Thursday, September 3, 2009

More on PHR's Report "Aiding Torture," Steven Reisner on Democracy Now!

Psychologist Steven Reisner, who co-wrote Physicians for Human Rights' (PHR) new examination of Bush-era torture on the complicity of medical professionals and psychologists in planning and implementing and monitoring the abuse, was interviewed today on Amy Goodman's show, Democracy Now! The following is a transcript of the interview. (To download PHR's report, click on the title: Aiding Torture: Health Professionals’ Ethics and Human Rights Violations Demonstrated in the May 2004 Inspector General’s Report, can be downloaded at through this link.)
AMY GOODMAN: A new report by Physicians for Human Rights has found that physicians and psychologists played a greater role than previously known in designing, implementing and legitimizing the Bush administration’s torture program.

A team of doctors analyzed the details of the CIA’s Inspector General report on prisoner interrogation that the Justice Department released last week. Among other revelations, the report detailed how medical professionals collected data on the reaction of prisoners to interrogation methods in order to help the CIA assess and refine the use of waterboarding and other techniques. Physicians for Human Rights found this data collection and analysis, quote, “may amount to human experimentation” and calls for further investigation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The group is calling for health professionals who have violated ethical standards or the law to be held accountable through criminal prosecution, loss of license and loss of professional society membership.

Dr. Steven Reisner is the co-author of the report, titled “Aiding Torture.” Dr. Reisner is the adviser on psychological ethics for Physicians for Human Rights. He’s also an adjunct professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and a clinical assistant professor at NYU.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Thank you for having me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Summarize your findings of that report.

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, what we found is clear evidence of the role of health professionals in every aspect of the Bush administration’s torture program, from devising the program to implementing the program and to monitoring the program in a way attempting to justify it according to the Bush administration Justice Department’s narrow reading of the laws against torture. The Bush administration argued that if it doesn’t cause organ failure or death or prolonged psychological harm, it’s not torture, and therefore health professionals were present at every moment during these torture sessions to ostensibly validate that the prisoner wasn’t about to die or have organ failure.

AMY GOODMAN: Human experimentation?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, what happened is that the Office of Medical Services of the CIA didn’t have any data to go on to assess how dangerous to the life of the prisoner waterboarding actually was. So what they decided to do, according to the report, is to gather data through each session of the waterboarding in order to better assess how you implement waterboarding in the future. So they asked for data on the amount of water that was issued, how frequently the sessions were, whether there was a seal, you know, a nasal seal, making sure the water entered the cavity or didn’t enter the cavity, how many sessions per day, etc., etc. So, gathering of data in order to improve the functioning of a technique seems to us to come very close to, if not crossing the line, of experimentation on prisoners.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And presumably that data was then collected into scientific reports, right, that exist somewhere?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, presumably. We don’t have any documentation of that at this point, but that’s why Physicians for Human Rights is calling for a thorough investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: The eleven techniques, Dr. Reisner?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: The eleven techniques—well, the main thing about that is that we’ve discovered that there were techniques that we didn’t know about before: diapering—

AMY GOODMAN: What’s diapering for?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Diapering is for humiliation. You put a diaper on the detainee, and especially with—they combine that with a purely liquid diet, so that the detainee was likely to lose control of his bowels and experience this terrible regressive humiliation. The aim of all of these techniques primarily was psychological regression.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Reisner, can you put this in the context of what’s happening at the American Psychological Association? I mean, we’ve had you on a number of times. You ran for president of the APA. You didn’t win, though you got the most nominating votes for your candidacy. And you’ve led this movement, along with a few other psychologists, supported by thousands within the APA, to challenge its allowing psychologists to participate in coercive interrogations. You just came out of a meeting in Canada, the APA’s annual meeting. What has come of this movement?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, the protest against the APA’s position has been pretty widespread. And the APA has been claiming that they’re against torture, just like the Bush administration claims that it’s against torture. But when it comes to actually putting teeth into their proposals, into their policy, they have yet to implement their own policy.

We got the—we forwarded a referendum. The APA membership voted overwhelmingly to keep psychologists out of environments that violate Geneva Conventions or the UN Convention Against Torture. That’s APA policy.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, has stated, and wrote a letter to the president of the APA, that Guantanamo still violates the Geneva Conventions and violates the UN Convention Against Torture, but the APA continues to refuse to implement its own referendum policy and ask for the withdrawal of psychologists from that site—at that site and other similar sites.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And have any of the—I assume that the report did not identify any of the medical professionals who participated, but have any of the medical professionals who participated in these programs been identified or come forward at all?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, a number of them have been identified. The two psychologists that created the CIA’s torture program, oversaw it, implemented the waterboarding with a number of high-value detainees, Mitchell and Jessen, these were private contractors who had their own corporation. On the board of that corporation was a former president of the American Psychological Association. The Obama administration has terminated their contract, but so far there have been no ethical investigations. There have been no conclusions drawn for any of the psychologists or health professionals that were involved.

AMY GOODMAN: In your report with Physicians for Human Rights, the group is calling for health professionals who have violated ethical standards or the law to be held accountable through criminal prosecution, loss of license and loss of professional society membership. Do you see that happening right now?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: I don’t see it actually yet happening. And we’ve been pushing state licensing boards. We’ve been pushing the professional associations. And the way to really hold the professional associations to their own standards is to see whether they successfully investigate the ethical violations of their members. And so far, they have not.

AMY GOODMAN: We will leave it there. Dr. Steven Reisner, co-author of the report “Aiding Torture,” adviser on psychological ethics for Physicians for Human Rights, an adjunct professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and a clinical assistant professor at New York University.

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