffering” — the legal definition of torture, the report found.

“It’s important to underscore that the CIA does not have any detainees in its custody and President Obama terminated the Rendition, Detention and Interrogation Program by executive order in 2009,” said Edward Price, a CIA spokesman, in an email. “The task force report contains serious inaccuracies and erroneous conclusions. The Agency is proud of its medical staff who uphold the highest standards of their profession in the work they perform.”

Price declined to provide any further details about the inaccuracies he mentioned.

The report said that psychologists participated in interrogations at CIA black sites, helping to “identify vulnerabilities of detainees and collaborate with interrogators in exploiting them.” Medical personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan were also involved in interrogations.

Military physicians and other health professionals participated in the “design, use and monitoring of waterboarding,” the report said. Doctors and nurses helped to force-feed detainees on hunger strike, using restraint chairs and nasal feeding tubes. At Guantanamo Bay, medical records were shared with interrogators and used for intelligence gathering, leading many detainees to refuse medical treatment, the report found.

“A health professional has an obligation not to participate in acts that deliberately impose pain or suffering on a person,” the report said. “Replacing ethical standards with a legal one — that is, only to refrain from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment — eviscerates the ethical standards.”

The American Medical Association “has taken the clear stand that physician participation in torture, interrogation and forced medical intervention is a violation of core ethical values,” said R. J. Mills, a spokesman for the group in an email.

So far, the report found, no health professionals have been disciplined for their involvement in torturing detainees. It’s unclear how many were involved, the report found, adding that many “likely tried to perform honorably … in an environment of severe human-rights violations.” State licensing boards in seven states have dismissed complaints against health professionals filed by detainees and in some instances, professional colleagues, for their alleged involvement in mistreating detainees at CIA black sites and Guantanamo, it said.

And while the CIA has said it no longer holds any detainees, the Defense Department rules for health professionals remain in place, another indication of how, despite President Barack Obama’s ban on torture, such abuses could happen again.

Several detainees have been force-fed at Guantanamo Bay after starting another hunger strike earlier this year, a practice that is defined by groups like the International Red Cross as abuse. As of today, 14 detainees were still refusing to eat and were approved for force-feeding, though some choose to eat voluntarily rather than undergo the forced feeding, Breasseale said.

“We remain committed to President Obama’s goal of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” he added. “It is wildly expensive, it is inefficient, and it operates outside America’s best interests. However, until Congress changes the law, we will continue to humanely safeguard those held in our charge there.”

Detainee treatment is likely to play a role in the upcoming military tribunal of five alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed. The men are charged with conspiracy and terrorism, among other offenses.

Their defense attorneys and critics of the process have argued that the trials are tainted because the detainees were tortured. Mohammed alone was subjected to waterboarding, or simulated drowning, 183 times.

If the government seeks the death penalty, defense attorneys want to be able to raise the detainees’ treatment as part of their defense. But the government, which says that the men were not tortured, has refused to provide additional details of what happened at black sites — secret, CIA-run prisons overseas — saying that’s classified information.

The trial, which is expected to begin in January 2015, will proceed under refined rules for military commissions outlined under President Obama in 2009. The new guidelines ban the use in court of statements made by the detainees “derived from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” But it does allow a loophole for derivative evidence, which is information one step removed from statements made under torture.

Another problem: Secrecy rules don’t allow the defense to know exactly what was gleaned through torture and what wasn’t. They also argue that anything the detainees have said since the abuse, even if they weren’t being tortured during subsequent rounds of questioning, is still invalid.

The 9/11 tribunal chief prosecutor, Brig. Gen.  Mark Martins, argued last month that a military commission is the “only lawful path forward” to try the five detainees.

“There’s a bar in our law: Congress has prohibited the transfer of any detainee from Guantanamo to the U.S. for trial, so that’s not going to happen in federal courts,” Martins told the AFP. “So if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen by military commissions.”

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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