War Crimes by Doctors and Psychologists

October 1, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Orangeburg Times and Democrat on October 1, 2009.

After I reported on documented evidence by Physicians for Human Rights that doctors and psychologists “were involved in every stage in the development, implementation and legitimization” of the CIA’s torture operations, I saw a Sept. 6 Washington Post column, “From ‘Do No Harm’ to Torture,” by this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, Eugene Robinson. He made the reasonable point: “the law should hold them (doctors and psychologists) accountable.”

Eugene Robinson quoted James H. Bray, president of the American Psychological Association: “It is unthinkable that any psychologist could assert that stress positions, forced nudity, sleep deprivation, exploiting phobias, and waterboarding — along with other forms of torture techniques that the American Psychological Association has condemned and prohibited — cause no lasting damage to a human being’s psyche.”

And, in a letter that American Medical Association officials sent to President Obama in April, they stressed that doctors “must not monitor interrogations with the intention of intervening in the process, because this constitutes direct participation.”

But will either the AMA or the APA join Physicians for Human Rights in calling for full investigation and accountability for these health professionals’ actual participation in war crimes under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment — as well as the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Torture Act?

And does Obama, in his yearning to look forward and not back, have anything to say about investigating war‐​crimes charges against these licensed guarantors of care of our bodies and psyches?

The United States signed the international treaties it violated.

The first national whistleblower on these accomplices in torture was Dr. Steven Miles, a practicing physician, professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School and a member of its Center for Bioethics. His book, Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors (now available in paperback, University of California Press), also demanded accountability for those doctors and psychologists, but went much farther up the chain of command to target a very key official legitimizer of this torture policy.

On April 16, 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent a memorandum, “Counter Resistance Techniques in the War on Terror,” to the Commander, U.S. Southern Command.

Rumsfeld ordered a medical partnership of “counterresistance” — interrogation for 20 hours, which he approved, that included “deprivation of light and sound.…” For any nation considering these techniques as inhuman, Rumsfeld declared that “provisions of the Geneva Convention are not applicable to Guantanamo detainees.”

Now, here in the memorandum is where doctors and psychologists become deeply involved in torture. Wrote Rumsfeld: “Interrogations must always be planned, deliberate actions that take into account…a detainee’s emotional and physical strengths and weakness.”

The Secretary of Defense said flatly: “Interrogation approaches are designed to manipulate the detainee’s emotions and weaknesses to gain his willing cooperation.”


The Secretary of U.S. Torture Policy continued as an example: “The use of isolation as an interrogation technique requires detailed implementation instructions … including medical and psychological review … including the presence or availability of qualified medical personnel.” And Dr. Steven Miles added very significantly:

“Rumsfeld’s proposal that interrogation plans coercively ‘manipulate the detainee’s emotions and weaknesses’ implicitly invited employing medical information for interrogation purposes. … Secretary Rumsfeld’s interrogation policy was now ready to pass down the chain of command to Guantanamo and Afghanistan.”

What sort of medical information to exploit prisoner’s phobias? “Fear of the dark, of being alone,” Miles reports in Oath Betrayed. Or “medical conditions that could be exploited” to break a prisoner.

In the Physicians for Human Rights report, “Interrogators would place a cloth over a detainee’s face to block breathing and induce feelings of fear, helplessness, and a loss of control. A doctor would stand by to monitor and calibrate this physically and psychologically harmful act, which amounts to torture.” The doctor stood by and did not intervene.

But this and other forms of official torture (though never called that) were authorized at the very top of the chain of command. On Feb. 7, 2002, President George W. Bush signed a memorandum: “Pursuant to my authority as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive of the United States…I accept the legal conclusion of the Department of Justice and determine that none of the provisions of (the) Geneva (Conventions) apply to our conflict with al Qaeda in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world.” Go to it, Secretary Rumsfeld!

But President Obama opposes an investigation of war crimes beyond a noncriminal inquiry of a small number of CIA interrogators in the field. A majority of the present Congress agrees with him on these limits. Do you?

Oh, in that 2002 memorandum, Bush emphasized hollowly: “Our values as a nation, values that we share with many nations in the world, call for us to treat detainees humanely, including those who are not legally entitled to such treatment.” It’s not only Bush. President Obama and CIA Director Leon Panetta are continuing CIA “renditions” of detainees to other countries for their skills in interrogations. American values?

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