Complicit and culpable: The role of health professionals in CIA torture activities

The latest CIA Inspector General’s May 2004 Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities Report, released to the public on August 24, 2009, describes previously unknown or unconfirmed interrogation practices performed by the CIA and colluding health professionals. The report highlights the role of the physicians and psychologists who advised and monitored — and thus legitimized — the controversial interrogation methods carried out in support of counterterrorism. The illegal and unethical practices, supervised and implicitly sanctioned by medical professionals, violate US detainee treatment protocol, international human rights standards, the right to health doctrine, and medical ethics.

A team of doctors from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) highlighted the recent disclosures in a white paper released seven days after the Inspector General’s August report, titled Aiding Torture: Health Professionals’ Ethics and Human Rights Violations Revealed in the May 2004 CIA Inspector General’s Report. The analysis dovetails a related 2007 report written by PHR and Human Rights First, Leave No Marks, which examines the physical and mental effects of the interrogation methods disclosed up to that point, including “forced nudity, isolation, white noise or loud music, continu­ous light or darkness, temperature ma­nipulation, stress positions, sleep deprivation, attention slap, abdominal slap, stress positions and waterboarding.”

The techniques described in the Inspector General’s report amount to torture from both a medical and legal standpoint. These unapproved methods include the following:

Mock executions and threatening detainees by brandish­ing handguns and power drills;
Threatening the detainee with harm to family mem­bers, including sexual assault of female family members and murder of detainee’s children; and
Physical abuse, including the application of pressure to the arteries on the sides of a detainee’s neck, resulting in near loss of consciousness, and tackling or hard take­downs.

Aiding Torture also examines the effects of other interrogation techniques. These include “forced shaving, hooding, restricted diet, prolonged diapering, ‘walling’ and confinement boxes.”

The mandated presence and resulting participation or complicity of health professionals during the interrogation sessions aggravates the case against the “efficacy and safety” of the CIA’s practices. The health professionals and psychologists — Office of Medical Services employees and Department of Defense contractors, respectively — selected, reasoned, and monitored the prisoners’ treatment based on their own initial assessments of mental and physical health. Directly or indirectly, they acted against the sanctified ethics of their profession. As PHR observes, “The required presence of health professionals did not make these methods safer, and in fact only served to sanitize their use and enable the abuse to escalate, thereby placing health professionals in the untenable position of calibrating harm rather than serving as protectors and healers as required by their ethical oath.”

To conclude its analysis, PHR calls for a “full investigation” of war crimes and “reparation” for wrongdoing in the form of financial, psychological, or medical compensation. They call for the incrimination and loss of licensure for health professionals who acted complicity or assertively in the CIA torture procedures. The Inspector General’s report serves as a disturbing and important reminder that interrogation procedures must be reworked and that torture crimes must be redressed. Beyond targeting individual accountability, the US should take a closer look at a system that winds up implicating its own workforce.

For further reading, please see:

Broken Laws, Broken Lives by PHR

International Committee of the Red Cross Report

Military Commissions Act of 2006

A Summary of United Nations Agreements on Human Rights

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

Newsweek article about the release of the Inspector General’s Report

Mother Jones article on torture psychologists

Future of Freedom Foundation article on the “CIA’s secret history of psychological torture”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights