The role John Yoo played in the DoJ’s embrace of torture is well known, though it didn’t do much to hurt Yoo’s landing a cushy job torturing law students at Cal Berkeley. But the New England Journal of Medicine notes, with obvious disgust, the bad things that happen when physicians and lawyers work too well together.
In December 2014, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture was released to the public. The 600-page report (a redacted summary of the still-classified 6000-page report) documents in disturbing detail the use by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of physicians, lawyers, and psychologists in its post-9/11 torture program at more than a dozen “black sites,” or secret prisons, around the world.
To begin to understand the torture, we believe it’s necessary to understand how physicians and lawyers collaborated to overcome their professional inhibitions.
See that? Not to say that it’s undeserved, but it’s as if doctors’ mommies let their babies play with the bad boy lawyers, and look what happens.
Medical professionals, primarily private contractors, filled four basic roles at the black sites: clearing terrorist suspects as “medically fit” for torture; monitoring torture to prevent death and treat injuries; developing novel torture methods; and actually torturing prisoners. All these actions were taken only after CIA and U.S. Department of Justice attorneys assured the medical professionals that they had immunity from prosecution and would not be held legally responsible for violating U.S. and international law against torture as long as they used the techniques approved in legal memos (since withdrawn) written to justify their actions.
Not to hurt physicians’ feelings, but the fact that government lawyers said they could play the torture game at CIA black sites isn’t exactly the same as putting a gun to these doctors’ heads and forcing them to do so. No one made them participate in torture. The lawyers, bad as it may be that they absolved the docs of legal culpability, couldn’t make physicians desire to be party to torture. They did that on their own.
Let’s be clear. That physicians came up with “novel torture methods” and engaged in “the actual torture of prisoners” can’t be attributed to legal absolution. The stench of Josef Mengele wafts through this description, where doctors made their own personal choices to not merely be in the house, but to contribute to the actual torture inflicted on other human beings.
No lawyer made that happen. Any doc who did so was a big boy, and did so of his own accord.
The use of unapproved torture methods illustrates, we think, the impossibility of confining torture to legally defined methods. For example, CIA agents threatened KSM’s children, a universally condemned method that was nonetheless later declared “legal” by the Counterterrorism Center, so long as the threats were “conditional,” whatever that means.
Sure, the CIA was out of control. But what of the physicians?
Another unapproved technique, described as “rectal feeding,” consisted of delivering food rectally to demonstrate dominance over the prisoner (though no nutrition can be delivered through the rectal mucosa). This torture technique was used, for example, on Majid Khan, who was on a hunger strike. CIA medical officers had “discussed rectal rehydration as a means of behavior control.”
There is, of course, no medical indication for rectal feeding, and the fact that it was done by or under the supervision of a physician cannot convert this torture technique into a medical procedure. Nonetheless, a medical justification was the cover story to legitimize its use when it became public. For example, responding to the Senate report, Vice President Dick Cheney said rectal feeding was not approved but that he believed “it was done for medical reasons.” It seems more accurate to describe rectal feeding as a technique of sexual assault.
By having physicians in place, personally present and willingly involved, it created a cover to manufacture two particularly nefarious deceits. First, that it couldn’t be nearly as harmful as it might seem to those of us lacking medical training, as doctors were there overseeing the health and welfare of prisoners. Certainly the doctors wouldn’t let any medical harm come to prisoners, because doctors.
Second, it allowed the government to perpetrate a lie, that engaging in such atrocities as “rectal feeding” was done for vague medical reasons, and not to sexually assault a prisoner to demonstrate physical dominance over him. Or to be less sanitary, to torture him under the guise of medicine.
Without the help of physicians, there would have been no plausible deniability that we were torturing Majid Kahn by shoving stuff up his rectum as if there was any explanation for this horror short of torture. Instead, we’ve got Marcus Welby’s benign, grandfatherly face telling us that “Majid Khan’s `lunch tray,’ consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins, was `pureed’ and rectally infused” for his own good.
This by no means absolves the lawyers of their responsibility for their role in torture, but the physicians who were only too happy to shove pureed nuts up a human being’s rectum are culpable for their own involvement. The docs can’t lay this off on the lawyers, and there is absolutely nothing the lawyer did or could do to compel medical personnel to tell the CIA, “sure guys, of course we want to be on your torture team and inflict pain and humiliation while tossing around cool medical words to make it seem like it isn’t nearly as disgusting and horrible as it truly is.”
While it’s commendable that the NEJM is willing to publicly address this shocking disgrace by its own kind, to diminish their role and shift blame off the individuals who personally engaged in torture, who came up with new and ever-more fun ways to torture, is inexcusable.
So much for “do no harm,” and let’s see what new ways we can find to create misery and pain. That’s your docs, guys. Own it. And remember the admonition of Luke 4:23: “physician, heal theyself.” The lawyers involved are a disgrace to the legal profession. But the docs involved are a disgrace to medicine. And both are a disgrace to humanity.