No Comment — March 2, 2010, 11:01 am

Doctors Without Morals

In the torture memos, medical professionals pop up repeatedly. They define and refine torture techniques, and sometimes they are even in the room to be sure that torture procedures are applied to maximum effect. This conduct clearly violates the law and professional ethics standards. Yet while an ethics review of lawyers is now underway—and the process has now been passed from the Justice Department to bar ethics bodies—the doctors and psychologists who helped create and run the Bush-era torture system continue to escape responsibility. Leonard Rubenstein and Stephen Xenakis write in the New York Times:

Psychologists and at least one doctor designed or recommended coercive interrogation methods including sleep deprivation, stress positions, isolation and waterboarding. The military’s Behavioral Science Consultation Teams evaluated detainees, consulted their medical records to ascertain vulnerabilities and advised interrogators when to push harder for intelligence information. Psychologists designed a program for new arrivals at Guantánamo that kept them in isolation to “enhance and exploit” their “disorientation and disorganization.” Medical officials monitored interrogations and ordered medical interventions so they could continue even when the detainee was in obvious distress. In one case, an interrogation log obtained by Time magazine shows, a medical corpsman ordered intravenous fluids to be administered to a dehydrated detainee even as loud music was played to deprive him of sleep. When the C.I.A.’s inspector general challenged these “enhanced interrogation” methods, the agency’s Office of Medical Services was brought in to determine, in consultation with the Justice Department, whether the techniques inflicted severe mental pain or suffering, the legal definition of torture. Once again, doctors played a critical role, providing professional opinions that no severe pain or suffering was being inflicted…

The shabbiness of the medical judgments, though, pales in comparison to the ethical breaches by the doctors and psychologists involved. Health professionals have a responsibility extending well beyond nonparticipation in torture; the historic maxim is, after all, “First do no harm.” These health professionals did the polar opposite. Nevertheless, no 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.

There has been some slow progress among professional organizations. One of the most recalcitrant, the American Psychological Association, has responded to criticism of its adoption of a version of the Nuremberg defense (protecting psychologists who rely on legal interpretations like those furnished by Yoo and Bybee) by stripping it back out and restoring the old ethics rule. But APA has yet to take any disciplinary steps against the psychologists who played key roles in arranging and administering the torture program.

The process needs to start with the full disclosure of the identities of the medical professionals who were involved in the torture system, especially within the CIA and Department of Defense. Americans need to know about the qualifications and experiences of the medical personnel who serve them, and that includes knowing how seriously they treat their professional ethics obligations.

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More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

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No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

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