Doctors Without Ethics

American physicians were complicit in the Bush administration’s torture policy.


| November-December 2009



Torturing Doctors

image by Ronald J. Cala II / www.i2iart.com

The memory of detainee No. 173379 still haunts Andrew Duffy. The 24-year-old prisoner showed up in March 2006 at Abu Ghraib, where Duffy was stationed as a medic. His job was to treat new arrivals in an overcrowded, sweltering tent. Then 19, Duffy handled everything from common diseases like tuberculosis to festering gunshot wounds.

But the new prisoner stood out. He was belligerent, yelling gibberish, and staggering like a drunk. Having witnessed this kind of behavior before with detainees in diabetic shock, Duffy checked the man’s blood-sugar level and found it was extraordinarily high. The prisoner explained that Iraqi soldiers had held him for five days without his insulin. Duffy called the compound’s hospital to request an immediate transfer. It was denied. Duffy’s medical supervisor ordered him to just give the guy water.

He was used to this. The prison’s medical officers routinely rejected medics’ requests to hospitalize sick and wounded detainees; the general sentiment, Duffy says, was “screw these guys.” Once, he tried to revive an elderly prisoner whose heart had stopped by using CPR and mouth-to-mouth. “Why did you make out with that hajji?” the hospital staffers taunted. “Why didn’t you just let him die?”

Beyond patching up detainees, Duffy and his comrades with the 134th Medical Company of the Iowa National Guard were ordered to soften them up for interrogation. Duffy and an MP once restrained and hog-tied a resisting detainee—cuffing his wrists to his crossed ankles behind his back—so that Duffy could check his vital signs. Guards later boasted that they’d left the man that way for 12 hours.

Throughout Duffy’s year at Abu Ghraib—long after the infamous photos were published and the Pentagon vowed that detainees were no longer abused—men were still being strapped into restraint chairs and left in the sun for hours or locked in cells too small to lie down in. The medics regularly found prisoners dehydrated, wrists bloody from overtight handcuffs, ankles swollen from forced standing, joints dislocated from stress positions. They knew to keep their written evaluations vague, never mentioning cause of injury as a standard medical report would. When they shuttled broken detainees to and from the prison’s interrogation rooms, the orders were explicit: Transport only. No medical care. No paper trail. Flouting the Geneva Conventions, Duffy’s platoon sergeant even ordered the medics to strip their uniforms and ambulances of the Red Cross emblems that denoted them noncombatants. Should anyone from the Red Cross show up to see the prison, the soldiers were told, send them away and tell them nothing.