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Will the US torture doctors face any consequences?

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The CIA subjected humans to beatings, waterboarding, and 'anal hydration' — and doctors helped

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After the US Senate Intelligence Committee released a ghastly report on Tuesday, Americans saw for the first time what many had long suspected: the US tortured people. And it wasn't just the CIA agents. Doctors, nurses, and psychologists— people who are supposed to aid and protect other humans — participated in these acts, and ultimately enabled them. And so far, the question as to what will happen to these healthcare professionals now that they've been outed has gone unanswered.

beatings, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and "anal hydration"

The CIA made suspected terrorists stay awake for days, and subjected them to beatings, waterboarding, and "anal hydration." Doctors helped. Some psychologists served as interrogators. What happened to "First, do no harm?"

According to Steven Miles, a bioethicist at The University of Minnesota, the US Department of Justice probably won't prosecute these medical professionals. As far as the DOJ is concerned, their actions were "authorized" and "reviewed as legal" at the time. This means that the measures that could be taken against them are largely professional. Medical licensing boards "can suspend a license," Miles told The Atlantic, "which is the typical punishment around the world, or they can revoke the license."

It's hard to tell if that will happen. So far, The American Psychological Association has condemned the actions of the two psychologists who allegedly developed the CIA's torture program — psychologists that the association cannot punish under its ethics program because they aren't members. The APA has also said that it would engage in an independent review of the torture report, which could lead to "responsive actions." And in the meantime, the association has reiterated its policy on torture, which prohibits psychologist involvement in torture and "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

But not everyone has acted so swiftly. Despite having strict rules against torture, the largest professional organization of US doctors, the American Medical Association, has yet to issue a statement addressing the CIA torture report.

The Verge tried to get a comment from the AMA regarding the torture report, but was unsuccessful. After calling multiple times today and being sent to voicemail, a woman told us that Robert Mills, the AMA’s public relations manager would be unable to meet our request for comment or provide us with an AMA spokesperson before publication.

After the report was released, the New Yorker's Atul Gawande took to Twitter to discuss its contents. Gawande wrote that the torture that occurred could not have proceeded without medical supervision. "The medical profession was deeply embedded in this inhumanity," he said. But as outrage grows over the actions of these healthcare workers, it's important to remember that this isn't the first time that medical professionals have taken part in such acts.

"The medical profession was deeply embedded in this inhumanity."

"We’ve seen it in CIA experiments in the 1960s; we’ve seen psychologists engaging in brainwashing," says Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University. "It’s not a new issue." Despite being sworn to "do no harm," American doctors knowingly hurt people during the Bush presidency — much like they have in the past. This, Caplan says, means that there needs to be an additional investigation to find out how these nurses, doctors, and psychologists ended up participating in torture in the first place.

"Were they threatened? Were they coerced? Did they not understand the ethical issues?" Caplan asks. "Maybe they felt the need to follow orders from their superiors. Or maybe they checked their ethics at the door when they put on a military uniform." At the moment, answers to these questions are nowhere to be found, because the people who wrote the torture report simply didn't address them, he says. "I’m disappointed that the people who wrote the report weren’t sensitive to medical ethics involved."

Of course, even with these answers in hand, there's no doubt that these events took place. And that knowledge makes it hard not to ask if these medical professionals will face any consequences, regardless of how they ended up in these situations in the first place.

"Were they threatened? Were they coerced? ...maybe they checked their ethics at the door."

Even if medical professionals involved in CIA torture of prisoners end up getting their licenses suspended or revoked, that still won't fix the source of the problem. Right now, Caplan says, there aren't any clear policies that spell out what healthcare workers can and can't do when they're asked to work for military or intelligence organizations. They should know whether they can refuse to force-feed an individual — as one Navy nurse did in Guantanamo — and when they do, they shouldn't be punished.

"It's time to give clarity to people who are trying to be patriotic. Healthcare workers need to know their limits," Caplan says. "And if they don’t, we need to do something about that."

Update Dec 12th, 4:08 PM: The AMA got back to us with a statement from the association's president, Robert Wah. It states in part: "We firmly believe that U.S. policies on detainee treatment must comport with the AMA's Code of Medical Ethics and the World Medical Association's Declaration of Tokyo, which forcefully state medicine's opposition to torture or coercive interrogation and prohibit physician participation in such activities."