Last year, Physicians for Human Rights used government papers to document that CIA doctors and psychologists participated in the conception and monitoring of the agency's infamous torture regime at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and other detention centers.
Scott Allen, a doctor at Brown University, was among the authors. And this month, he joined with colleagues to publish a new article in the journal Science suggesting the Bush Administration used bad science to justify the torture program.
The piece also makes several suggestions for shifts in policy. Among them: greater independence for doctors from the chain of command.
The Phoenix recently caught up with Allen for a Q&A about his original findings and the recommendations in his new piece. The interview is edited and condensed for length.
DID YOU, ON A PERSONAL LEVEL, FIND IT SHOCKING THAT DOCTORS AND PSYCHOLOGISTS WERE INVOLVED IN THE DEVELOPMENT AND MONITORING OF THE TORTURE PROGRAM? Absolutely, I did. When the very first stories about torture started coming out, my initial concern — and why I first got involved — was my thought that doctors are always a part of these prison detention settings and were seeing these detainees.
So my initial concern was, well they must have seen some evidence or heard something to suggest that these detainees were being subjected to torture and abuse. And my initial question was, what did they do? So, to be honest with you, I had some expectation they were hesitant to deal with it or confront it or report it or document it. I would have been disappointed, but not surprised.
What surprised me was just what you said — as I, with my colleagues, began to uncover how central health professionals were to the conceptualization, the design, the deployment, and the monitoring of this program. They were really intimately involved in every stage. That did surprise me and I find it deeply disturbing.
AND I WONDER IF YOU COULD EXPLAIN, TO THE LAYMAN, WHY THIS IS SO ANTITHETICAL TO THE HEALTH PROFESSIONAL'S ETHIC. Well, remember that to practice medicine, there is what we sometimes refer to as the social contract. We give physicians and other health professionals extraordinary privileges. Think about it: we can put you into a coma, we can take a scalpel and slice you open, we can do extraordinary things that other people would be arrested for. And the reason we're allowed to do those things is because there is this basic understanding that we are going to act in your interest to help you. But the whole contract is based on the foundation of trust between doctor and patient — and that trust is based on that "first do no harm ethic," that we're going to act in your interest and we're not going to act to harm you. So anything that undermines that trust, or is in conflict with that basic foundation, undermines the practice of medicine.
PHYSICIANS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS HAS ALLEGED THAT MONITORING TORTURE TECHNIQUES FOR EFFECTIVENESS GETS CLOSE TO HUMAN EXPERIMENTATION. AND THAT'S A CHARGE THAT INEVITABLY CONJURES MEMORIES OF NAZI GERMANY. IS THERE AN ARGUMENT TO BE MADE THAT THE ARGUMENT IS GOING TOO FAR? IF NOT, WHY DO YOU THINK IT'S JUSTIFIED? Well, we've been careful to try to stay away from the understandably inflammatory [comparison to] the rather extreme and horrible experiments that the Nazis did — or, for that matter, that the Japanese did — on prisoners of war.