- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

America’s Torture Doctors

For me one of the most horrifying revelations about the torture carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at its black sites, and the military at its prisons, was that medical doctors not only stood by to monitor the process but were also involved [1] in providing advice to make the torture both mentally and physically more effective. Let’s face it, you can always find a thug who is willing to torture someone, particularly if he is sold a bill of goods that he is doing his patriotic duty and paid handsomely while being assured that he will never be punished. But a physician is supposed to answer to a higher calling. There is something called the Hippocratic Oath, a guideline for ethical behavior by doctors, which includes the mandate “first do no harm.”

The system, described [2] subsequently as having “anemic ethical standards,” worked as follows: a doctor or team of doctors would stand by while someone was being tortured to attempt to prevent the suspect’s actual death, not as a resource to mitigate suffering but rather in recognition of the fact that the prisoner is a source of intelligence that has to preserved until he surrenders all the information that he possesses. The physicians were also there to observe the process for effectiveness. Afterwards, the doctor would write up a report to explore how the experience might be enhanced in terms of the ultimate objective, which was to obtain a complete confession. Both medical doctors and psychologists were part of the process as both pain and fear were to be exploited to obtain the desired results. CIA psychologists also participated [3] in the “Penny Lane” conditioning program at Guantanamo that sought to turn prisoners into double agents.

Did they know they were doing wrong? Absolutely. The Department of Defense even described [2] its attending physicians as “safety workers” in reports because it did not want to reveal that they were actual medical doctors. And if this all sounds like something that might have been contrived by Dr. Josef Mengele and his colleagues at Auschwitz, it should. Even though opponents of torture have demonstrated that prisoners who are subjected to it will say anything to stop the pain, and even though in practical terms permitting the practice invites enemies to do the same when they capture Americans, the belief persists that torture somehow works. Recent CIA efforts [4] to demonstrate that torture produced information vital to the eventual killing of Osama bin Laden have proven to be somewhat fanciful, as an exhaustive 6,300 page investigative report [5] by the Senate Intelligence Committee has demonstrated that that the procedure never produced anything that could not have been obtained by other means.

Characteristically, no one in the government has ever been punished for carrying out torture. Neither the CIA employees who actually engaged in “enhanced interrogation” after 9/11 nor the officials who condoned or ordered the procedure have ever been prosecuted, while the government attorneys who wrote memos justifying the practice are now law professors and federal judges. Similarly, the Agency senior officers who against legal advice destroyed the videotapes that provided clear evidence of torture have never been held accountable. Ironically, the only one who has ever been imprisoned [6] in connection with the CIA program is John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle after he left the Agency. The Justice Department carried out an exhaustive investigation of Kiriakou before convicting him of violating the Espionage Act of 1917. He is currently serving a 30-month term in a Federal prison in Pennsylvania.


In one of its first official acts in January 2009, the Obama administration declared [7] that it had stopped torture, which might or might not be true as there has been no accountability and precious little transparency since that time to enable one to examine the claim. As the president also promised to close Guantanamo Bay prison, White House pledges to take certain actions might well be viewed as less than rock solid.

As a result of the reported abuses in prisons at Abu Ghraib and Bagram, the military now has strict rules defining and limiting torture detailed in its current interrogation field manual 2 22.3, and the CIA appears to be bound by the same architecture based on the White House declaration, though whether that is true in practice is difficult to determine as the Agency continues to assert that the rendition/torture regime was effective. The Agency and White House both claim that CIA no longer has any prisoners under its control.

But even if torture as a U.S. government prerogative in its global war on terror appears to be on the wane, it appears that some physicians are still drawing their wagons in a circle to protect themselves from any possible repercussions deriving from their cooperation with the practice. On February 21st, some American Psychological Association (APA) members sought unsuccessfully [8] to attempt to formally ban psychologist-assisted interrogations by the military or intelligence agencies. The issue has been discussed at APA biannual conventions over the past ten years but has regularly failed to gain the two-thirds support necessary for it to become an agenda item. This time around, however, 53 percent of delegates voted “yes,” the first time that a majority has been obtained.

If the ban had passed, it would have meant the immediate withdrawal of government psychologists from Guantanamo Bay prison. The APA has in the past refused to censure a notorious Guantanamo U.S. Army psychologist John Leso, who led [9] a Behavioral Science Consulting Team (sic) that drafted a policy memo incorporating “illegal” techniques once used by North Korean and Chinese interrogators to break American prisoners. Leso has also been accused of being a party to the torture of al-Qaeda suspect Mohammed al-Qahtani. The former top military psychologist at Guantanamo as well as at Abu Ghraib prison, Larry James, attended the convention and is a member in good standing of the APA.

The American Medical Association (AMA) explicitly condemned [10] torture in 1999, stating that “Physicians must oppose and must not participate in torture for any reason. Participation in torture includes, but is not limited to, providing or withholding any services, substances, or knowledge to facilitate the practice of torture. Physicians must not be present when torture is used or threatened. Physicians may treat prisoners or detainees if doing so is in their best interest, but physicians should not treat individuals to verify their health so that torture can begin or continue.”

This prohibition was violated by the doctors working for the CIA’s Office of Medical Services who participated in the “enhanced interrogation” program, but no one has ever been expelled by the AMA or lost his license to practice as a result, suggesting that the guideline is actually toothless. More recently both the AMA and the American Psychiatric Association have again addressed the issue publicly and restated their intentions to ban members who participate in torture, but the APA continues to hold out, reportedly because members have developed fatigue over the debate and now believe that it will result in bad publicity for their profession no matter what they do.

The APA is not unique in its unwillingness to confront the evil practices that have been unleashed by both Republican and Democratic administrations over the past thirteen years. If it is indeed true that 60 percent of Americans who describe themselves as “evangelicals” approve of torturing [11] terrorist suspects to obtain information it might be reasonable to suggest that there is a large body of opinion in the United States that accepts that the gloves are off in the post-9/11 world without any regard for possible consequences. But consequences there are, with the world looking on in dismay at a still-open Guantanamo Bay prison where many detainees continue to be held even though they are completely innocent, unable to return home only because no country wants to take them. If they were not terrorists when they were rounded up and sent off to Guantanamo they are almost certainly terrorists now, a process that benefited from the services of some of America’s medical professionals.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "America’s Torture Doctors"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 13, 2014 @ 5:01 am

Thank you for standing up for what is right.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 13, 2014 @ 5:11 am

It is impossible not read this and not think of Dr. Mengele and company. It is one of the rare instances in which WWII references are poignantly applicable intersectional as oppose to parallels.

While I certainly appreciate the AMA and the APA. I am more disappointed in the AMA in that the APA compromised itself in 1973 on ethics and has yet held the parties to account.

It reveals that side about who we are we like to ignore but ultimately must confront our step off the cliff as the result of 911 devastating psychological impact.

We have not even had a cursory accounting on all of the ethical collapses as result. I think the ever looming reality is that to do have an accounting would require an accounting of public leadership as well.

And that perhaps more than any other pressure is what restrains us from the same.

#3 Comment By Jim Bovard On March 13, 2014 @ 8:55 am

Great piece, Phil! The last sentence nails the issue very well. Maybe Feinstein can cover this in her next marathon spiel on the Senate floor.

#4 Comment By mrscracker On March 13, 2014 @ 9:25 am

If doctors can lobby for direct abortion on demand,destruction of human embryos, & euthanasia, why might they take the high road on this issue?

#5 Comment By Sean Gillhoolley On March 13, 2014 @ 9:48 am

Why would doctors who engaged in torture be censored when the torture continues?

#6 Comment By Kelley V On March 13, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

Fantastic article, Phil. Given the tussle between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee right now, that 6,300-page report must be pretty damning. As Feinstein said in a Washington Post piece yesterday, the report, as she’s read it, lays bare “the horrible details of the CIA program that never, never, never should have existed.”

Can’t wait to see it.


#7 Comment By David S On March 13, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

This is one of the best, non-partisan accounts of our country’s torture program I have read. I’d wish it were required reading if I thought our country still cared about things like the law and even a modicum of morality.

#8 Comment By kingston observer On March 13, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

“White House pledges to take certain actions might well be viewed as less than rock solid.”

I’ll say. Obama broke most of the promises he made to stop doing things that Bush did. Obama is still in Afghanistan, Obama is still in Iraq, Obama subsequently attacked several other countries, and Obama generally expanded the theaters of war. Obama radically stepped up use of drones and assassination, he never shut down Gitmo, and he has given US blessing and lots of money to the new torture regime in Egypt as well as the old torture regime in Israel.

I don’t think Obama really expects us to believe that torture by the US itself is the one exception to this litany of broken promises and failure. He just expects us not to care.

#9 Comment By Lorraine Barlett On March 13, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

Just in case this article doesn’t provide enough detail to set your hair on fire, I also recommend the documentary, Doctors on the dark Side” by director Martha Davis (and I have a copy if someone wants to borrow it). Not sure if it is on Netflix, but just Google for the link. Thanks Phil, for continuing to shine a light on this blackhole of our history.

#10 Comment By WorkingClass On March 13, 2014 @ 5:46 pm

Polling shows only about half of Americans oppose torture. This is why I am a misanthrope.

#11 Comment By Joe M. On March 14, 2014 @ 8:27 am

What about physicians, physician assistants, nurses and pharmacists who participate in capital punishment? They not only escape censure, but ethics statements even allow their participation to various extents.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 14, 2014 @ 11:22 am


“Polling shows only about half of Americans oppose torture.”

is why leadership is important. Because leadership in a Republic does not merely follow public opinion which shifts as to the impact of events on their psyche. Leadership has the course and strength of will to lead in the direction a nation should go as opposed to where it wants to go.

#13 Comment By Devinicus On March 14, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

Giraldi said,

There is something called the Hippocratic Oath, a guideline for ethical behavior by doctors, which includes the mandate “first do no harm.”

Well, sure, there is such a thing as the Hippocratic Oath, but it’s not as if [1] all doctors take it (most don’t) or [2] there are any penalties associated with violating it (there aren’t).

This is certainly not to praise torture, merely to point out that the Hippocratic Oath is not nearly the medical touchstone most make it out to be.

#14 Comment By EarlyBird On March 14, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

How sad that so many Americans approve of torture post-9/11. “Well THIS time it’s different.” “Some exceptions need to be made in trying times.” “Don’t forget, we’re the good guys.”

Surely these were and remain the excuses that torturers in foul regimes the world over use as they torture the poor guy in front of them.

#15 Comment By Dr. Nora On March 15, 2014 @ 11:03 am

“White House pledges to take certain actions might well be viewed as less than rock solid.”

“I’ll say. Obama broke most of the promises he made to stop doing things that Bush did. Obama is still in Afghanistan, Obama is still in Iraq, Obama subsequently attacked several other countries, and Obama generally expanded the theaters of war. Obama radically stepped up use of drones and assassination….”

While many of us are unhappy with the continuation of the policies the chickenhawks, military-industrial complex and right wing cheered under the former republican administration, I’d like to point out that since you considered it a sign of being tough when they did it, at the very least you can’t call Obama weak anymore. But never mind all the cognitive dissonance in play with that topic.

It would seem we are forgetting how the separation of power system of our government functions. I understand, who really remembers those boring civic lessons from summer school in junior high?

So, let’s do the cliff notes version. The Legislative branch (congress), has to write and introduce and pass (or not) laws. The Executive branch can ask for, recommend or support a law, but cannot initiate legislation. Executive power is limited. The latter can of course, veto laws that congress passes.

And then the Judicial branch decides conflicts.

Thus, Obama could not unilaterally, via executive power, close Guantanamo. (Just to pick one example) And congress blocked closing it. If he could have done so, the right would scream “dictator, abuse of power”, etc. While it is not unusual for the average person to not know this, one would hope we could expect journalists ( Giraldi) to have a better knowledge base.

Shame on you for perpetuating myths.

#16 Comment By Someguy On March 16, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

Hippocratic Oath? I thought that was downgraded to Hippocratic Suggestion.

#17 Comment By Liam On March 18, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

It appears that Operation Paperclip has had a lasting influence.

#18 Comment By carroll price On March 20, 2014 @ 10:39 am

I can affirm from personal experience that (as Mr. Giraldi points out in this article) many evangelical Christians approve of the torture of fellow human beings. Which, in my opinion should be enough to tell anyone all they need to know about this despicable segment of the American population.

#19 Comment By Peter On March 20, 2014 @ 10:39 am

The torturers, their superiors, their Nazi-like doctors, the senate and house “oversight” committees, the supporting and participating cabinet members, and the President, should be fired and forced to stand before an international war crimes tribunal.

#20 Comment By sohoryan On March 21, 2014 @ 11:46 am

The western world is now a giant concentration camp and these are concentration camp doctors.In the covert torture known as electronic harassment, the concentration camp doctors are the psychiatrists. The torture is not “out there” any more. It is coming to a bedroom near you.

#21 Comment By A Payne On March 24, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

Isn’t torture exactly what torture perpetrators Bush and Cheney wanted? Why punish the doctors when we, as a nation, allowed Bush and Cheney administer a torture policy in our name? Why punish the doctors, when we have allowed the real war criminals excape all accountability? We cannot hold the bottom of the torture chain of command accountable until we hold Bush and Cheney accountable first.

#22 Comment By B Moss On August 3, 2014 @ 10:30 am

Just a technical note…if anybody can find the clause “first do no harm” in the Hippocratic Oath, please tell me where to look.

#23 Comment By GoodWillTowardsAll On December 11, 2014 @ 1:30 am

This is the original version of the Hippocratic Oath:

“I swear by Apollo the physician, and Aesculapius the surgeon, likewise Hygeia and Panacea, and call all the gods and goddesses to witness, that I will observe and keep this underwritten oath, to the utmost of my power and judgment.

I will reverence my master who taught me the art. Equally with my parents, will I allow him things necessary for his support, and will consider his sons as brothers. I will teach them my art without reward or agreement; and I will impart all my acquirement, instructions, and whatever I know, to my master’s children, as to my own; and likewise to all my pupils, who shall bind and tie themselves by a professional oath, but to none else.

With regard to healing the sick, I will devise and order for them the best diet, according to my judgment and means; and I will take care that they suffer no hurt or damage.

Nor shall any man’s entreaty prevail upon me to administer poison to anyone; neither will I counsel any man to do so. Moreover, I will get no sort of medicine to any pregnant woman, with a view to destroy the child.

Further, I will comport myself and use my knowledge in a Godly manner.

I will not cut for the stone, but will commit that affair entirely to the surgeons.

Whatsoever house I may enter, my visit shall be for the convenience and advantage of the patient; and I will willingly refrain from doing any injury or wrong from falsehood, and (in an especial manner) from acts of an amorous nature, whatever may be the rank of those who it may be my duty to cure, whether mistress or servant, bond or free.

Whatever, in the course of my practice, I may see or hear (even when not invited), whatever I may happen to obtain knowledge of, if it be not proper to repeat it, I will keep sacred and secret within my own breast.

If I faithfully observe this oath, may I thrive and prosper in my fortune and profession, and live in the estimation of posterity; or on breach thereof, may the reverse be my fate!”

And let us remember the words:
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche