Earlier this month, an independent report concluded that prominent psychologists affiliated with the American Psychological Association (APA) rebuffed internal concerns about the Central Intelligence Agency’s torture program. In spite of growing dissent from health professionals within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), APA executives defended and supported US torture tactics.
For over a decade, as an internist and preventive medicine and public health doctor, I’ve evaluated and cared for torture survivors living in the US and around the globe. Many of these individuals have sought refuge in the US in order to escape political persecution in their countries of origin.
It has been incredibly difficult to reconcile what I’ve learned through my work with torture survivors with the actions of top US health professionals. It seems inconceivable that other health professionals would actively sanction torture.
There are innumerable reasons the US should hold perpetrators and supporters of torture – including health professionals – accountable. Here are some of the biggest reasons:
1. They broke the law.
Under US and international law, torture is illegal. Period.
Under the UN Convention Against Torture and US law, torture includes acts that intentionally inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering. Though the CIA, under the Bush Administration, tried to circumvent the law, all forms of physical and psychological torture are illegal.
2. Torture is unethical.
Health care professionals have a duty to avoid inflicting harm. Primum non nocere, “First, do no harm,” is the most central tenet of medicine.
Physical and psychological forms of torture – including sleep deprivation, social isolation, sensory deprivation, and waterboarding – cause visible and invisible wounds and scars, including chronic pain, PTSD, depression, and suicide.
Health care professionals have a duty to heal – not injure.
3. Claims that torture can be justified are flawed. Torture is not effective.
On December 9, 2014, the United States Senate Intelligence Committee released a report addressing the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques. In its report, the Committee concluded that the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective way to acquire intelligence or gain prisoner cooperation. The report found that even the CIA acknowledged that coercive interrogations – torture tactics – “do not produce intelligence.” There is no clear evidence that terror tactics have saved lives.
4. Torture has placed other health professionals at risk.
The torture tactics employed by the US government, and endorsed by top psychologists, have fueled anti-American sentiment, placing Americans and other citizens – including health professionals and other relief workers – at risk for retaliation.
5. We need strong, courageous, and ethical leadership.
When Senator McCain delivered a speech about the Senate Intelligence report on enhanced interrogation techniques, he said, “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.” “But,” he said, pointedly:
“[I]n the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be.”
Likewise, we need to ensure health professionals within leadership positions are held to the highest ethical standards – particularly since they represent other health professionals. We cannot allow a double standard in the quest for justice.
Following the revelations released earlier this month, Physicians for Human Rights called upon the Department of Justice to begin a criminal investigation into the APA’s role in the US government’s torture program. For the past decade, Physicians for Human Rights has campaigned for a federal investigation into the role of health professionals in torture.
The time for an appropriate investigation – and accountability – is overdue.
Isn’t an investigation the least of what needs to be done to ensure health professionals uphold a duty to “do no harm”?