Last year, as Dr. Steven Miles, professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School and faculty member of its Center for Bioethics, was researching the deaths of detainees in U.S. custody, he noticed something strange. Although the Department of Defense had in the past issued press releases when detainees died at U.S.-run prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, at some point in 2006, he says, the “entire prisoner death reporting system was turned off in Afghanistan.” Although at that time deaths in Iraq were still being reported, he says, that system was “turned off” at the beginning of 2008.
Miles, a member of the board of the Center for Victims of Torture and author of “Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity and America’s War on Terror,” was working on an updated edition of his 2006 book, which documents how physicians and psychologists working for the U.S. military violated the Hippocratic oath and American Medical Association rules by helping the government design and monitor abusive interrogations. The Hippocratic oath requires doctors to consider above all the health of their patients and to do no harm, while an AMA directive prohibits physicians from “providing or withholding any services, substances, or knowledge to facilitate the practice of torture” and obliges doctors to support victims and to “strive to change situations in which torture is practiced.”
Instead, Miles documented, first in the British medical journal the Lancet and then more expansively in his book, physicians actually helped facilitate torture. “The medical system collaborated with designing and implementing psychologically and physically coercive interrogations” in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, he wrote. Death certificates were falsified and military health officers were either reporting instances of torture late, or not reporting them at all, he found. And, he observes in the Appendix to the book’s second edition, titled “Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors,” published by University of California Press this year, the military appeared to be using physicians and psychologists to test the reactions of detainees to particular interrogation techniques, which may well violate ethical bans on experimentation on human subjects. Physicians for Human Rights recently released a report documenting similar concerns.
As Miles was working on his book, he realized there were huge gaps in the military’s reporting about the torture, injury and death of detainees in its custody. Although Miles says the Pentagon never reported the deaths of detainees subjected to “extraordinary rendition” — those sent to other countries for interrogation, sometimes under torture — the Pentagon had, at least, been reporting the deaths of some prisoners it acknowledged having in its custody.
Then one day, the press releases stopped. “They just stopped reporting it,” said Miles last week. It couldn’t be that no one died, he said, because “you have a certain expected death rate based on the size of the population. I’ve been able to trace all public death reports and can show when they turned them off.”
Last week, the Washington Independent first reported that the Department of Defense appears to have stopped releasing information about the deaths of detainees in its custody in Afghanistan and Iraq. (It has continued to release them concerning detainees at Guantanamo, most of whom are represented by lawyers.) Despite numerous daily requests for a response from the Pentagon since the middle of last week, the site has still not received any information from the government about whether or why it stopped issuing these reports for its other detention centers abroad.
Miles, meanwhile, has used his findings to write an article about the Pentagon’s failure to disclose detainee deaths and their causes. The paper is now being prepared for publication in the American Journal of Bioethics, a leading bioethics journal and website. In his paper, Miles writes:
In May 2004, shortly after media published photographs of lethal abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, DoD disclosed 22 prisoner deaths; of which 12 (54%) were attributed to natural causes. DOD did not disclose another 67 deaths that occurred during that same period. Only 13 (15%) of the total 89 deaths were due to natural causes. By the end of 2008, 93 of 165 known decedents (56%) are unnamed. Death certificates are available for 37 (22%). Homicides and shelling of prisons are the leading causes of death. DoD has completely suppressed prisoner death reports from Afghanistan since 2004 and adopted a similar policy for Iraq in 2008.
That the government has concealed or delayed reporting on deaths in its custody is nothing new. The New York Times reported in 2004 that the Defense Department had provided incomplete or inaccurate information about deaths of prisoners in its custody. And Human Rights First, a leading human rights legal advocacy organization, in a comprehensive report in 2006 documented similar gaps in the government’s reporting of deaths in U.S. custody.
“Our report found that commanders failed to report deaths in custody,” said Devon Chaffee, advocacy counsel with Human Rights First. “Sometimes they reported them days or weeks later. But there clearly was a reporting problem. Some were simply not reported at all,” she said, although Army regulations require that deaths in U.S. custody be reported within 24 hours.
Human Rights First’s report, Command’s Responsibility, based on its study of autopsy reports and interviews with military personnel, witnesses and physicians, found that between August 2002 and February 2006 nearly 100 detainees had died “while in the hands of U.S. officials in the global ‘war on terror.’” Although the military had deemed 34 of those deaths suspected or confirmed homicides, Human Rights First counted a total of 45 cases where the facts suggested “death as a result of physical abuse or harsh conditions of detention.” What’s more, in almost half the cases surveyed, “the cause of death remains officially undetermined or unannounced.” Overall, the group found, by the beginning of 2006, “eight people in U.S. custody were tortured to death.”
The international Geneva Conventions, which govern the treatment of prisoners in wartime, requires each signatory country to report publicly the deaths of detainees in its custody. But because President Bush early on decided that detainees in the “war on terror” are not technically “Prisoners of War” entitled to the protections the Geneva Conventions, the U.S. military has not followed that requirement.
The Obama administration does not appear to have changed the reporting policy, although at least some officials in the administration have declared the “war on terror” over. Still, the Pentagon under President Obama has not resumed regular reporting on the deaths of prisoners in custody, says Miles. The system is “still shut down,” he said. “Obama hasn’t opened it up. It’s just mysterious to me.”
The Washington Independent has called and written to officials in the Defense Department at least six different times in the last week, asking for a response to this claim about its reporting and for a statement of the current policy on reporting detainee deaths. Late yesterday, a Pentagon spokesman confirmed that the DoD issues press releases when detainees die at Guantanamo Bay; the Washington Independent still has not received an answer with regard to the deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Regardless of the DoD policy, however, the result of the suppression of this information is that no one seems to know how many detainees in U.S. custody have died – including how many of those have been murdered or tortured to death – since the “war on terror” began.
Chafee said that Human Rights First and other human rights organizations, as far as she knows, have not had the resources to update their reports to keep an accurate count.
Representatives for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights said those organizations have not been able to track those numbers, either. Both have sought information from the government related to detainee deaths through the Freedom of Information Act.
Daphne Eviatar is a law reporter for the Washington Independent.
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