Chilling Details About The Doctors Who Enabled The CIA Torture Program

After a doctor X-rayed one prisoner’s feet and determined they were badly broken, another physician recommended that he could be made to stand for 52 hours.

Only when one detainee stopped being able to see out of one of his eyes did a doctor suggest stopping the physical torture affecting that area. A team of doctors decided that prisoners could be waterboarded — which similates drowning — up to three times per day.

These are just a few of the ways scientists and medical doctors were directly involved in the CIA’s torture program, as revealed in the Senate Select Comittee on Intelligence report released Tuesday.

“The torture could not proceed [without] medical supervision,” Atul Gawande, a surgeon and author, wrote on Twitter. “The medical profession was deeply embedded in this inhumanity.”

While a small team of psychologists designed the program, dozens of other medical professionals oversaw it.

Those who watched as prisoners were cut, bruised, and subjected to anal feeding usually made recommendations that led to people being harmed as much as possible, intervening only to prevent them from dying.

The two psychologists who developed the CIA’s torture program — Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen — formed a company called Mitchell, Jessen & Associates and got more than $US80 million from the government for their services. Mitchell did not respond to a previous attempt by Business Insider to contact him, and Jessen could not be reached. (“Everyone is assuming it is me, but I can’t confirm or deny it,” Mitchell told Bloomberg News.)

Designing A Torture Company

Mitchell and Jessen drew on their military experience and several 1960s psychological theories on suffering and depression to craft their torture techniques, according to a 2009 New York Times story.

Both had served in the Air Force, where they’d worked on the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) course, a training exercise that exposes participants to many of the CIA’s interrogation techniques, including confinement and sleep deprivation. Trainees learn how to resist enemy questioning by enduring these mock interrogations.

The pair was also familiar with the psychological theory of “learned helplessness,” which describes how people subjected to pain and suffering, even when presented with a way to avoid it, simply give up trying because they see the situation as being out of their control. Mitchell and Jessen found the principle could be used to make detainees experience “a desired level of helplessness,” according to the Senate report.

Martin Seligman, the renowned psychologist behind the initial research in dogs that outlined the theory, told The New York Times he was “grieved and horrified” to hear that his work was used to justify the brutal interrogations.

But other medical professionals — doctors, physician’s assistants and a team of medical officers — were present for the interrogations throughout every step of the process, according to the Senate report.

When the torture outlined in the CIA report got so bad that one detainee’s vision “began to deteriorate” the doctor present only intervened so that he could be able to see for the purposes of further questioning. “We have a lot riding upon his ability to see,” CIA officers wrote, in a cable. (The detainee eventually lost one eye completely.)

The Office of Medical Services, the agency designed to advise the US State Department on health issues and provide healthcare to the US government, decided when detainees’ lacerations and broken bones were sufficiently healed so the interrogators could keep torturing them.

Physicians told CIA officers what temperature water they should use to waterboard detainees and suggested they use saline solution instead of plain water so as to not risk prisoners being killed by water poisoning.

A History Of Medical Torture

Despite their pledge to “do no harm,” medical professionals have increasingly helped the government come up with “scientific” ways of hurting its alleged enemies — ostensibly as a means of obtaining critical information — since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

In a 2004 essay in the New England Journal of Medicine, Robert Jay Lifton, a Harvard trauma expert who served as an Air Force psychiatrist, called out the American doctors who were involved in the torture at Abu Ghraib, an US-run detention center in Iraq. They “were part of a command structure that permitted, encouraged, and sometimes orchestrated torture to a degree that it became the norm — with which they were expected to comply,” he wrote. “Even without directly participating in the abuse, doctors may have become socialized to an environment of torture and by virtue of their medical authority helped sustain it.”

Worse still, he wrote, is that “the participation of doctors can confer an aura of legitimacy and can even create an illusion of therapy and healing.”

Lifton also tried to address why physicians might participate in such atrocious acts to begin with, citing “potential moral conflict between commitment to the healing of individual people, on the one hand, and responsibility to the military hierarchy and the command structure, on the other.”

A 1991 review of torture by medical professionals in the Journal of Medical Ethics came to a similar conclusion. “Individual factors may have been of importance for motivation,” the authors write, “but far more important seems to have been the organisation of the system.”

In 2005, after the Health Affairs Assistant Secretary of Defence released new ethical guidelines for healthcare personnel, a group of doctors released a response in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled: “Coercive US Interrogation Policies: A Challenge to Medical Ethics.” The doctors wrote:

The new guidelines are troubling…because they do not come to terms with the participation of physicians and other health care professionals in officially authorised interrogation practices that are absolutely prohibited by international human rights law, the Third Geneva Convention, and US military and domestic law that criminalizes torture, including psychological torture.

Technically, the doctors argued, the new guidelines meant medical professionals could still participate in torture because it had been authorised by the US government, even though it was barred by international human rights law.

In a book released in October, New York Times reporter James Risen says that the American Psychological Association worked with the Bush administration for years to provide cover for its torture methods. Last week, the association released an official statement condemning the enhanced interrogation techniques and saying they were “independently reviewing” Risen’s allegations.

Justifying Abusive Interrogations

Also at issue is whether or not the abusive techniques actually helped the CIA obtain reliable information. The Senate report, written mostly by Democrats, concludes the answer is no; Republicans who wrote a rebuttal to it say the answer is yes. Out of 119 prisoners who were tortured, 26 were wrongfully detained.

According to Mitchell, one of the psychologists who allegedly designed many of the torture tactics, the interrogation program was arranged so that one officer conducted the torture while another asked questions related to the information the CIA wanted. This good cop, bad cop scenario meant that no intelligence came directly from the interrogation techniques themselves.

“I would be stunned if they found any kind of evidence that would suggest that Enhanced Interrogation Techniques as they were being applied yielded actionable intelligence,” Mitchell told VICE News in a video interview, referring to the official name for the torture program.

While the new report includes many chilling details, we may never know the full extent of doctors’ involvement in the CIA torture program, or how many tried to stop it. “It is possible that some doctors, nurses, or medics took steps, of which we are not yet aware, to oppose the torture,” Lifton wrote, of Abu Ghraib. “It is certain that many more did not.”

This July, one example emerged of a medical professional who refused to go along with an official torture program. A Navy nurse refused to force-feed detainees at Guantanamo Bay “because it felt wrong.” And while many have come out in support of his actions — including the American Nurses Association, which recently petitioned the Defence Department for leniency — he currently remains at risk of losing his job.

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