The Torture Doctors


For all the press coverage of abuses, including torture, of our “detainees,” most Americans are unaware of the partnership between military interrogators and military doctors and psychiatrists in “breaking” prisoners who refuse to provide information. A chilling account of this utter betrayal of medical ethics appeared in the July 2005 New England Journal of Medicine (“Doctors and Interrogators at Guantánamo Bay”), hardly a widely circulated publication.

It was preceded on July 1 by an op-ed column in The Washington Post, “The Stain of Torture,” by Dr. Burton J. Lee II, former personal physician to President George H.W. Bush. Lee was horrified that “military medical personnel have played a role in the torture of prisoners.”

I thought these modern versions of Émile Zola’s “J’Accuse”—which famously denounced the French military in 1898 for its anti-Semitic persecution of Alfred Dreyfus—would be followed by Congressional investigations and fiery editorials, but the only substantial follow-up I’ve seen to this indictment of the Defense Department’s torture doctors has been a book, Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity and the War on Terror by Dr. Steven Miles, an expert on medical ethics and international human rights.

The book was published by Random House last year, but has largely disappeared from press and public attention. In his April 7 interview with Miles, Peter Rowe of the The San Diego Union-Tribune noted that “Amazon reported that 227,826 other volumes were outselling Oath Betrayed.”

I am not surprised, therefore, to have seen no follow-up in the press or in Congress on Miles’s documented proof that it was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who authorized the collaboration between interrogators and doctors preparing prisoners for torture.

In an April 2003 memorandum, Donald Rumsfeld ordered that “interrogations must always . . . take into account . . . a detainee’s emotional and physical strengths and weaknesses . . . [and] manipulate [those] emotions and weaknesses.”

This is how it works, as described in the New England Journal of Medicine. At Guantánamo, Major General Geoffrey Miller, under Rumsfeld’s policy, “approved the creation of a Behavioral Science Consultation Team” (BSCT, pronounced biscuit). Psychiatrists and psychologists on the team at Guantánamo “prepared psychological profiles [of the prisoners whose personal health information they had access to] for use by interrogators. They also sat in on some interrogations, observed others from behind one-way mirrors, and offered feedback to interrogators.”

In another medical publication, American Journal of Bioethics, Miles added, “The BSCT doctors suggested . . . how to break the prisoners down. . . . [One] approach aimed at a prisoner’s personal vulnerabilities, his worst fears, for example.”

No detail was too insignificant for these specialists in cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment. A BSCT psychologist authorized the use of snarling dogs to “exploit individual phobias.” And another psychologist, a chair of the BSCT team at Guantánamo and a major in rank, “suggested putting the prisoner in a swivel chair to prevent him from fixing his eyes on one spot and thereby avoiding the guards.”

Moreover, Steven Miles reports in Oath Betrayed that “a civil lawsuit and an FBI memo describe four prisoners—three at Guantánamo and one apparently in Afghanistan—who were “denied a prosthetic limb [and] antibiotics for festering wounds . . . until they cooperated with interrogators.”

Another detailed source of how the torture doctors operate is the soon-to-be-updated 2005 report, “Break Them Down: Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by U.S. Forces” from the Physicans for Human Rights ( (PFHR has offices in both Washington and Cambridge, Mass.)

A key indictment in this report on the legal responsibilities of health professionals cooperating with interrogators should lead to a Congressional investigation now that the Democrats are in power, but Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are clueless in these human-rights matters:

“Health personnel employed by the Department of Defense and other agencies in the ‘war on terror’ are bound by international law,” reads the report. Also, “they should abide by ethical standards of the World Medical Association and the American Medical Association [both of which have yet to be heard from concerning the discipline of torture doctors]. The Declaration of Tokyo, adopted by both bodies, prohibits participation by physicians in torture and all forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. This includes providing knowledge to ‘facilitate the practice of torture’ [and other degrading treatment]. It also prohibits the physician’s presence when any of these practices takes place.”

Are none of the doctors in these prisons troubled by what they see, even if some are not directly involved? “There is evidence,” says Physicians for Human Rights, “of failure on the part of health professionals to report abuse as well as evidence of complicity in acts of physical and psychological torture.”

There are FBI agents with much higher ethical standards than these health professionals. A number of them, appalled at what they saw during Army interrogations while on assignment at Guantánamo, sent urgent e-mails to FBI Director Robert Mueller reporting these abuses, adding that some of the torturers pretended to be FBI agents. Mueller took no action until persistently prodded by Vermont Democratic Senator Pat Leahy; he then said he’d look into it. But as far as I know, no torturer cited by the FBI agents has been held accountable.

I asked Miles what actions have been taken against these health professionals who have abandoned medical ethics. “Only very minor reprisals,” he said. “A medic who watched some abuse. A nurse who witnessed other abuses. But no one higher has been disciplined.” A source at Physicians for Human Rights tells me: “It’s been a complete whitewash.”

Not only Army interrogators and doctors are committing these war crimes under our own War Crimes statute. Two years ago, The Washington Post‘s Dana Priest reported that in a CIA Rendition Group of kidnappers, “case officers, paramilitaries, analysts and psychologists . . . figure out how to snatch someone off a city street, or a remote hillside. . . . ”

The famed anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote that in ancient times, when a physician arrived, a patient was not sure whether the doctor had come to
treat him or kill him. So much for advanced civilization. But why, I wonder,
are American doctors who are not in our military prisons remaining silent?

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