In addition to the allegation that detainees of the C.I.A. served as research subjects during the Bush administration, the latest report by Physicians for Human Rights revisits the advocacy group’s long-standing campaign against the participation of health professionals in torture.


Under the Bush administration, acts of cruelty such as waterboarding, which are illegal under international and domestic law, were redefined as permissible “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) if practiced within certain limits, according to the group’s June 2010 report, “Experiments in Torture.”


Leonard Rubenstein, J.D., past director of Physicians for Human Rights, was one of the reviewers of the report. Now a visiting scholar at the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Rubenstein said the EITs were still recognized as torture tactics by the rest of the world—including the United Nations.


“There are no exceptions and no justifications for committing a crime of torture, despite what former administration officials may claim,” wrote Melina Milazzo, of Human Rights First, in an Aug. 6 column that appeared on the Huffington Post. “It is illegal—period.”


On Aug. 4, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an opinion piece by Rubenstein and Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general now at the Uniformed Services University of Health Services, that once again condemns the complicity of C.I.A. physicians in interrogation methods that pose serious health risks.


In a FOX News story on the commentary in JAMA, a “U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity” cast the co-authors as being unsupportive of America’s efforts overall to detain terrorist suspects and obtain intelligence in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks—going so far as to call them “second-guessers.”


Rubenstein dismisses the argument as a non sequiter. “To oppose physician facilitation of and participation in torture, as we do, does not in the least imply opposing detention and interrogation in pursuit of intelligence information permitted under international and domestic law,” Rubenstein says. “Indeed, the record shows that good information is only gained by not torturing people.”


In addition to waterboarding, tactics such as forced nudity, sleep deprivation and stress positions—as well as the application of these in combination—were reinterpreted as “safe, legal and effective” interrogation techniques under the legal framework established by the Bush administration.


Whenever George W. Bush denied the use of torture during his presidency, “what he was really saying was, in Alice in Wonderland fashion, ‘Everything we do, we have defined as not torture,’” Rubenstein says.


In January 2009, President Obama signed an executive order undoing the Bush policy.


PHR’s previous report, “Aiding Torture,” put it bluntly: “medical participation in torture is a clear violation of medical ethics.” The group published that report in August 2009, in the wake of findings by then-C.I.A. Inspector General John Helgerson, in which he described the required presence of health professionals during detainee interrogations.


PHR’s Campaign against Torture began in 2005 with the release of a report that documented the use of long-term isolation, severe humiliation, sensory assault such as loud music, as well as other psychological interrogation methods by U.S. forces. Since then, the group has called on the White House and Congress to investigate the allegations of illegal human experimentation and the committing of crimes against humanity.


An opinion essay co-authored by Rubenstein, which ran in the New York Times on Feb. 28 under the headline “Doctors Without Morals,” ended thus:


[N]o agency—not the Pentagon, the C.I.A., state licensing boards or professional medical societies—has initiated any action to investigate, much less discipline, these individuals. They have ignored the gross and appalling violations by medical personnel. This is an unconscionable disservice to the thousands of ethical doctors and psychologists in the country’s service. It is not too late to begin investigations. They should start now.

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Leonard Rubenstein
Michael Pena

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