Doctors Assisting Torture

The medical art of breaking down prisoners in our war against international terrorism

Military doctors at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have aided interrogators in conducting and refining coercive interrogations of detainees, including providing advice on how to increase stress levels and exploit fears, according to new, detailed accounts given by former interrogators. . . ."Their purpose was to help us break them," one former interrogator told theTimes earlier this year. Neil A. Lewis,The New York Times, June 24


There have been powerful, passionate denunciations of the Bush administration's war on civil liberties at home—and its continual violations of the universal human rights of its prisoners in Guantánamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

But I have seen no pickup in the media of a penetrating American version of Émile Zola's "J'Accuse" (in the scandalous Dreyfus affair) that appeared in the July 1 Washington Post, "The Stain of Torture" by Dr. Burton J. Lee III. Dr. Lee was physician to president George H.W. Bush in the White House and is a board member of Physicians for Human Rights.

Dr. Lee could not be more plain: "It's precisely because of my devotion to country, respect for our military and commitment to the ethics of the medical profession that I speak out against systematic government-sanctioned torture and excessive abuse of prisoners during our war on terrorism." (Emphasis added.)

He continued, "Reports of torture by U.S. forces have been accompanied by evidence that military medical personnel have played a role in this abuse, and by new military ethical guidelines that in effect authorize complicity by health professionals in ill-treatment of detainees."

Confirming Dr. Lee's revulsion against this covert but official use of physicians—including psychologists and psychiatrists—to "break" prisoners is a documented indictment in the July 7 New England Journal of Medicine, one of this nation's most influential medical journals. This time, however, this journal's impact is less than usual because the exposé, "Doctors and Interrogators at Guantánamo Bay," has had little coverage elsewhere.

The authors of the New England Journal of Medicinearticle are Dr. M. Gregg Bloche—a law professor at Georgetown University and an adjunct public health professor at Johns Hopkins University—and Jonathan H. Marks, a London barrister and fellow in bioethics at Georgetown University Law Center and the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins.

This long, detailed piece underlines that there is no doctor-patient confidentiality for Gitmo prisoners, and "health information has been routinely available to behavioral science consultants and others who are responsible for crafting and carrying out interrogation strategies. . . .

"And, since late 2002, psychiatrists and psychologists have been part of a strategy that employs extreme stress, combined with behavior-shaping rewards, to extract actionable intelligence from resistant captives. (Emphasis added.)

None of this, of course, has been admitted by the Pentagon or the White House. Is there at least one member of the too often somnolent Washington press corps who will ask Donald Rumsfeld about the following smoking gun in the New England Journal of Medicine article?

"A previously unreported U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom) policy statement, in effect since August 6, 2002 . . . not only requires caregivers to provide clinical information to military and Central Intelligence Agency interrogation teams on request; it calls on them to volunteer information that they believe might be of value [to extract information]. It thereby makes them part of Guantánamo's surveillance network, dissolving the Pentagon's purported separation between intelligence gathering and patient care." (Emphasis added.)

Anyone in Congress interested? Chuck? Hillary?

This article, which shames the commander in chief—and us, because these crimes, including torture, are being done in our name—continued:

"At Guantánamo, the fear-and-anxiety approach was often favored. The cruel and degrading measures taken by some, in violation of international human rights law and the laws of war, have become a matter of national shame." (Emphasis added.)

However, they have not become a matter of national shame! Not yet. Have there been any Sunday sermons or demonstrations in the street? How many members of Congress have gotten outraged letters or e-mails about these "cruel and degrading measures"—including torture? But our enemies know about these practices, which, I expect, are useful recruiting tools for them against the "Crusader Zionists." The article ends:

"The global political fallout from this abuse may pose more of a threat to U.S. security than any secrets closely held by shackled internees at Guantánamo Bay."

For anyone—including members of the press—who wants further carefully sourced information on this Bush administration subversion of international law, I strongly recommend an invaluable 135-page report, "Break Them Down: Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by US Forces," released on April 30 by Physicians for Human Rights, 1156 15th Street, NW, Suite 1001, Washington DC 20005 (contact: John Heffernan, jheffernan@phrusa.org).

The New England Journal of Medicinearticle directly involves military physicians, psychologists, and psychiatrists in page after page of clinical descriptions in the Physicians for Human Rights' report.

The former presidential physician to the first George Bush, Dr. Burton Lee, warns that

"America cannot continue down this road. Torture demonstrates weakness, not strength. . . . It is not leadership. It is a reaction of government officials overwhelmed by fear who succumb to conduct unworthy of them and of the citizens of the United States."

Among those fearful government officials, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the Republican leadership of Congress unyieldingly continue to refuse to demand an independent investigative inquiry into this dangerous weakness of our leadership.

But Lieutenant General Kevin Riley, the army's surgeon general, said on July 7, "The nation can be proud of our military medical professionals."

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