February 29, 2024

US army doctors offer rationale for participation in torture

 In the wake of allegations that Army health care professionals may have colluded in the ill-treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq and Afghanistan, a top Pentagon official has justified their participation in interrogations. According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, military doctors regularly plan interrogation strategies such as sleep deprivation, pass health information to military intelligence, and coach interrogators. However, according to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, Dr David Tornberg, these doctors are not acting as doctors and therefore they are not bound by patient-oriented ethics. The authors of the article interviewed him and report than he contended that "Physicians assigned to military intelligence… have no doctor-patient relationship with detainees and, in the absence of life-threatening emergency, have no obligation to offer medical aid."

Dr Tornberg believes that a medical degree is not a "sacramental vow", but merely a certification of skill. Hence, military doctors participation in interrogation does not violate medical ethics. To support that view, he points out that civilian doctors often play other roles than care-giving. Forensic psychiatry and occupational health, for instance, are sometimes at odds with patient welfare. However, the authors of the NEJM study respond that "the therapeutic mission is the profession’s primary role and the core of physicians professional identity. If [these] are to be preserved, there are some things doctors must not do."

The Surgeon General of the US Army is drafting a confidential code of conduct for health professionals who work with detainees. The NEJM complains that some military doctors have tried to involve outside ethicists in their discussions, but this has been blocked by the Pentagon’s civilian leadership.