A new report released Monday claims that the Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency directed doctors and other medical professionals in their employ to ignore their Hippocratic oaths and other ethical codes in order to facilitate the interrogation of detainees.
The new report from the Taskforce on Preserving Medical Professionalism in National Security Detention Centres — titled “Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the ‘War on Terror'” — doesn’t shy away from bluntly referring to the “advanced interrogation techniques” implemented after 9/11 as torture, castigating the Pentagon and CIA for ordering medical practitioners to ignore their oaths in carrying it out. In both the CIA and DOD, the report alleges, officials “facilitated that involvement in similar ways, including undermining health professionals’ allegiances to established principles of professional ethics and conduct through reinterpretation of those principles.”
When first designing the methods used to extract information from high-value detainees, the report explains, the Defense Department put together what they dubbed Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs), which typically are built around a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a mental health technician. The first BSCT, deployed at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay in 2002, recommended the use of what have become familiar methods, including sleep and sensory deprivation, exposure to extreme noise and temperature variations, and the use of stress positions. While waterboarding was not included in the recommendations, they made their way up the chain of command and were approved for use against detainees.
Despite the continuing presence of these medical officers while torture was being committed, the CIA and military alike adopted language to shield their role, the report alleges. Military members of BSCTs began in 2004 to be referred to as “safety officers,” there to keep the detainees from being too badly injured. Instead, the Task Force writes, the military was at the same time directing BSCT members to “advise interrogators in exploiting detainee vulnerabilities,” a role that they say continues today.
The desire to treat certain medical practitioners as above the rule is strong enough, the reports says, the Pentagon now believes that physicians’ “duty to avoid or minimize harm […] does not apply to the BSCTs involved in interrogation because they are not involved in clinical treatment.” DOD has gone so far as to classify doctors and psychologists on BSCTs as combatants, the report alleges, who are thus not subject to the rules of their profession even though they are still required to be licensed.
The report also seeks to make clear the troubling blurring of lines between the medical responsibilities these medical officials have sworn to uphold and the standards that DOD and CIA say trump them:
Unlike an interrogator, who may create stress for a detainee so long as he or she acts within legal standards, including those prohibiting torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, a health professional has an obligation not to participate in acts that deliberately impose pain or suffering on a person. replacing ethical standards with a legal one — that is, only to refrain from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment –eviscerates the ethical standards.
“Putting on a uniform does not and should not abrogate the fundamental principles of medical professionalism,” said Institute on Medicine as a Profession President David Rothman in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “‘Do no harm’ and ‘put patient interest first’ must apply to all physicians regardless of where they practice.” Both the IMP and the Open Society Foundation supported the work of the Task Force in drafting the report.
ThinkProgress spoke with Leonard Rubenstein, of the Center for Public Health and Human Rights, who helped organize the Task Force and took the lead in drafting the final report. Accord to Rubenstein, the panel met with DOD and CIA officials a number of times over the three year investigation, providing them with advance warning about the critiques they were developing in the hopes of having some sort of reform. So far, he says, there hasn’t been much progress towards a change in the rules in place.
“Most of the rules in the beginning have been reaffirmed and others have become more draconian,” Rubenstein told ThinkProgress, specifically pointing to the recent force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo. “We hope that once the public and policymakers and the medical community as a whole gets more engaged in these problems, there’s a chance of restoring ethical practice,” he added.
The six-month long hunger strike was among the worst that the military has seen from the detainees still being held in Guantanamo Bay, years after the promised closure of the installation and while many of those cleared for transfer still remain incarcerated. Medical officials from around the world slammed the Department of Defense for demanding that the strikers be force-fed intranasally, a practice that the American Medical Association condemned and the United Nations deemed a violation of international law.