Medical professionals involved in Guantanamo interrogations

Doctors may have been among those who helped decide when to start and stop harsh tactics used against alleged terrorists.

By Kevin B. O’Reilly — Posted May 7, 2009

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Health care professionals, some of whom may have been physicians, played a role in the coercive interrogations of suspected terrorists held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, according to recently circulated documents from the International Committee of the Red Cross and President George W. Bush's Office of Legal Counsel.

The reports, made public in April, showed that medical professionals were charged with monitoring detainees' health during interrogations in which prisoners were forced to stand in stressful positions for extended periods, slammed into walls and suffocated using a technique known as waterboarding. Psychologists helped devise the aggressive interrogation tactics that the Red Cross report said amounted to torture.

One detainee told Red Cross investigators that after a long time standing in a stressful position, an unidentified health professional intervened and asked interrogators to stop the tactic. But, the prisoner alleged, the medical professional then said, "I look after your body only because we need you for further information."

The new documents are an indictment of health professionals' behavior, said Steven H. Miles, MD, professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota Medical School and author of the book, Oath Betrayed: America's Torture Doctors.

"These cases cleanly fall outside of anything that is remotely acceptable," he said. "There is no gray area here."

Dr. Miles said that since World War II, at least 70 doctors have been charged with facilitating torture around the world -- none in the U.S. He said medical boards, organized medicine groups and the Institute of Medicine should develop a procedure to handle charges of physician participation in torture and devise a way of dealing with future allegations.

Calling for an investigation

Physicians for Human Rights, a Cambridge, Mass.-based advocacy group, called on Congress to establish a bipartisan independent commission to further investigate the involvement of U.S. health professionals with detainee interrogations. The group said that any physicians or psychologists who aided torture should lose their licenses and never practice again.

In an April 17 letter to President Obama, AMA President Nancy H. Nielsen, MD, PhD, and AMA Board of Trustees Chair Joseph M. Heyman, MD, wrote: "Any involvement by physicians in torture is fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as a healer. Such involvement would violate core ethical obligations of the medical profession to 'first, do no harm' and to respect human dignity and rights.

"The AMA stands ready to work with you to ensure that these core principles guide our nation's physicians," the letter to Obama continued. "Our aim is to assure that all physicians are fully aware of their ethical obligations, that physicians are not put in ethically untenable positions, and that actions like those alleged do not ever occur under U.S. jurisdiction. We will assist you in any way possible to accomplish that goal."

In 2006, the AMA adopted policy stating that physicians should not conduct, monitor or directly participate in interrogations. Doctors should only help develop interrogation techniques that are humane and refrain from threatening or causing physical or mental harm, the AMA ethical opinion said. The AMA also opposes doctor participation in torture.

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