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Not just a job: the complicity of health and medical personnel in post-9/11 torture is a stain on my profession

Psychologist and architect of the CIA torture programme James Mitchell gave evidence last week. A consultant psychiatrist at Freedom from Torture decries the “shameful complicity” of health professionals.

William Hopkins
27 January 2020
Gina Haspel, Director, CIA attends a closed door briefing on Iran, January 8, 2020.
Gina Haspel, Director, CIA attends a closed door briefing on Iran, January 8, 2020.
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CNP/PA. All rights reserved.

As the American psychologist and architect of the Bush-era torture programme, Dr James Mitchell, took the stand last week, I was reminded of Timothy Snyder’s Twenty Lessons on Tyranny. He wrote ‘If lawyers had followed the norm of no execution without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent…then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities.’

Eighteen years have passed since the opening of Guantanamo Bay and implementation of the (now defunct) US ‘enhanced interrogation’ programme – a clinically friendly name for a torture house that included waterboarding and other forms of abuse. Was Mitchell finally standing trial for his crimes? No. He defiantly gave evidence to a pre-trial hearing in the American military war court; his testimony mirroring one of his earlier justifications: “I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country”.

Since 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’, a myriad of human rights abuses have been committed and justified in complete disregard of the UN Convention Against Torture; and by countries that once led the way in establishing the torture ban as a legal norm.

As a senior psychiatrist who has worked with torture survivors for decades, my professional conduct is underpinned by the principles of the Hippocratic Oath to heal and restore. Psychologists and other health professionals are bound by similar ethics. Mitchell’s use of professional ‘skills’ to maximise the suffering of others is perverse. His defence of his actions under the guise of ‘just doing my job’ is unconscionable.

And he wasn’t the only one. We know from the so-called ‘torture memos’ and other evidence, that the expert opinion of doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists were sought and relied upon to argue that interrogation ‘techniques’ did not constitute torture. Their participation goes beyond the ‘good men doing nothing’ argument. The complicity of medical and health personnel is a stain on my profession.

Beyond the health and legal ramifications, I know too well the catastrophic impact of torture on the individuals I have helped over the course of my career; the way it savagely breaks people apart, and produces unreliable evidence. Mark Fallon, former chief investigator of Al-Qaeda for the military commissions, witnessed the interrogation programme with his own eyes and was shocked by what he saw. He told Freedom from Torture, “Experts know that torturing information out of a person produces tainted and corrupted intelligence.” It doesn’t even work.

It doesn’t even work.

Mitchell’s testimony not only highlights a moral and legal failure of that era, it serves as a warning for what could lie ahead. This morally repugnant practice is not only a breach of medical and professional ethics, it gives torture perpetrators across the world a green light.

Torture is rampant around the globe. After the Second World War, leaders came together and put treaties and protections in place; they said ‘never again’. Organisations like Freedom from Torture were founded to shine a light on torture, and hold torturing states to account. But in 2020, the sky is darkening.

The US’ president Donald Trump has stated that torture ‘absolutely works’ and promoted figures from that ‘war on terror’ era to prominent positions: Gina Haspel, a woman accused of running a ‘blacksite’ in Thailand where waterboarding and other methods took place, is now Director of the CIA. Marshall Billingslea, an ex-army official with a well-documented history of advocating torture, has been nominated for a top US human rights role.

Shameless promotors of torture are taking to the helm of governments – including in other liberal democracies like Brazil and the Philippines. In the UK, our leaders continue to block the truth about our own government’s complicity in the US torture programme.

In this frightening climate, it is more important than ever to remind ourselves of what we stand for. The testimony of Mitchell may shed light on the scale of the US’ torture programme. But if we really want justice, Mitchell and others involved in the practice must be held accountable for the betrayal of their professional ethics and the untold suffering they have caused.

A society is only as good as its values, and attitudes towards torture are a good litmus test for that. Snyder writes, “the minor choices we make are themselves a kind of vote…our words and gestures, or their absence, count very much”. Ethical and legal principles can never be compromised in the mistaken belief that it will make us safer. As a health professional, I believe it is important for our work to underpin these standards. As a human rights advocate, I know our humanity depends on it.

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