A handcuffed Guantanamo detainee at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba. Photo: Brennan Linsley/AP
WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Congress prepares to begin a new session this week, rights advocates and some health workers are urging lawmakers to initiate a formal investigation into the role that medical personnel played in facilitating the CIA’s highly contentious “enhanced interrogation” program.
The calls follow the public release of a key summary report of the program, declassified last month by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence following years of delay and debate. The report offers evidence that medical and health personnel played “an essential role in every stage” of the CIA program, according to Physicians for Human Rights, a watchdog group made up of doctors, psychologists and ethicists.
Most famously, medical personnel involved in the covert project included two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who were reportedly contracted for tens of millions of dollars to create the interrogation program’s framework. Yet this process appears to have used many other health workers, too, including psychiatrists and physician assistants.
Physicians for Human Rights suggests that through their participation, these individuals likely broke professional oaths and codes of conduct, U.S. state and federal law, and longstanding international covenants. Their actions could potentially even be considered crimes against humanity.
“The [Intelligence Committee] summary … describes in detail the acts and omissions of CIA health professionals who violated their professional ethics, undermined the critical bond of trust between patients and physicians, and – crucially – broke the law,” the group states in a new report released last month.
“There is no exception to the prohibition on torture under international law, or to the obligation on all governments to prosecute it. Governments will always claim there are exceptional circumstances that justify the use of torture … The only way to counteract this dangerous fallacy is to ensure that torture never goes unpunished.”
The group is now calling on President Barack Obama to work with the new Congress to open a formal and comprehensive probe into the role played by medical personnel in the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program.
“We’re talking about medical personnel being present at all levels of complicity, being a great enabler of one of the worst policies in U.S. history,” Dr. Vincent Iacopino, a senior medical advisor for Physicians for Human Rights and a co-author on the new report, told MintPress News.
“The law means nothing unless it is respected, so it requires that we hold those responsible accountable. It’s fairly easy to imagine that the U.S. will be challenged again in terms of terrorism and our response to it, and if we sweep these actions under the rug we have no hope for preventing them from happening again.”
Although only partial and in places heavily redacted, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence summary report offered the public its first official snapshot of a highly secretive interrogation program that Obama, on taking over as president, almost immediately acknowledged strayed into the torture of some 120 detainees held in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Indeed, several of the interrogation techniques that appear to have received widespread use had been formally characterized as torture by the U.S. government prior to 2001. Their use appears to have resulted in the death of at least one detainee.
Among dozens of formal findings, the full Intelligence Committee report, which runs to some 6,700 pages but remains classified, concludes that the CIA’s interrogation practices were far more brutal than previously understood. The report also accuses the agency of systematically misleading congressional overseers about the extent, safeguards and results of the enhanced interrogation program.
Perhaps most controversially, the committee concludes that the intelligence value of ethically and legally questionable forms of interrogation did not produce sufficient actionable intelligence. The 500-page report summary was released over the objections of Republicans on the Intelligence Committee and remains a point of partisan debate.
In the context of these explosive details, findings regarding the extent to which medical personnel were involved in the interrogations have been relatively less discussed. Yet their role appears to have been key to the program’s functioning.
“[H]ealth professionals played not only a central, but an essential role in the CIA torture program – to an extent not previously understood,” the new report from Physicians for Human Rights states.
“Psychologists designed, supervised, and implemented an extensive system of torture and ill-treatment, and were paid enormous sums for their efforts. Psychologists and physicians monitored those being tortured and used their expertise to certify detainees’ fitness for torture and worked to enable and enhance the pain inflicted.”
Without both this active participation and silent acquiescence, Physicians for Human Rights suggests, the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program could well have been halted early on.
In fact, analysis of the Intelligence Committee summary report suggests that the involvement of medical personnel in various roles throughout the interrogation program served as critical legal cover for the CIA and Department of Justice. This involvement was particularly important in determining and calibrating the severity of pain inflicted during interrogation, a key metric under the newly revised definition of torture being used by the George W. Bush administration.
“[P]hysicians and psychologists participated in the ongoing monitoring of these practices, and – through their silence and inaction – aided the CIA and [Department of Justice] lawyers in creating a fiction of ‘safe, legal, and effective’ interrogation practices,” the Physicians for Human Rights report states. “Moreover, it appears that this legal farce was and continues to be instrumental in attempts to justify a policy of systematic torture.”
Beginning a new process?
The push for accountability around medical personnel mirrors the broader call, in the aftermath of the Intelligence Committee’s summary report, for criminal investigations and prosecutions of those found to have been involved with or complicit in the enhanced interrogation program.
“This should be the beginning of a process, not the end. The report should shock President Obama and Congress into action, to make sure that torture and cruelty are never used again,” Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement following the release of the Senate report.
“The Department of Justice needs to appoint a special prosecutor to hold the architects and perpetrators of the torture program accountable for its design, implementation, and cover-ups.”
Romero’s office has released a “blueprint” aimed at ensuring such accountability. This includes, among other recommendations, appointing a special prosecutor, as well as ensuring reforms to the CIA that bring it under the same interrogations rules to which the U.S. military adheres. It also recommends banning the agency outright from holding detainees.
It is not yet clear how much political support there will be for any major accountability push in the new Congress. Staff members with Physicians for Human Rights note that their report, as with the Senate summary, was released just before the holiday break. They say they hope to see stronger support or related alternatives emerge now that lawmakers have returned to Washington.
At the same time, public support for a formal probe is not yet forthcoming from some notable corners, including the influential professional associations and trade groups that dominate the medical field. Major groups such as the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association have put out detailed and strongly worded denunciations of any form of torture or contravention of U.S. law or professional ethics by their members.
Yet when contacted by MintPress, these and major medical associations declined to comment on whether they would support a related congressional probe. Others suggest the special conditions surrounding the CIA program do not warrant additional investigation.
“Such a probe would concern a handful of government doctors working under rare and unusual circumstances involving national security,” Jane Orient, the executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a prominent conservative trade group, told MintPress. “The ethical issues pale in comparison to those about doctors who freely choose to perform euthanasia or abortions, procedures that kill innocent human beings, sometimes quite painfully.”
Yet others say the medical profession as a whole has been negatively impacted by the recent revelations, and that public trust needs to be healed.
“Our profession depends on the trust of people, to do what’s in your best interest – and clearly that’s not what happened here,” Physicians for Human Rights’ Iacopino said.
“We’re encouraged by some of the statements that have been put out by the major associations, but accountability and prevention require action. So we’re eagerly anticipating additional action from these groups, including, hopefully, supporting a call for investigation by a federal commission.”