Bioethicist Steven Miles to speak on medical complicity in torture


Dr. Steven Miles found one falsified death certificate after another showing that medical doctors at Guantanamo Bay were complicit in the torture of detainees. While an isolated few actually engaged in torture themselves, nearly all the medics there covered-up treatment reports as a matter of course. After combing through 100,000 pages of government documents, Miles has found incident after incident where medics stood by as soldiers abused men, women, and children. He doesn’t know why the doctors cooperated with torture and murder. He does know that torture doesn’t work.

Miles is the author of Torture, Medical Complicity and the War on Iraq, an extension of an article about acts perpetrated on Abu Ghraib prisoners published in British medical journal The Lancet. He has also established a public database of the records he has examined, available to the public. The documents are available online at the University of Minnesota Human Rights Library. He will be speaking on medical complicity in torture at the Nolte Center for Continuing Education, Room 125 at the University of Minnesota on Thursday, January 30 at 4 p.m. Miles is a professor of bioethics for the university; his resume includes extensive work for human rights and a run for Senate against Mark Dayton.

While Miles in other public comments mentions trauma after reading of the abuses perpetrated on detainees, now he sounds detached; he has recounted these deaths many times. He lists incident after incident, usually remembering the victim’s name, the specifics of the death and what the death certificate did or didn’t say. It’s the bland statements on the death certificates that he examines. “Heart attack” for a man hung from the ceiling by his wrist and beaten with a rifle butt until his legs were pulpified. Another man was shoved headfirst in a sleeping bag and wrapped in wire, then beaten. His original death certificate said “natural causes.” Miles found a certain absence telling as well.

“When images were released from Guantanamo Bay, pictures of women and children were suppressed. They [the U.S. military] wanted get out a specific idea of what a terrorist looked like,” Miles said.

But why and how the U.S. medics went along with the program of torture and abuse is still a mystery.

“It’s not like it was in Chile or China or Egypt or Turkey,” he said. U.S. medics were in no danger if they spoke out. Where Miles had expected to find doctors resisting the abuse, he instead found them going along with the program. Some did it because it would be easier. The program for detainees was structured by the CIA to make doctors a part of the scenario.

“Docs are going along because they bought into the program,” he said.

Miles’ research has led him to examine torture and conclude: “Torture doesn’t work.”

He uses as an example the occasion where the French used torture in Algeria, only to have the Algerians eventually throw them out. He sees this radicalization now happening in Iraq. The US application of torture has cost it its credibility as a builder of social democracy in Iraq.

“It’s not that the U.S. is evil,” he said. “We can’t promote a standard that we don’t live by.”

“Torture is not designed to hurt people. That’s a myth. The purpose and the effect of torture is to destroy civil society – that’s why dictators use it. That’s why it’s aimed at intellectuals, labor organizers. Globalization and social society go hand in hand. We have to take the problem of torture much more seriously than we take it. We need to build a new place for international law against torture. The U.S. has to be held accountable for its abuse of international law. Not that the U.S. is particularly evil. We can’t promote an international standard that we don’t live by. It is in our interest, our national interest and our global-political interest and global civil society for there to be an anti-torture standard in the world. Because we violated it, we have to be accountable to that standard.”

Miles says that there are alternative and effective interrogation methods that work. Research the CIA completed in the 1960s found that rapport building and negotiation was the most effective in getting people to impart information.

As of this interview, Miles admits he hasn’t really chosen the direction of his lecture. On the one hand, the failure of doctors to serve the needs of detainees deserves further address. On the other hand there’s a lot to be said about impact of torture on social culture. Miles’s lecture is free and open to the public.