(Re)Call the Doctor: Physicians Involved in CIA Interrogations?

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Blink and you’ll miss it. But yesterday on Meet The Press, Admiral Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence, seemingly disclosed something long suspected but never proven about the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques: interrogators receive advice from medical personnel in conducting their interrogations. When it came to light two years ago that psychiatrists and psychologists helped prepare interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, the revelation caused a huge scandal in the psychiatric community — something that now looks set to repeat itself with physicians.

McConnell appeared on Tim Russert’s Sunday chat show to reassure viewers that President Bush’s new executive order for CIA interrogations prohibits torture. He stuck to that line consistently throughout his interview, but during one quick moment of elaboration, McConnell, perhaps inadvertently, disclosed something extremely significant:

When I was in a situation where I had to sign off, as a member of the process, my name to this executive order, I sat down with those who had been trained to do it, the doctors who monitor it, understanding that no one is subjected to torture. (Emphasis added)

Until now, no confirmation existed that “doctors monitored” CIA interrogations — or indeed took part in any aspect of them.But over the past month, both Salon and Vanity Fair have reported that psychologists have advised CIA interrogators on crafting their interrogation regimens. Those psychologists were at one time involved with a Fort Bragg-based program known as SERE, for “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape,” intended to instruct U.S. special-operations forces on how to withstand abusive interrogation if captured. A recently-released Pentagon inspector general’s report found that SERE techniques influenced military interrogations in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan, but not much was known about the influence of SERE on the CIA program.

Both pieces disclosed that CIA received the dubious benefits of SERE as well. Two SERE-affiliated psychologists, Bruce Jessen and James Elmer Mitchell, assisted the CIA in “reverse-engineering” the SERE training received by U.S. forces in order to determine what coercive techniques would successfully break an al-Qaeda detainee.

It’s possible that McConnell was referring to the presence of psychologists at the CIA’s “black sites,” the off-the-books detention facilities where the agency interrogates high-level al-Qaeda captives. Even that, however, would be a surprising break from the intelligence community’s consistent silence about its interrogation relationship with the SERE program. But the involvement of physicians — what’s commonly meant by “doctors” — in any CIA interrogation is something that had previously been shrouded in rumor. A call for clarification placed to the the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has yet to be returned.

If McConnell indeed meant to say that physicians are “monitoring” the interrogation program, it raises similar questions to those involving the psychologists. Are doctors using their medical knowledge to craft interrogations? Could doctors’ understanding of the human body be used to inflict pain?

If so, the medical community will most likely react with horror. “The use of medical personnel such as physicians, psychiatrists and others in interrogation is an abrogation of the core tenets of the Hippocratic Oath,” says Nathaniel Raymond, spokesman for Physicians for Human Rights. “A doctor’s responsibility is to do no harm, not to calibrate harm or to engage in signing off for a detainee’s ability to withstand physical or psychological torture.”

Nor is this a moot point given Bush’s executive order. The order is intended to ban torture — though how ironclad a ban it actually creates is up for debate — but it explicitly carves out a continuing role for doctors. According to the new rules, the CIA director must create a regimen for the “effective monitoring of the program, including with respect to medical matters, to ensure the safety of those in the program.” Expect medical involvement with interrogations to increase — and with it, concerns about ongoing abuse.

Update: Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for McConnell, declined to elaborate, saying the Meet The Press “transcript speaks for itself.” He added that McConnell said that doctors would “monitor, not supervise” interrogations, would not say anything further — including about whether McConnell was referring to physicians; in what capacity their “monitoring” would be employed by interrogators; or what change in the use of doctors the executive order heralds.