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Scott Allen: “A regime of psychological torture.” Credit: Warren Alpert Medical School

Med School’s Scott Allen: Physicians may have contributed to CIA torture

A Warren Medical School faculty member concludes, in a report issued by Physicians for Human Rights, that doctors and psychologists who advised the CIA on waterboarding have much to answer for.
By Mark Hollmer  |  September 8, 2009  |  Email to a friend

A faculty member at Brown’s  Warren Alpert Medical School has become a significant voice in the debate over the CIA’s apparent use of torture in the worldwide interrogation of terrorism suspects during the Bush administration.

Scott Allen, a clinical associate professor of medicine, is the lead author of a report issued by the Massachusetts-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) that concludes American physicians and psychologists were more complicit in the process than was previously thought.

Allen, who is also co-director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Providence’s Miriam Hospital, writes in “Aiding Torture” that medical experts who consulted for the programs violated human rights and also betrayed the ethical standards of their profession. “Medical doctors and psychologists colluded with the CIA to keep observational records about waterboarding, which approaches unethical and unlawful human experimentation,” Allen wrote.

The report’s conclusions are based on the 2004 Inspector General’s report, classified for years and recently released with portions still blacked out, detailing how the CIA relied on medical expertise to both vet and carry out interrogations that appear to have been unlawful and abusive. Some of those techniques, either previously unknown or unconfirmed, included practices such as mock executions and confining prisoners in a box.

A 1991 graduate of Brown Medical School, Allen has written on the issue previously for PHR. He spoke with Today at Brown about what the report’s conclusions mean for doctors in an age of international terrorism and heightened security.


What part did the medical profession play as the CIA formulated its interrogation policy?

(The CIA) asked physicians, psychologists, and psychiatrists to design, implement, and monitor interrogation techniques that are collectively tantamount to torture under international and U.S. law. Physicians and others participated against their own ethics.

On which specific torture or interrogation techniques did medical professionals advise the CIA? How has the medical profession reacted to the knowledge?

The specific techniques are described in our 2007 report, Leave No Marks, and our recent report Aiding Torture, and are collectively referred to by the euphemism “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.” Collectively they comprise a regime of psychological torture. They include, among others, use of stress positions, beating, temperature manipulation, water boarding, threats of harm, sleep deprivation, sensory bombardment, prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation, confinement in a box, violent shaking, sexual humiliation, walling, prolonged diapering, hooding, forced shaving, and dietary manipulation.

There is quite a sense of alarm among physicians as to the level of involvement.

Has there been any fallout based on these revelations?

There are mechanisms for unethical behavior to be investigated, but to date, none of those investigations have occurred. Individual names have yet to be revealed.

How is your report being received?

It is garnering a lot more attention than I might have anticipated. It was quoted in a lead editorial in the New York Times, and (Washington Post) columnist Eugene Robinson made it a subject of his column. The British Medical Journal, Scientific American, and others have also covered the report. Timing has a lot to do with it. It coincides with the reactions of the U.S. Attorney General in appointing a prosecutor to investigate some of the conduct relating to these investigations.

In addition, I have been consulted by military commission lawyers and invited to the Institute of Medicine [part of the National Academy of Sciences] to convene a panel on military medical ethics.

What comes next?

We still want to have a much better idea about the extent of the human rights violations in the interrogation program and the U.S. detention program as a whole.