“CIA health professionals played greater role in torture than previously known”

Published in The Hindu on September 7, 2009

Abu Ghraib
The CIA report shows that doctors played a central role in designing, calibrating, implementing and legitimizing the torture programme. — Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A report released recently by the Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a body that shared the 1977 Noble Peace Prize, provides shocking information of the extent of human rights violation by U.S. doctors and psychologists attached to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The report argues that doctors were involved in every stage of the torture — designing, implementing and providing justification of torture inflicted by the CIA on detainees interrogated while in U.S. custody.

The report also provides information about previously unreported “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

The PHR report released on August 31 is based on a previously classified report of the CIA that was made public on August 24 on the instructions of the U.S. President Barack Obama.

According to the PHR, health professionals were not only involved in designing and implementing the torture techniques but also in monitoring their use so as to improve their effectiveness in causing physical and mental harm. It also reports that doctors actively participated in abusive and illegal interrogations.

According to the PHR, the CIA report provides an opportunity to understand the extent of ethical misconduct by health professions in the torture programme. Their involvement “is an unconscionable affront to the profession of medicine,” it notes.

The presence of doctors during the use of torture was not meant to make things safer and easier for detainees. On the other hand, they “only served to sanitize their use and enable the abuse to escalate, making them to calibrate harm [physical and mental] rather than serving as protectors and healers as required by their ethical oath.”

Apart from the torture techniques that have already been reported, the CIA report lists out new ones such as hooding, dietary manipulation, prolonged diapering, walling and confinement in a box.

While the impact of the techniques was evaluated individually, more than one technique was very often used at the same time to increase the level of physical pain and psychological impact.

Physical and psychological impact

The PHR report describes the short and long term physical and psychological impact of each torture. For instance, hooding, where the detainees are blindfolded, “is meant to instil a sense of fear, disorientation and dependency on their captors.” While the technique may not cause much physical pain, except making breathing difficult, the psychological impact is profound.

It causes “concentration difficulties, memory problems, verbal expression difficulties, incoherent speech, acute anxiety reactions, abnormal behaviour and suicidal tendencies,” notes PHR.

Manipulation of the detainees’ diet is done by providing them only liquid food for periods ranging from a few days to weeks. Although this may again not harm them physically as the liquids contain calories and nutrients, the psychological impact is huge. It causes a substantial affect on a person’s concentration and mood.

Making detainees use soiled diapers

The most cruel form of psychological injury, however, was caused by making detainees, who have normal continent, wear diapers and forcing them to pass urine and defecate in the diapers. They were forced to wear the soiled diapers for as long as 24 hours-36 hours.

Other than causing physical harm such as urinary track infection, skin infection, skin breakdown and ulceration, there is a pronounced psychological injury. In fact, this torture is meant to cause psychological stress through humiliation.

When used in combination with other techniques, this technique can lead to the “induced dependency, loss of autonomy and regression to an infantile state,” the report notes. “When combined with liquid diet, the expression of regression, humiliation and dependency are magnified.”

At times, the detainees were not made to wear diapers and were instead made to urinate and defecate on themselves while in a standing position.