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Role of physicians and psychologists in interrogation of terrorism suspects reexamined

CIA floor sealPhysicians and psychologists played a larger role in the use of torture in interrogation of terrorism suspects than previously asserted, according to a report released yesterday by the nonprofit organization Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).

"Health professionals were involved at every stage in the development, implementation and legitimization of this torture program," the report's authors wrote.

The paper, based on an analysis of the Inspector General's August 24 report into the treatment of detainees after 9/11, describes interrogation techniques beyond those that had been addressed before, including hooding, confinement in a box, mock execution and liquid diets. The so-called enhanced interrogation techniques "represent clear violations of well-established medical ethics governing the behavior of health professionals," the PHR authors note. 

A 2004 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) memo about the treatment of "high value" detainees noted, "The goal of interrogation is to create a state of learned helplessness and dependence conducive to the collection of intelligence," Reuters reported.

Authors of the new analysis, however, did not find such practices to be appropriate. "Health professionals were complicit in selecting and then rationalizing these abusive methods whose safety and efficacy in eliciting accurate information have no valid basis in science," they write.

The organization also raises questions about the ethics of medical note-taking during some of the interrogations. "Medical doctors and psychologists colluded with the CIA to keep observational records about waterboarding, which approaches unethical and unlawful human experimentation," Scott Allen, lead study author and PHR medical advisor, said in a prepared statement.

Although members of the medical community oversaw many of the interrogation techniques, their presence did not necessarily prevent torture, according to the report authors. "The required presence of health professionals did not make interrogation methods safer, but sanitized their use, escalated abuse, and placed doctors and psychologists in the untenable position of calibrating harm rather than serving as protectors and healers," Steven Reisner, PHR's psychological ethics advisor, said in a prepared statement.

Those who back the interrogation techniques, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, have maintained that the ends justified the means. "The people [involved in interrogation] deserve our gratitude," Cheney said in a prepared statement, Reuters reported. "They do not deserve to be the targets of political investigations or prosecutions."

However, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder opened a preliminary investigation last week into whether CIA operatives broke the law during such interrogations.

And U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (D–Wisc.) is calling for a large-scale investigation of all those involved in the interrogation processes. "The abuses that were officially sanctioned amounted to torture and those at the very top who authorized, ordered or sought to provide legal cover for them should be held accountable," he said in a statement reported by the Associated Press.

Physicians for Human Rights is calling for medical professionals involved in the interrogations to be evaluated both legally and professionally.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/CIA

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