Towards a Nonpartisan Commission to Investigate US Torture

I attended the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today on a “commission of inquiry” to examine Bush Administration policies governing detainee treatment.

Committee Chairman Senator Leahy (D-VT) introduced the hearing, stating:

We must not be afraid to look at what we have done, to hold ourselves accountable as we do other nations who make mistakes. We must understand that national security means protecting our country by advancing our laws and values, not discarding them.

Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) conceded that he wouldn’t mind looking back if there is a reason to do so, acknowledging that torture is a violation of our law. How many more reasons does Senator Specter need? Here is one: Susan Crawford, convening authority of the Guantanamo military commissions, stated in a recent Washington Post article that Mohammed al-Qahtani was tortured, citing the “medical impact” of the techniques used against him.

You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for. And coercive. Clearly coercive. It was that medical impact that pushed me over the edge.

Consequently Crawford dropped the charges against al-Qahtani.

On a related note, in his testimony, John Farmer, who has served as a senior counsel and team leader for the 9/11 Commission, cautioned that the abusive tactics have compromised our ability to respond to 9/11. Frederick A. O. Schwarz, Jr., Senior Counsel from the Brennan Center for Justice, echoed that sentiment in his testimony, stating that it is necessary to find out whether abandoning the rule of law has made us less safe. In his testimony before the Committee in support of a commission, Retired Vice Admiral Lee Gunn emphasized the problems Bush policies have created for our servicemen and women.

PHR believes that the integrity of military medical ethics must be restored by pursuing a thorough review and implementing guidelines that uphold medical ethics. In the statement we submitted for the record in today's hearing (PDF), we emphasized that

In addition to determining how health professionals came to be placed in harmful roles, the Commission needs to recommend that effective guidelines be put in place to ensure that such a gross subversion of medical ethics cannot be repeated. The Defense Department continues to mandate that health professionals play a major role in interrogations, through its Behavioral Science Consultant teams. This is ethically inappropriate. By helping interrogators determine when to push harder to get detainees to reveal information, health professionals abandon their role as healers and become instead advisors on calibrating harm. Psychologists and psychiatrists should be limited to training personnel in non-coercive rapport-building interrogation techniques…

The enormous prestige of the health professions in this country was earned over many decades, in part by adherence to a strict set of ethical standards. The participation of some health professionals in ethically disturbing and even criminal behavior while engaged with the national security apparatus serve to erode that high standing, especially if their actions are not investigated and corrected. The medical and health professions as a whole have a responsibility to support a national commission that will move toward a restoration of the highest moral and ethical standards, rooted in the respect for human dignity.

Senator Specter cautioned against criminalizing policy differences. That distorted rhetoric must be rejected. The authorization of torture is not a policy difference; the legal prohibition against torture is absolute and unequivocal. Exploitation of the law to conform to policy warrants an investigation.

In discussing the Office of Legal Counsel memos released earlier this week authorizing interrogations that violate human rights, Senator Leahy said, “How can anyone suggest that such policies do not deserve a thorough, objective review?”

The American people and the victims of abuse deserve the truth; the wrongs of the past must be uncovered, addressed and prevented from recurring.

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