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Exposed: American Doctors and Psychologists Engaged in Frightening Torture Programs Since 9/11

Turning the idea of health professional upside down.

If you thought the U.S.’s involvement in the torture of prisoners detained in the “war on terror” was limited only to U.S. military personnel, intelligence officers, wrongheaded prison guards, or, through “extraordinary rendition,” handled by foreign proxies, think again. A new report from The Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism in National Security Detention Centers has found that since 9/11, “Military and intelligence-agency physicians and other health professionals, particularly psychologists, became involved in the design and administration of that harsh treatment and torture — in clear conflict with established international and national professional principles and laws.”

According to the recently issued  Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the War on Terror, medical practitioners were involved in such activities as “designing, … and enabling torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” of detainees. And while the DoD has claimed that it has taken steps to remediate the problems, “including instituting a committee to review medical ethics concerns at Guantanamo Bay Prison,” the report’s authors say that these efforts fall far short of being meaningful.

The report pointed out that in 2010, the institute on Medicine as a Profession (IMAP) and the Open Society Foundations convened the Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism in National Security Detention Centers “to examine what is known about the involvement of health professionals in infliction of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody and how such deviation from professional standards and ethically proper conduct occurred, including actions that were taken by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the CIA to direct this conduct.”

“The American public has a right to know that the covenant with its physicians to follow professional ethical expectations is firm regardless of where they serve,” said Task Force member Dr. Gerald Thomson, Professor of Medicine Emeritus at Columbia University. “It’s clear that in the name of national security the military trumped that covenant, and physicians were transformed into agents of the military and performed acts that were contrary to medical ethics and practice. We have a responsibility to make sure this never happens again.”

A broad array of “health professionals” and/or “medical personnel,” including physicians, psychologists, registered nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, corpsmen (U.S. Navy or Marine-trained enlisted medical personnel), medics (U.S. Army-enlisted medical personnel), and technicians, participated in, or enabled, torture of detainees.

The Task Force found that post-9/11, U.S. government actions included “three key elements affecting the role of health professionals in detention centers”:

1.“The declaration that as part of a ‘war on terror,’ individuals captured and detained in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere were ‘unlawful combatants’ who did not qualify as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Justice approved of interrogation methods recognized domestically and internationally as constituting torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”

2. “The DoD and CIA’s development of internal mechanisms to direct the participation of military and intelligence-agency physicians and psychologists in abusive interrogation and breaking of hunger strikes. Although … the military and the CIA, … facilitated that involvement in similar ways, including undermining health professionals’ allegiances to established principles of professional ethics and conduct through reinterpretation of those principles.”

3. In 2004-2005, “leaked documents began to reveal those policies” that had previously been secret. “Secrecy allowed the unlawful and unethical interrogation and mistreatment of detainees to proceed unfettered by established ethical principles and standards of conduct as well as societal, professional, and nongovernmental commentary and legal review.”

To set the U.S. government’s torture policy into motion, it disregarded previous established interrogation guidelines, and violated the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment, treaties that the U.S. was “bound to follow.”

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