In a comprehensive recent study, Physicians for Human Rights alleges that healthcare professionals experimented on human subjects in order to hone the torture techniques authorized by the Bush Administration. The Department of Justice’s retracted torture memoranda advise that doctors should be involved at every stage in the application of torture techniques—to provide a defense against criminal prosecution. And anecdotal evidence suggests that healthcare professionals were regularly present, sometimes in the torture room and sometimes offsite observing remotely. But the involvement of healthcare professionals in such practices is a violation of rules of medical ethics, and the Bush and Obama Administrations have kept the identities of those involved rigorously secret.
Now, however, two doctors who stood in the forefront of Guantánamo torture accusations are the subject of detailed, well-documented challenges filed by law students and professors at Stanford and Harvard Universities, backed by medical ethicists. In the crosshairs are two leaders of the celebrated Guantánamo “biscuit” teams that helped guide the harsh treatment of prisoners there:
Maj. John Francis Leso, an army psychologist who from June 2002 to January 2003 led the Gitmo BSCT involved in Qahtani’s interrogation. The complaint accuses Leso, who is licensed in New York, of “gross incompetence,” “gross negligence,” and “conduct exhibiting a moral unfitness to practice the profession.” According to the document, Leso “used his training in psychology to design interrogation techniques that manipulate the psychological condition of a detainee, induce Stockholm syndrome in the detainee, and modify the detainee’s behavior.”
[and] retired army Col. Larry James, Leso’s onetime boss at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, who succeeded him at Guantanamo Bay and went on to become the chief behavioral scientist at Abu Ghraib prison. The Harvard group, on behalf of four clients, is going after James’ license in Ohio—he is also credentialed in Louisiana, where the state psychology board’s refusal to investigate an ethics complaint sparked a legal battle. (This week’s actions follow a complaint last month in Texas. In that case, lawyers representing a Texas psychologist targeted James Elmer Mitchell, a CIA-contracted psychologist who took part in brutal interrogations—these included the questioning of Abu Zubaydah, a detainee who was waterboarded at least 83 times in a single month at a secret Thai prison.)
Curiously, the most damning evidence against James comes in his own book, Fixing Hell, an account of his mission to “clean up” Guantánamo.
The complaints start with a contention that the doctors will no doubt vigorously contest: that as physicians they owed a duty of care to the prisoners who were in their care. The U.S. military has consistently, though with no ethical or legal justification, taken the position that the prisoners were subjects that the doctors were entitled to study but to whom they owed no ethical duty of care—a posture that reflects the fairly obvious proposition that their conduct violated the clear rules governing doctor-patient dealings.
These cases present the professional ethics oversight bodies with a clear dilemma. They can do what the government wants and look the other way–usually by saying that the government’s noncooperation makes action impossible. Or they can actually enforce their ethics rules. So far ethics bodies in California, Louisiana, Ohio, and Alabama have consistently taken the coward’s way out. Now, however, they have been presented with far more detailed and professionally compiled complaints that make such a course more difficult.
Daniel Shulman offers a good discussion of the cases at Mother Jones.