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Mental Health Professionals in the “Enhanced” Interrogation Room: Page 2 of 3

Mental Health Professionals in the “Enhanced” Interrogation Room: Page 2 of 3

Psychologists were not the only health care professionals involved in the interrogations. An April 13, 2005, Army Surgeon General survey revealed that 17% of Afghan and 10% of Iraqi medical personnel had been present during interrogations and that 73% were personally aware of “actual or sus- pected abuse.”6 The survey did not distinguish among physicians, nurses, physician’s assistants, medics, and other medical disciplines. It did, however, observe that in 2002 and 2003, psychiatrists were involved in interrogations: “Behavioral Science Consultation Teams . . . consisted of physicians/psychiatrists and psychologists who directly support detainee interrogation activities.”

Beginning in January 2004, the government ceased including psychiatrists on the teams. Members of interrogation teams had concluded that “physicians in this role only confused the situation.” Although it is not clear how physicians—presumably the psychiatrists who had been participants in interrogations—confused matters, one incident may provide insight:

One physician was asked to feign evaluations and treatment on detainees by (i) doing a DNA test from a hair sample, (ii) doing a DNA test from a buccal swab, or (iii) providing cough syrup but informing the detainee it was truth serum. The physician complied with the first two requests, but refused to comply with the third. He thereafter refused any further involvement by himself or any of his medical personnel.

The chronology

The road to enhanced interrogation began with a September 25, 2001, memorandum from Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo of the Office of Legal Counsel.7 Yoo asserted that no law “can place any limits on the President’s determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response.”

Bolstered by Yoo’s memorandum, on January 18, 2002, President George W. Bush concluded that Geneva Conventions of 1949 would not be applied to al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees. The rationale, provided by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in a memorandum a few weeks later, was that the Conventions did not apply to “a new paradigm—ushered in not by us, but by terrorists” of armed conflict with groups not associated with any particular country’s government.8

In August 2002, Jay Bybee, also of the Office of Legal Counsel, with Yoo’s assistance, authored another memorandum supporting the President’s unfettered power.9 “Any effort to apply” a torture ban “in a manner that interferes with the President’s direction of such core war matters . . . would be unconstitutional.”

In 2003, the White House nominated Bybee to a US Court of Appeals judgeship, and Jack Goldsmith succeeded him as Chief Assistant in the Office of Legal Counsel. Goldsmith immediately withdrew the Yoo/Bybee memos and then resigned. Goldsmith, now on the Harvard Law School faculty, later characterized the memos as “sloppily reasoned, overbroad, and incautious.”

In a 2005 interview with The New Yorker, Yoo, who had returned to the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law, remained unbowed. Congress, he said, cannot “tie the President’s hands in regard to torture. . . . It’s the core of the Commander-in-Chief function.”10

In June 2006, the Supreme Court held that detainees are entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. In response, President Bush signed into law the Military Commissions Act, which precluded detainees from invoking those protections. In June 2008, the Supreme Court struck down the law.

Above all, do no harm

The aphorism Primum non nocere is echoed in the Hippocratic Oath’s admonition “to do good or to do no harm” and, since it was first attributed to English physician Thomas Sydenham in 1860, has “remain[ed] a potent reminder that every medical . . . decision carries the potential for harm.”11 That reminder seems to have escaped nearly every health care professional involved in the “War on Terror.” Moreover, whatever the discipline or specialty, participating health care professionals certainly violated the tenets of their professional oaths.


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