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Were Physicians Guilty of War Crimes?

January 25, 2011

In the Bush Administration’s “Normalization” of Torture:
Were U.S. Physicians Guilty of War Crimes?

A Mike Baldwin cartoon shows a group of masked torturers surrounding a man stretched on the rack. The head torturer says “Hope you don’t mind an audience. This is, after all, a teaching hospital.” Not so funny, these days, for those still committed to the principle of “First, do no harm.”
            A June, 2010, white paper from Physicians for Human Rights looks at the ways in which the Bush administration – in its efforts to redefine acts formerly considered to be torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques” – deployed healthcare professionals in ways that may have constituted war crimes, or crimes against humanity. 

“Medical personnel were ostensibly responsible for ensuring that the legal threshold for “severe physical and mental pain” was not crossed by interrogators, but their presence and complicity in intentionally harmful interrogation practices were not only apparently intended to enable the routine practice of torture, but also to serve as a potential legal defense against criminal liability for torture…
            “Investigation and analysis of US government documents…provides evidence indicating that the Bush administration, in the period after Sept. 11, conducted human research and experimentation on prisoners in US custody as part of this monitoring role…Such acts may be seen as the conduct of research and experimentation by health professionals on prisoners, which could violate accepted standards of medical ethics, as well as domestic and international law. These practices could, in some cases, constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The PHR White Paper, EXPERIMENTS IN TORTURE: Evidence of Human Subject Research and Experimentation in the “Enhanced” Interrogation Program is available online.

Bad Science Used to Support Torture
and Human Experimentation  

Scott A. Allen, Vincent Iacopino, and Allen S. Keller, who were among the authors of the PHR White Paper cited above, have an article by the above title in the January 7, 2011, issue of Science. Allen co-directs the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Brown University; Iacopino is an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School and senior advisor to Physicians for Human Rights; and Keller runs the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture.
Unfortunately, access to the article is by subscription or purchase only, but a not terribly helpful summary is available online. However, an article by Norman Boucher in a recent issue of the Brown Alumni Magazine offers some additional information:

“Given prior U.S. recognition of each EIT [enhanced interrogation technique] method as torture,” the authors write, “and literature on the harmful physical, psychological and social health consequences associated with such abuse, one would expect that a ‘good faith’ effort to ensure safe, legal, and effective interrogations would include effective medical assessments of possible torture. That was not the case.
            “Because those assessments were lacking, Allen and his colleagues go on to argue, “health professionals who were charged with ensuring detainees’ safety were instead … calibrating the harm inflicted upon them”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Robert Rands permalink
    February 6, 2011 7:39 AM

    The recommendations given by the authors of “Bad Science Used to Support Torture and Human Experimentation” surely deserve widespread consideration, not least by countries involved in renditioning captives in the “war on terror”.

    This article has received negligible publicity. Sadly, AAAS Science’s outreach newsletter “ScienceNow” did not mention the article. Perhaps the principal author could enable you to publish the article in full.

    ” Author for correspondence. E-mail:

  2. March 1, 2011 11:17 PM

    Does anyone know of a jurisdiction, in this country or elsewhere, where refusal to condone torture is a condition for medical licensure?

    Students taking federal loans (“HPSP”) to be repaid with years on Active Duty should be informed of this issue, and helped via social networks to escape the isolation and coercion accompanying such isolation.

    H.E. Butler III M.D., FACS
    757 397 5260

  3. March 1, 2011 11:26 PM

    Now is the time publicly to interview on UTube or FrontLine the surgeons general in charge of doctors at the several sites–Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc. to ask them what they knew and when they knew it. We know their names and where they work in the civilian sector: Dr. Kevin Kiley is in OB in Albany, New York; Dr. Donald C. Arthur (BA, MA, MD, JD, Ph.D, Combat Action Ribbon) is checking doctors’ credentials in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania; etc.

    I know these officers and have served with them in both Army and Navy.

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