Doctors Tortured Detainees in the War on Terror

An independent panel released a report concluding that health professionals participated in the torture of detainees.

Guantanamo Prison Flight
Photo Credit: Publik15/Flickr

Health professionals in the military and the Central Intelligence Agency directly participated in cruel and inhuman treatment and the torture of detainees. An independent panel supported by the Open Society Foundation and the Institute on Medicine as a Professionmade the findings in a comprehensive report titled, Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the War on Terror.

The report found that health professionals were directed to take part in the torture of detainees after the September 11, 2001 attacks.  The complicity of medical professionals in torture runs counter to accepted ethical principles and medical standards, the panel stated.

The CIA tortured prisoners captured on the battlefields of the war on terror in “black sites,” while the military tortured those at Guantanamo Bay. The report states that medical professionals working for the CIA and military partook in practices that included “designing, participating in, and enabling torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.”

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“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 Dr. Gerald Thomson, a Professor of Medicine Emeritus at Columbia University and a member of the task force, in a statement. 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.”

Specifically, doctors have been used in abusive interrogations and required professionals to forgo independent judgement on the treatment of detainees.

The majority of the abuses documented were carried out under the Bush administration. But while reforms under the Obama administration have been implemented, they don’t go far enough, the panel said. The report harshly criticizes the practice of force-feeding hunger strikers at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

“Abuse of detainees, and health professional participation in this practice, is not behind us as a country,” said John Hopkins University’s Leonard Rubenstein. “Force-feeding by physicians in violation of ethical standards is illustrative of a much broader legacy in which medical professionalism has been undermined.”


Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.