You write that without medical accomplices, torture in U.S. prisons couldn’t happen. What happened to American doctors to make them do this?
What happened was that the government set up two programs, one of which was to use medical personnel who did autopsies on people who died of torture to conceal public knowledge of that abuse.
The second thing was that cultural psychologists and psychiatrists were used to develop ways to break prisoners down, using the particular beliefs and habits of Muslim people. And this was supplemented with information from the medical records on the prisoner’s emotional and physical vulnerabilities to create a plan of sleep deprivation, humiliation techniques, food deprivation, and so on.
What first alerted you to doctors’ complicity in abuses?
I’ve worked a lot in international rights. And physicians are present in all prisons. In fact, it would be fair to say that prisons’ doctors and nurses are the frontline human-rights workers. So, when I saw the Abu Ghraib pictures, the question was, why hadn’t the doctors and nurses blown the whistle over two years that these abuses were going on at prisons across Iraq, Afghanistan, and at Guantanamo Bay?
My investigation was based on 35,000 pages of government documents that were obtained by the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act.
What motivated you to take this extensive look at doctors’ role in torture?
In all countries that practice torture, physicians have to assume a key role in blocking these abuses. And in fact, when they do, they often reshape the country’s practices. This is true, for example, in Chile or the former Soviet Union or in Turkey today. Somebody needed to take a look at this data.
Your adopted son is a refugee from Cambodia. Did his experience sensitize you to this troubling subject?
I’ve long seen the horrible effects of torture in refugee camps. And certainly, my son’s experience--he was a victim of torture from Cambodia’s killing fields--is also a factor.
Part of it was not just torture itself as a horrendous human-rights abuse, but also the fact that I’ve worked with American military people for a long time, and this simply doesn’t look like the military that I know.
What happened? Did 9/11 transform the behavior of military medical personnel?
I think that was part of it. The irony is that the United States conducted about 25 years of research on coercive interrogation. So did the British and so did the Israelis. And they all found that it didn’t work. In fact, the Defense Department told Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld it wouldn’t work, and he ordered it anyway.
And coercive interrogation practices have failed. We took a guy, we tortured him in Egypt. He gave the false information that Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda were developing bio-weapons. That became critical information in securing U.S. congressional and U.N. approval for the adventure in Iraq.
And a U.S. intelligence official told me that torture was obtaining bad information that was sending our soldiers out on dangerous wild-goose chases in Iraq, because people under torture will say anything.
So, the practical angle is that torture doesn’t work. Was it the moral angle that drew you to do this study?
Sure. But I think that it’s important to understand from the standpoint of preventing and stopping torture, that experience showed us in Europe that you need to combine both an argument about the immorality of torture with an understanding that it doesn’t work. And throughout America there has been an irresponsible discussion, for example, of the use of torture for “ticking time-bomb” scenarios.
Is that Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz’s argument?
Right. And the argument of a TV show called “24.” Dershowitz argues that we can use what he calls “torture warrants” [signed by the president] to control this practice. But experience shows that torture has never been confined to narrow channels. In fact, the premise of the dehumanization which lies behind torture ensures that it’ll be used widely against people who know nothing of crimes.
U.S. military intelligence says that 85 percent of the prisoners held in Iraqi prisons, and around 60 percent of those held at Guantanamo, are entirely innocent or ignorant of any insurgency or Al-Qaeda activity.