In violation of international law and medical ethics, US military physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists designed and facilitated the torture of detainees at US detention facilities around the world under both the Bush and Obama administrations, according to a study released today.
The findings are the result of a two year investigation carried out by the Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism in National Security Detention Centers, a body made up of 19 medical, military and ethics experts and formed by the Institute on Medicine as a Profession (IMAP) and the Open Society Foundations.
Based on an examination of publicly available Department of Defense (DoD) and CIA documents, congressional reports and independent investigations by journalists and human rights organizations, the report concludes that since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, US military and intelligence agency health professionals collaborated with the CIA and defense department in “designing, participating in, and enabling torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” of detainees.
This isn’t exactly new information. We’ve known for quite some time that from the very beginning of the so-called “war on terror”, psychologists worked with CIA interrogators to develop torture techniques based on the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program, which trains US soldiers to resist abusive interrogation if captured. As the report puts it, “The interrogators and health professionals transformed training methods used to resist torture into abusive methods of interrogation to be used on detainees.”
But the Task Force also notes that despite steps taken in recent years to re-assess the use of these practices, little has changed. The defense department, under President Obama, “continues to uphold policies that undermine standards of professional conduct in the context of interrogation, response to hunger strikes, and reporting abuse,” the study finds.
In other words, that time President Obama declared, “under my administration the United States does not torture,” was bullshit.
The report, titled, “Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the War on Terror,” goes on to accuse the DoD and CIA of institutionalizing policies and practices for military health personnel that violate ethical standards for medical conduct, like using medical information for interrogations purposes, consulting with physicians and psychologists about techniques for manipulating conditions of confinement to worsen detainees’ anxiety and disorientation and force-feeding hunger strikers, to name just a few.
On top of that, the report points out that the DoD and CIA made it nearly impossible for medical professionals to report or challenge abusive practices and stood in the way of efforts to provide proper medical care to detainees.
The report’s findings are damning but the report’s recommended fix— that the US government conduct a thorough investigation into its own practices and the CIA and DoD reform their policies—is laughable.
Concluding that war crimes may have been committed and then recommending that the criminals investigate themselves seems to be a pattern among nongovernmental organizations. Just a couple weeks ago, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused the US government of committing possible war crimes in its drone strikes on Pakistan and Yemen, yet neither group recommended anything beyond an internal investigation into the drone program.
They should know that extensive and systemic breaches of international law require more than internal investigations and reforms. Those who institutionalize and engage in crimes against humanity need to be held accountable. Anything less makes a mockery of international law and guarantees its continued violation with impunity.
The doctors who engaged in torture should be named and prosecuted as well as the US officials responsible for creating, legalizing and maintaining such a program. It’s that simple.