ResourcesPress Release

PHR and Seven Leading Health Professionals Call for Prohibition of Abusive CIA Interrogation Tactics in Detainee Treatment and Trial Bill; Congress Must Not Cede Interpretation of Geneva Conventions to President

For Immediate Release

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is gravely concerned that the agreement reached yesterday, unless further clarified by Congress, would give the Bush Administration the discretion and immunity from prosecution to freely use a whole host of tactics that are clearly torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. PHR and seven leading health professionals (see letter below), including Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo, called on both Houses of Congress to explicitly prohibit, as part of the pending detainee treatment and trial bill, specific abusive interrogation techniques that have been repeatedly used during CIA interrogations of terror suspects, according to news reports. PHR, however, applauded the classification of certain acts as war crimes as part of the compromise reached yesterday and welcomed the refusal of Senators McCain, Warner, and Graham to redefine Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.

"The White House has consistently responded to every attempt to restrict its use of harsh interrogation tactics with its own reinterpretations of US and international law to justify these abuses. Because of this track record, Congress must explicitly prohibit CIA techniques that violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice, our treaty obligations, and America's values," stated Leonard Rubenstein, Executive Director of PHR. "Congress must not allow these clearly brutal and abusive tactics to officially become standard operating procedure in the CIA interrogation system."

Abusive interrogation tactics used by the CIA that must be explicitly prohibited by Congress include prolonged sleep deprivation, induced hypothermia, stress positions, shaking, sensory deprivation and overload, and possibly water-boarding, among other reported techniques. PHR and other organizations working with torture survivors have clinically documented the devastating impact techniques can have on a person's physical and mental health.

"The Armed Forces have explicitly proscribed many of the very tactics that the President has been seeking Congressional authorization for the CIA to continue to use," said Brigadier General Stephen N. Xenakis, MD (USA-Ret.), an advisor to PHR and one of the signatories of the letter to Senator McCain. "The detainee treatment and trial bill must not be used to allow two conflicting standards of detainee treatment to simultaneously exist within the US Government–a high standard for the military and a lower standard for the CIA. Common Article 3 should not be allowed to become a limbo stick that can be raised or lowered as the White House sees fit."

PHR also called on Congress to restore the right of Habeus Corpus to detainees challenging their detention by the United States at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

The following leading health professionals called yesterday on Senator McCain to ensure that these tactics, commonly used in CIA interrogations, are prohibited under the detainee treatment and trial bill: Allen S. Keller, MD, Program Director, Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture; Gerald Koocher, PhD, President of the American Psychological Association; Burton J. Lee, MD, former Physician to the President for George Herbert Walker Bush; Bradly J. Olson, PhD, Chair of the Divisions of Social Justice of the American Psychological Association; Steven S. Sharfstein, MD, Immediate Past President, American Psychiatric Association; Brigadier General Stephen N. Xenakis, MD (USA-Ret.); and Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D., Profesor Emeritus, Stanford and Past President of the American Psychological Association.

The full text of the letter to Senator McCain from the seven leading health professionals is below:

September 21, 2006

Senator John McCain
241 Senate Russell Office Building
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator McCain,

As medical and psychological professionals who are deeply committed to our nation’s traditional safeguards against torture and abuse of prisoners and detainees, we urge you to do all you can to clarify that the language and legislative history of the military commissions legislation does not operate to exempt the Central Intelligence Agency (or any other US government agency) from the absolute ban on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

We strongly support your efforts to prevent all US personnel from engaging in harmful and abusive interrogation practices and to preserve long-standing US observance of the Geneva Conventions. We also welcomed passage of the McCain Amendment last year because it seemed to give force to our own professional codes of ethics, which not only prohibit us from participating in torture and ill-treatment but require us to oppose such abuse wherever it occurs, guided by the principle that torture and abuse are prohibited absolutely, in any circumstance or context, with no exceptions.

We strongly believe, therefore, that the legislation addressing military commissions and the War Crimes Act must not allow harsh and abusive interrogation tactics by any government agency, including the CIA – methods that unquestionably violate the traditions and values you have long defended. There must be no mistake about the brutality of the "enhanced interrogation methods” reportedly used by the CIA. Prolonged sleep deprivation, induced hypothermia, stress positions, shaking, sensory deprivation and overload, and water-boarding (which may still be authorized), among other reported techniques, can have a devastating impact on the victim’s physical and mental health. They cannot be characterized as anything but torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and we urge that the legislative history makes this explicit.

As health professionals, these abuses and the harm they cause deeply offend our ethics and values. As Americans, they offend the traditions and principles we have long shared and cherished as a nation. As both health professionals and American citizens, we urge you to ensure that no one is authorized to violate these defining principles in the name of the United States.


Allen S. Keller, MD (Program. Dir., Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture)

Gerald P. Koocher, PhD (President, American Psychological Association)

Burton J. Lee, MD (Physician to the President for George Herbert Walker Bush*)

Bradley D. Olson, PhD (Chair, Divisions for Social Justice, Amer. Psychological Ass’n*)

Pedro Ruiz, MD (President of the American Psychiatric Association)

Steven S. Sharfstein, MD (Immediate Past President, American Psychiatric Association*)

Brigadier General Stephen N. Xenakis, MD (USA-Ret.)

Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D. (Prof. Emeritus, Stanford; past President, Amer. Psychological Ass’n*)

*Affiliation provided for identification purposes only.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

Media Contact

Kevin Short

Deputy Director, Media & Communications1.917.679.0110

Get Updates from PHR