Western democracies have prided themselves in applying humane standards to the treatment of prisoners of war. This treatment is encapsulated in the Geneva Convention, first formulated in 1864 and modified since, most recently in 1949.
They have also signed up to the UN Convention against Torture.
These conventions have been flouted by some democratic states (France in Algeria, Britain in Northern Ireland, USA in Vietnam, ...). The US explicitly banned torture and harsh treatment by military interrogators after the Vietnam war, introducing the Army Field Manual on Interrogation (FM 34-52) in 1992.
However, in recent years, the US has subjected captives to treatment which had previously been recognised as torture or, at least, as inhumane. A particularly disturbing aspect has been the involvement of medical professionals, doctors and psychologists, in advising or agreeing to such treatment. This is the subject of the 2011 documentary film Doctors of the Dark Side, directed by Martha Davis.
This important film received its first UK showing on 29 October at University College London. Over 300 people attended the screening and the discussion that followed, including contributions from the film’s director, who had flown from the US specially for the showing, and from Philippe Sands and other human rights activists.
Intriguingly, the film opened with the case of US Navy Petty Officer Daniel King. In 1999, he was working as a cryptanalyst when a routine polygraph (“lie detector”) test proved “inconclusive”. He was then subjected to extensive interrogation, including 29 days of sleep deprivation (described as torture by AFM 34-52) to get him to admit to spying. This had the effect of so confusing and disorienting him that he thought he must be guilty but had “forgotten” the details.
Crucially, a psychologist working for the navy, Michael Gelles, was shown trying to get King to admit to something, while King asked him for help in recalling the “memory” he thought he had lost. Gelles had forgotten that his responsibility was to his patient and that he should “first do no harm”. (Later, Gelles turns up at Guantanamo Bay where he plays a rather more honourable role in exposing abusive interrogation practices.)
Complicity of medical personnel in torture was a key feature in interrogation of suspects in the “war on terror”. Psychologists in particular helped to develop a programme of techniques to “break down” suspects. Leading these were Drs Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who took as their guide the SERE programme.
Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape was designed partly to help US armed forces members to resist abusive interrogation, including torture. They reverse-engineered the programme to come up with enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) that would be used on Al Qaeda suspects ... and anyone else who happened to be in the wrong place when people were rounded up. Perhaps 85% of prisoners at Abu Ghraib were innocent.
The problem that EIT amounted to torture was solved by simply asserting the opposite! The problem that these techniques typically produce useless or untrue information and false confessions was ignored. The problem that EIT psychologically damaged victims, many innocent, permanently was also ignored. And so was the problem that any admissions made could not be used in a court of law.
The film shows some of the abuse of prisoners by soldiers at Abu Ghraib to set the scene, and then shows staged examples of some techniques: sleep deprivation, extreme isolation, enforced nudity, sexual humiliation, extremes of temperature, loud noise, bright light and darkness, confinement in a cage or tiny box, the use of uncomfortable stress positions, slamming into a specially-built plywood wall, and of course waterboarding or simulated drowning.
Doctors would be on hand to monitor blood pressure, pulse rate and blood oxygen levels, and to authorise interrogation to continue. They were not protecting their “patients” but allowing them to be abused up to the time where their lives might be in danger.
Dissenting doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists are interviewed in the film (supporters of EIT were not available!). One of these is retired Brigadier General Dr Stephen Xenakis, a top army psychiatrist, who states that it is “extremely cruel to keep someone awake - they will have psychotic-like thinking, they will be very disorganised and ... very unreliable.”
Thus what is “the single greatest scandal in the history of American medical ethics” unfolded, where doctors were “the centrepiece of torture”, devising methods of torture that “do not leave wounds” and supervising their use, “keeping alive those that are meant to be kept alive”. One military psychologist is quoted: “If producing some pain does the most good for the most people, it’s entirely ethical.”
However, as Nathaniel Raymond (Physicians for Human Rights Campaign Against Torture) points out, “When people committed these same acts, we prosecuted them in the past in places like Nuremberg. What’s different here?”
• More: Doctors of the Dark Side
1 Article 3: “Noncombatants, combatants who have laid down their arms, and combatants who are hors de combat (out of the fight) due to wounds, detention, or any other cause shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, including prohibition of outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”
2 UN Convention against Torture (and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment): Definition of torture — “Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”