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Torture by Any Other Name

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Misconceptions and distortions about torture by former Vice President Cheney and other former Bush administration officials are, if nothing else, impressive for their hubris. In a speech last Thursday, Mr. Cheney asserted that "tough" or "enhanced" interrogation methods were legal, essential, effective, and were not torture.

Mr. Cheney is wrong. Waterboarding, exposure to extremes of heat and cold, sexual humiliations and several other cruel and inhuman methods documented to have been used on known or suspected terrorists are forms of torture. My perspective is not theoretical. It is based on nearly 20 years of experience as a physician examining and caring for individuals from all over the world who endured torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment or punishment and studying the health consequences of such trauma. This includes Tibetan monks tortured because of their demands for independence, African students tortured because of calling for democracy, and most recently, former detainees from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Mr. Cheney derides the Obama Administration for using "euphemisms that strive to put an imaginary distance between the American people and the terrorist enemy." He then goes on to repeatedly invoke the euphemism of "enhanced" interrogations instead of torture. This term infers a seemingly benign and improved means for eliciting information. It is neither.

It is torture when a prisoner is subjected to mock drowning-one of the most terrifying experiences conceivable. Water is poured over a detainee's face which is covered with a soaked cloth while his hands are tied causing him to gag and choke. It is torture when a prisoner is kept awake for weeks or longer by constant loud noises, bright lights or prison guards incessantly rattling the bars of his cell. It is torture when a prisoner is forced to stand while blood pools in his legs causing painful swelling and potentially life threatening blood clots. Forced nudity and sexual humiliations may seem more innocuous than being beaten or restrained in painful positions for hours, but the psychological suffering can be intense.

Such techniques are gruesome, dehumanizing and dangerous. Noted one torture victim I cared for at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture in New York City, "As someone who has experienced torture, I know these things are torture." Clinical experience and data from the medical literature are clear. These techniques can cause significant and long lasting physical and psychological pain and harm. The patients my colleagues and I care for include many who were persecuted and tortured in countries whose regimes we have denounced. They describe forms of torture abuse eerily familiar to what Mr. Cheney and others label as "enhanced interrogations."

In a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled "Misconceptions about the Interrogation Memos" William McSwain a former Marine Commander and assistant U.S. attorney stated he was "none the worse for the wear" from waterboarding and sleep deprivation he endured as part of his Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) training. Mr. Cheney's daughter, Lynn, in defense of her father has also referred to the SERE training as evidence that use of these methods are safe and legal. However, there is a profound difference between a soldier subjected to these methods in the context of military training, where they have every right to believe that they will not be harmed and a prisoner who has no such assurances. Furthermore, the SERE methods were never intended for eliciting the truth, but for training our soldiers how to resist torture. In fact these methods were adopted from the Chinese, Soviets and North Koreans who effectively used them to elicit false confessions. The morally and scientifically misguided reverse engineering of these methods occurred under the supervision of U.S. health professionals.

Claims by Mr. Cheney and other former Bush Administration officials including former Attorney General Mukasey, and former CIA Director Hayden that such abusive methods were used only with high value detainees as a means of last resort, or were the unauthorized, sadistic practices of a few bad apples at Abu Ghraib, are inconsistent with substantial documentation to the contrary and fly in the face of common sense. Reports showed FBI officials who believed they were getting useful information from standard interrogation techniques refused to continue participating when abusive methods were used. The events at Abu Ghraib were the result of policies and leadership that permitted and in fact encouraged this kind of abuse. A 2008 Physicians for Human Rights report that I coauthored described detailed forensic examinations of 12 former Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo detainees. We found substantial evidence corroborating their reports of torture and the devastating health consequences. All of these former detainees were released after several years without being charged. It is likely that hundreds if not thousands of individuals were subjected to similar arbitrary imprisonment and abuses at these and other U.S. detention facilities including in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe.

When Mr. Cheney and others who claim that our national security is undermined by the U.S. unequivocally saying that we will treat prisoners in our custody humanely, then at least they should not look to whitewash the enhanced interrogation methods they hold up as necessary and effective, but instead call them what they are -- torture.

The recently released memos detailing interrogation methods authorized by the Bush Administration, which by any reasonable standard constitute torture, demonstrate the critical need for an independent and comprehensive investigation into these Bush Administration policies and those responsible for them. Nothing less than our country's national security and stature as a leader in promoting human rights are at stake. Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy got it right when he said "We cannot continue to look the other way; we need to understand how these policies were formed if we are to ensure that this can never happen again."

The need for such an investigation is further demonstrated by Mr. Cheney's recent remarks in which he dismisses questions about Bush Administration interrogation policies as "nothing but feigned outrage based on a false narrative" and "contrived indignation and phony moralizing about the interrogation methods applied to "a few captured terrorists." Mr. Cheney further derides any calls for investigations:

Some are even demanding that those who recommended and approved the interrogations be prosecuted, in effect, treating political disagreements as a punishable offense, and political opponents as criminals. It's hard to imagine a worse precedent, filled with more possibilities for trouble and abuse, than to have an incoming administration criminalize the policy decisions of its predecessors.

Just as Mr. Cheney's simplistic assertion that Abu Ghraib was caused by a few bad apples, he now seeks to equate any efforts at accountability as merely political "sour grapes." And while it may be easy to dismiss Mr. Cheney and his statements as marginalized, he is far from alone. On today's edition of Meet the Press, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also reiterated the false assertion that the "enhanced interrogation practices were only used in very limited circumstances." A full page ad that recently appeared in the New York Times by the "Torture Truth Project" called on the U.S. media to stop misleading the world that our country condones Torture. Again it is the messenger rather than the perpetrator who gets blamed. And it isn't our country that condones torture, but rather our prior administration that condoned torture. This again demonstrates why investigation and accountability regarding torture are essential in demonstrating to the world that we are a country that functions under the rule of law and no one is above the law.

I appreciate that President Obama is inundated by pressing domestic and international concerns. Our economy, health care reform, the intensifying war in Afghanistan, and digging ourselves out of the horrible mire of Guantanamo created by the prior administration present enormous challenges. This too might seem good reason to move on, or leave it to the current investigative bodies including Congressional committees who have or will hold hearings, and the justice department to continue. But these separate investigations, will provide snapshots, rather than a much needed comprehensive overview. This is not about looking backward, but rather taking the necessary measures to prevent this from happening again. Such an investigation should also examine the roles that health professionals played in developing and implementing this policy of torture. Furthermore, the focus of this investigation should be on the senior policy makers and not simply the attorneys who wrote the legal memos justifying these policies or the rank and file agents and soldiers who implemented these policies.

Torture is neither reliable in eliciting accurate information nor in promoting national security. It is a violation of domestic and international law. Our use of torture has undermined our security and credibility including our capacity to speak out against despot regimes who routinely torture innocent civilians. An honest and full accounting of what happened is a crucial step in making this world a safer place.