November 15, 2013
Unusually, there has been so much Guantánamo-related news lately that I haven’t had time to write about it all. A case in point is "Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the War on Terror" (also available here on Scribd), a 156-page report by the Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism in National Security Detention Centers, an independent panel of 19 military, ethics, medical, public health, and legal experts, who spent two years working on their report, with the support of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession and the Open Society Foundations.
The report was published on November 5, and, as a press release explained, the task force of experts "charged that US military and intelligence agencies directed doctors and psychologists working in US military detention centers to violate standard ethical principles and medical standards to avoid infliction of harm."
The task force also concluded that, "since September 11, 2001, the Department of Defense (DoD) and CIA improperly demanded that US military and intelligence agency health professionals collaborate in intelligence gathering and security practices in a way that inflicted severe harm on detainees in US custody," which included "designing, participating in, and enabling torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" of prisoners seized in the "war on terror."
Particular criticism was directed at the CIA’s Office of Medical Services, who, as the task force explained, "played a critical role in reviewing and approving forms of torture, including waterboarding, as well as in advising the Department of Justice that 'enhanced interrogation’ methods, such as extended sleep deprivation and waterboarding that are recognized as forms of torture, were medically acceptable." The task force added, importantly, that CIA medical personnel "were present during [the] administration of waterboarding," which is true, but the even more alarming fact is that all the torture and abuse that was so widespread in the "war on terror" needed medical personnel to be present to make sure — or to try and make sure — that no one died.
Dr. Gerald Thomson, Professor of Medicine Emeritus at Columbia University, and a member of the task force, stated, "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. 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."
The task force called on the DoD and CIA "to follow medical professional standards of conduct to enable doctors and psychologists to adhere to their ethical principles so that in the future they be used to heal, not injure, detainees they encounter," and urged professional medical associations and the American Psychological Association "to strengthen ethical standards related to interrogation and detention of detainees." The task force noted that, although the DoD had "taken steps to address some of these practices in recent years, including instituting a committee to review medical ethics concerns at Guantanamo," the changes to the role of health professionals since 9/11, and what were described as "anaemic ethical standards adopted within the military" are still in place.
The report also listed the policies put in place in the "war on terror" that breached the required ethical standards "to promote well-being and avoid harm," and listed them as:
- Involvement in abusive interrogation; consulting on conditions of confinement to increase the disorientation and anxiety of detainees;
- Using medical information for interrogation purposes; and
- Force-feeding of hunger strikers.
That last point is one that has been of particular relevance this year, with the well-publicized hunger strike, which, for seven months, involved the majority of the prisoners. Despite court submissions by lawyers on behalf of the prisoners, in which they urged judges to order the government to stop the force-feeding, the judges were obliged to rule that they didn’t have jurisdiction because of previous rulings involving Guantánamo and hunger strikes. Specifically, when Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, the legislation prevented prisoners from suing over their living conditions.
An appeal was submitted last month, which I wrote about here, in which two of the three judges in the Washington D.C. appeals court, Judge David Tatel and Judge Thomas Griffith, "asked sceptical questions." Reuters reported that, while they "stopped short of agreeing that forced feeding is inhumane, they suggested that Guantánamo detainees might be able to get around" the conditions in the DTA, which "bars them from suing over living conditions in extreme cases that might include forced feeding."
The publication of the report also coincided with a screening, in London, of "Doctors of the Dark Side," a documentary film, directed by Martha Davis, a clinical psychologist, who visited London for the screening at UCL, where I had the pleasure of meeting her. As described on the film’s website, "Doctors of the Dark Side" tells the stories of four prisoners and the doctors involved in their abuse, and exposes "how psychologists and physicians implemented and covered up the torture of detainees in US controlled military prisons."
The website also features a powerful comment by Nathaniel Raymond, formerly the director of Physicians for Human Rights' anti-torture campaign, who called the participation of doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists in the Bush administration’s post-9/11 program of torture, rendition and indefinite detention "the single greatest scandal in the history of American medical ethics."
One thing that struck me most powerfully while I was watching "Doctors of the Dark Side," and that also emerged in discussions afterwards was, as I mention above in relation to waterboarding, that it is no exaggeration to say that, without doctors to oversee and check on the victims of torture, the entire program would have been inconceivable, laying the responsibility for the widespread torture and abuse on doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists as much as on the senior officials in the Bush administration and their lawyers, who conceived and authorized the programs of torture and abuse, and the senior military figures, and those in the CIA, who implemented them.
I hope that the publication of "Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the War on Terror" leads to further action, to try and ensure that the kind of abuse that is still ongoing at Guantánamo, with relation to the 11 prisoners still being force-fed, is brought to an end, and steps taken to make sure that it cannot happen again.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the "Close Guantánamo" campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (available on DVD here – or here for the US).
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