Task Force on Torture: Health Professionals Abandoned Ethics in War on Terror

An independent panel, known as the Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism in National Security Detention Centers (Task Force), has released a report that details the severe harm imposed upon detainees in U.S. custody since September 11, 2001. In the name of intelligence gathering and security practices, the damage included torture, chaotic and often absent medical care, and the use of psychologists to pinpoint psychological weaknesses in detainees. The information gathered from these Behavioral Science Consultation Teams, or BSCTs, was later used to torture detainees by targeting their phobias and inflicting sleep deprivation, isolation, stress positions, and other forms of torture.

The Institute on Medicine as a Profession (IMAP)’s report, “Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the War on Terror“, is based on two years of records review that shows a variety of ethical breaches among doctors and psychologists in their treatment of detainees after 9/11. Many of these cases took place at Guantánamo, a prison now infamous for a variety of torture-related ethics breaches. At Guantánamo, medical and mental health care providers were typically isolated from forms of abuse; however, there was a striking deficiency of mental health care, and medical care was of low quality, if not entirely absent at times.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the report finds that clinical medical personnel “were not isolated from interrogations as at Guantánamo; they engaged in various aspects of interrogation as well as other security functions.” Although it is unclear what percentage of medical personnel made these ethical breaches, estimates tend to range from 10 percent to 17 percent. And although military personnel have a duty to report abuse, there were no procedures in place for medical personnel to detail abuse cases they witnessed.

IMAP’s report goes on to discuss the use of medical personnel in force-feeding detainees. These force-feeding episodes were often degrading, cruel, and inhumane. Even while torture practices began to tail off in 2006, medical personnel were still participating in coercive methods and unethical practices in order to end hunger strikes and protests.

The DoD made changes to ethical standards to rationalize the use of medical professionals in torture. “Contrary to ethical standards adopted by all medical and psychological associations, including standards applicable to forensic practice, it limited the professional duty to not do harm. The duty to avoid or minimize harm, the DoD holds, does not apply to the BSCTs involved in interrogation because they are not involved in clinical treatment. The DoD determined for itself what rules BSCT members should follow and unilaterally deemed those rules ethical. […] The DoD went so far as classifying physicians and psychologists on BSCTs as combatants who are not subject to all ethical duties of their profession […].”

The HSDL contains a variety of documents related to international laws in regards to torture. These documents include Amnesty International reports, global legislation, and more.

Article formerly posted at https://www.hsdl.org/blog/newpost/view/s_4950