The Role of Healthcare Workers in the Bush Torture Project


The role of health care workers in facilitating torture is one of the sickening details uncovered by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s 500-page executive summary of its investigation of George W. Bush’s administration’s torture program. Much of the reporting related to health care professionals has focused on the roles played by Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, “two psychologists who…[helped] develop and legitimize the torture program,” New York magazine recently reported. Mitchell and Jessen’s torture bounty added up to about $180 million for the company they founded—$81 million for them— prior to the termination of their contract in 2009. However, according to a new report from Physicians for Human Rights, health care workers’ involvement in Bush’s torture project extended far beyond the work of only Mitchell and Jessen. “We now see clear evidence of the essential, integral role that health professionals played as the legal heat shield for the Bush administration—their get-out-of-jail-free card,” Nathaniel Raymond, a research ethics adviser for Physicians for Human Rights and a co-writer of the organization’s new report “Doing Harm: Health Professionals’ Central Role in the CIA Torture Program,” told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and Aaron Mate.

Regarding Mitchell and Jessen, “Neither psychologist had any experience as an interrogator,” the Senate report notes, “nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qa’ida, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.” Mitchell and Jessen “carried out inherently governmental functions, such as acting as liaison between the CIA and foreign intelligence services, assessing the effectiveness of the interrogation program, and participating in the interrogation of detainees in held in foreign government custody.” In the introduction to the Physicians for Human Rights report, the authors state that, “PHR finds that health professionals played not only a central, but an essential role in the CIA torture program—to an extent not previously understood. Psychologists designed, supervised, and implemented an extensive system of torture and ill-treatment, and were paid enormous sums for their efforts. Psychologists and physicians monitored those being tortured and used their expertise to certify detainees’ fitness for torture and worked to enable and enhance the pain inflicted.”

In Goodman’s introduction to Democracy Now’s interview with Raymond, she stated: “The report finds medical personnel connected to the torture program may have committed war crimes by conducting human experimentation on prisoners in violation of the Nuremberg Code that grew out of the trial of Nazi officials and doctors after World War II.” Raymond, who is also a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, told Democracy Now that “there has often been this narrative that Mitchell and Jessen were sort of the lone gunmen of torture, that they, you know, were doing this out of their garage. They were operating inside a superstructure of medicalized torture. And what that means is it wasn’t just them alone. It was the Office of Medical Services at CIA, part of the Office of Technical Services that allegedly employed Mitchell and Jessen, and that includes—just looking at the executive summary of the Senate report, it includes physicians’ assistants, it includes doctors, and it may include other professionals within OMS. And what they were doing was everything from, quote, ‘patient care’ to actual monitoring, calibration and design of the tactics with Mitchell and Jessen.”

Raymond pointed out that there “were two incidents in the…executive summary that have been largely overlooked by the press. One is the Office of Medical Services raising concerns to the inspector general in 2005 at CIA that they were being asked to potentially commit human experimentation through the required monitoring role to study the efficacy and the quote ‘safety’ of the tactics. Additionally, the report shows two senior former CIA agents were asked to do an independent review of the CIA interrogation program and declined to assess the efficacy because they said it would, quote, ‘violate federal policy’ on human subjects research.”

According to Raymond, the “Office of Medical Services’ role evolved from the time of the Yoo-Bybee memo in 2002 and 2003 into something very different by the Bradbury memo in 2005. They were actively engaged in collecting data, in assessing the potential impact, the harm, of these tactics. That role can constitute research and can constitute a violation of international war crimes prohibitions on human subjects experimentation, because what they were doing was unrelated to the medical care of detainees, and it had no clinical precedent, and it involved the analysis of identifiable data from detainees who were being tortured.” Raymond also commented on the role of the American Psychological Association (APA), the world’s largest association of psychologists in the world: “I think the information I reviewed for the FBI in 2012 suggests that the APA potentially was engaged in racketeering related to its relationship with CIA and White House officials in the construction of the 2005 PENS, President’s Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security.” According to Raymond, “PENS is the President’s Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security, which basically encoded in APA policy the observation, the monitoring, the direct involvement role for psychologists in national security interrogations, that we now know at that time involved torture.” “Doing Harm: Health Professionals’ Central Role in the CIA Torture Program” maintained that the Senate summary indicates that CIA health professionals—psychologists, physicians (including psychiatrists), and physician assistants—directly participated in the CIA’s torture program and were central to its development and implementation, as well as attempts to justify the use of torture. Unethical and illegal acts included:

1) Designing, directing, and profiting from the torture program;

2) Intentionally inflicting harm on detainees;

3) Enabling DoJ lawyers to create a fiction of “safe, legal, and effective” interrogation practices;

4) Engaging in potential human subjects research to provide legal cover for torture;

5) Monitoring detainee torture and calibrating levels of pain;

6) Evaluating and treating detainees for purposes of torture;

7) Conditioning medical care on cooperation with interrogators;

6) Failing to document physical and/or psychological evidence of torture.

The report also found that “health professionals who participated in the CIA torture program violated core ethical principles common to all healing professions, including the following obligations”: To do no harm; to protect the lives and health of patients under their care from harm and brutality; to prevent and report torture; to uphold standards of professionalism, be honest in professional interactions, and report incompetence, fraud, and deception; to never engage in unethical research on human subjects; to receive the informed consent of the patient before providing medical treatment; to only perform roles consistent with their ethics and professional competencies; and, to find an ethical resolution when health professionals’ obligations to persons under their care and to society conflict with the agenda of state institutions. Physicians for Human Rights maintains that all government contracted employees involved with the torture program “should be held legally responsible for its roles.”

Meanwhile, several other civil and human rights organizations, including the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, are calling for a broader investigation and the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate what appears increasingly to be “a vast criminal conspiracy, under color of law, to commit torture and other serious crimes.”

An editorial in the New York Times titled, “Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses,” noted that “The question everyone will want answered, of course, is: Who should be held accountable? That will depend on what an investigation finds, and as hard as it is to imagine Mr. Obama having the political courage to order a new investigation, it is harder to imagine a criminal probe of the actions of a former president.”

The New York Times pointed out, “But any credible investigation should include former Vice President Dick Cheney; Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington; the former C.I.A. director George Tenet; and John Yoo and Jay Bybee, the Office of Legal Counsel lawyers who drafted what became known as the torture memos.” There are many more names that could be considered, including Jose Rodriguez Jr., the C.I.A. official who or dered the destruction of the video tapes; the psychologists who devised the torture regimen; and the C.I.A. employees who carried out that regimen.”

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Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.