Doctors Without Ethics
(Page 4 of 6)
Among the practitioners was Guantánamo psychologist Major John Leso, who helped plan and implement the 50-day interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani. Detailed logs of the torture sessions indicate that the prisoner was sexually humiliated, isolated and deprived of sleep for extended periods, subjected to extreme cold, shackled in stress positions, tormented by military dogs, and leashed and made to perform like a dog.
Leso, who was in the interrogation room for part of Qahtani’s ordeal, advised—among other things—that the detainee could be disoriented by spinning him on a swivel chair. Along with the prison’s medical doctors, he regularly evaluated Qahtani for his ability to tolerate further abuse. During one session, the medical staff injected the prisoner with three and a half IV bags of saline; Qahtani’s questioner then wouldn’t let him urinate until he provided satisfactory answers. Despite evidence of Leso’s actions, the American Psychological Association (APA) has failed to act on an ethics complaint by a fellow APA member.
Psychologists are deeply divided on the subject of torture. In 2005 an association task force (6 of its 10 members had military ties) voted to condemn torture but still allow psychologists in the interrogation room, where, its members argued, they might discourage abuse and even save detainees’ lives. Incensed, thousands of psychologists petitioned for a full member vote in 2008, and in a roughly 60–40 tally, the association decided that psychologists have no place in the interrogation room. It was the right choice, says Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist who has written about the role of Nazi doctors during the Holocaust. Putting health professionals into an abusive setting, he argues, “can confer an aura of legitimacy and can even create an illusion of therapy and healing.”
In May 2006 the American Psychiatric Association, which represents some 38,000 psychiatrists, reiterated its past position that its members should not directly assist in interrogations. But Steven Sharfstein, then the association’s president, also noted that psychiatrists “wouldn’t get in trouble” if they heeded military orders over the association’s advice—which, he added, should not be considered “an ethical rule.”
It’s not that the medical community lacks the tools to police itself. State licensing boards are legally obligated to investigate violations, and they have the power to suspend licenses—yet no state medical board has ever disciplined a doctor for assisting in military torture.
One California complaint illustrates the boards’ reluctance to confront the military. Filed by attorney Scott Sullivan on behalf of four former detainees, the 2005 complaint targeted Captain John S. Edmondson, then Guantánamo’s lead physician. The men claimed that their medical records were shared with interrogators, who then withheld treatment for heart problems, worms, constipation, and injuries inflicted by the camp’s “internal reaction forces”—five-man teams dispatched to beat recalcitrant prisoners. When these attackers showed up, the detainees claimed, medical personnel would instruct them on details: “Hit him around the eye; don’t poke him in the eye.”
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