NEW YORK - Did physicians and psychologists help the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency develop a new research protocol to assess and refine the use of waterboarding or other harsh interrogation techniques?
This is the question being raised in a new report by a leading human rights organisation. The group says that, if confirmed, it would likely constitute a "new, previously unknown category of ethical violations committed by CIA physicians and psychologists".
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) charges that "The extent to which American physicians and psychologists violated human rights and betrayed the ethical standards of their professions by designing, implementing, and legitimizing a worldwide torture program is greater than previously known."
A team of PHR doctors authored the new white paper, "Aiding Torture: Health Professionals' Ethics and Human Rights Violations Demonstrated in the May 2004 Inspector General's Report."
The report details how the CIA relied on medical expertise to rationalise and carry out abusive and unlawful interrogations. It also refers to aggregate collection of data on detainees' reaction to interrogation methods.
"PHR is concerned that this data collection and analysis may amount to human experimentation," the report says.
"Medical doctors and psychologists colluded with the CIA to keep observational records about waterboarding, which approaches unethical and unlawful human experimentation," says PHR Medical Advisor and lead report author Scott Allen, MD.
For example, the report says, "Interrogators would place a cloth over a detainee's face to block breathing and induce feelings of fear, helplessness, and a loss of control. A doctor would stand by to monitor and calibrate this physically and psychologically harmful act, which amounts to torture."
"It is profoundly unsettling to learn of the central role of health professionals in laying a foundation for US government lawyers to rationalise the CIA's illegal torture programme," it says.
Frank Donaghue, PHR's chief executive officer, told IPS, "Health professionals violated ethical duties by participating in the torture and abuse of detainees in U.S. custody. PHR has long demanded a full investigation into the role health professionals played in detainee treatment. PHR again calls upon health professional associations to support a non-partisan commission of inquiry."
"It is time for the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and others to demand a nonpartisan commission to investigate these crimes," he said. "The associations must sanction any of their membership found to have violated their professional ethics."
These and other professional organisations have condemned participation by their members in detainee interrogations.
The Inspector General's report documents some practices - previously unknown or unconfirmed - that were used to bring about excruciating pain, terror, humiliation, and shame for months on end.
These practices included: Mock executions; brandishing guns and power drills; threats to sexually assault family members and murder children; "walling" - repeatedly slamming an unresponsive detainee's head against a cell wall; and confinement in a box.
"These unlawful, unethical, and ineffective interrogation tactics cause significant bodily and mental harm," said co-author and PHR senior medical advisor Vincent Iacopino, MD, PhD. "The CIA Inspector General's report confirms that torture escalates in severity and torturers frequently go beyond approved techniques."
"The required presence of health professionals did not make interrogation methods safer, but sanitized their use, escalated abuse, and placed doctors and psychologists in the untenable position of calibrating harm rather than serving as protectors and healers," said co-author Steven Reisner, PhD, PHR's psychological ethics advisor.
"The fact that psychologists went beyond monitoring, and actually designed and implemented these abuses - while simultaneously serving as 'safety monitors' - reveals the ethical bankruptcy of the entire programme," Reisner said.
"That health professionals who swear to oaths of healing so abused the sacred trust society places in us by instigating, legitimising and participating in torture, is an abomination," states co-author Allen Keller, MD, director of the Bellevue Medical Center/New York University Programme for Survivors of Torture.
"Health professionals who aided torture must be held accountable by professional associations, by state licensing boards, and by society. Accountability is essential to maintain trust in our professions and to end torture, which scars bodies and minds, leaving survivors to endure debilitating injuries, humiliating memories and haunting nightmares," Keller said.
PHR has called for full investigation and remedies, including accountability for war crimes, and reparation, such as compensation, medical care and psycho-social services. PHR also calls for health professionals who have violated ethical standards or the law to be held accountable through criminal prosecution, loss of license and loss of professional society membership where appropriate.
The report by the CIA's now-retired Inspector General, John Helgerson, was prepared in 2004. In response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a heavily redacted version of the report was released earlier.
But because many pages of it were totally blacked out and unreadable, the ACLU asked a federal judge to order the CIA to release a less-redacted version. That version, with some sections still blacked out, was released last month.
Its publication sparked a firestorm of controversy, with key figures such as former vice-president Dick Cheney defending the CIA's interrogation practices and accusing the Barack Obama administration of aiding terrorists by making the report public.
It has reportedly also resulted in heated arguments between Attorney General Eric Holder and Leon Panetta, head of the CIA. Both are recent Obama appointments.
Holder has since appointed a special prosecutor to conduct a preliminary investigation to determine whether criminal charges should be pursued against CIA operatives who exceeded the guidelines provided to them by lawyers in the Justice Department during the administration of former President George W. Bush.
The CIA's interrogation methods were declared legal by the Justice Department under President Bush. Recently released memoranda asserting their legality have been attacked by many legal scholars and human rights advocates.