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We must curb the use of torture – and hold medical professionals accountable

The excellent new film “The Report” reminds us of the United States’ use of torture in the aftermath of 9/11.

Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones in a scene from "The Report."
Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones in a scene from "The Report."
Amazon Studios

I recently watched the new docu-drama “The Report.” This excellent film is the harrowing story of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, then chair of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, and staffer Daniel J. Jones, who uncovered the truth of CIA investigations in the aftermath of  9/11.

The United States, with authorization from President George W. Bush and support from the CIA and other government agencies, used “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a euphemism for systematic torture, on at least 100 detainees, some of whom died from the torture. Suspected terrorists were detained at “black sites” around the world, including Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan; Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba; and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The torture techniques included waterboarding, beating, binding and hooding, subjection to deafening noise, rectal feeding and hydration, deprivation of sleep, food, drink, and medical care, sexual humiliation, subjection to extreme heat and cold, and confinement in coffin-like boxes.

Despite roadblocks to the Feinstein-Jones investigation from the Bush White House, the CIA, and other culpable agencies, a bill passed in 2015, authored by Sens. Feinstein and McCain, to strengthen the U.S. ban on torture.

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The film illustrates the potential for righting wrongs despite obstacles from powerful opponents. It also reminded me of unsuccessful efforts to raise awareness in Minnesota that medical professionals are involved in the practice of torture and to hold them accountable.

Holding medical professionals accountable

In 1982, the U.N. General Assembly adopted resolutions highlighting the role of health personnel in protecting prisoners and detainees against torture. Doctors, psychologists, nurses, and physicians’ assistants determine the threshold for abuse, calibrate pain, and they dictate how far various torture techniques can be pushed without killing victims. This was demonstrated clearly in the post-9/11 reports and in “The Report.”

Without accountability mechanisms, these professionals can torture or participate in enhanced interrogation. They also can continue practicing without threat of prosecution and with no mandate to notify their regular patients because there is no system in the U.S. to hold medical professionals who torture, or participate in torture, responsible for their actions.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
Minnesotans deserve to know if their clinicians are complicit with torture or enhanced interrogation. Since 2011, Minnesota Sen. Sandy Pappas and I have encouraged anti-torture legislation in Minnesota. The goal is to reaffirm state jurisdiction over Minnesota’s medical professionals; explain internationally accepted definitions of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; mandate the reporting of abuse; and revoke the licenses of medical professionals who torture or participate in enhanced interrogation anywhere in the world.

One year, a powerful Minnesota senator (no longer in office) would not bring our bill forward to a hearing in the committee that he chaired. I went to his office to urge action on this important issue. His response? “I believe in torture! How else will we know when the bad guys are going to drop another bomb on us?”

Experts have determined that information obtained by torture is less reliable than information obtained by other means.

Immoral and unproductive

Torture is prohibited under international law and the laws of most countries because there is consensus that it is both immoral and unproductive. The Convention against Torture specifies that torture cannot be justified, not even in exceptional circumstances such as a state of war or in the name of national security.

President Donald Trump is a strong supporter for the use of torture, including extreme techniques such as waterboarding, for extracting information and confessions, despite experts’ acknowledgment that these tools are ineffective.

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“The Report” is a shocking wake-up call about the many places and ways that the U.S. is complicit with torture today.

U.S. complicity

U.S. prisons. More than 800 prisoners have passed through Guantánamo Prison, the longest-standing war prison in U.S. history, where prisoners are detained without due process and interrogated without restraint. At present, 40 people remain in detention, most of them without charge or trial, and the Trump administration pledges to keep Guantánamo open.

Amnesty International calls out the torture and abuse of prisoners throughout the entire U.S. prison system. They document widespread torture and abuse, including no-touch torture, chemical torture, and physical torture.

On the southern border. Last summer, experts from Physicians for Human Rights visited U.S. detention facilities at the border. They compared conditions for unaccompanied children at the immigrant holding centers to “’torture facilities.”

Amnesty International labeled the Trump policy of separating migrant children and parents, a practice begun by the administration in summer 2017, as nothing short of torture. At least 5,500 children have been separated to date (Time, October 25, 2019), and family reunion remains highly unlikely in many cases. In addition, short-term detention has now expanded into the likelihood of indefinite holding, for both families and for separated children. Children are observed to have extreme trauma that physicians and other professionals say will endure throughout their lives.

The Trump administration wants to expand the number of secure facilities where migrant families can be incarcerated for months or even longer periods of time. In late November, Justice Department lawyers appealed a federal judge’s decision that blocked the government’s attempt to eliminate a 20-day time limit on most family detentions. If the appeal is successful, long-term institutionalization may well become the norm.

Torture of women. The U.N. High Commission on Human Rights states that rape and other forms of sexual violence can amount to torture. On average, there are 433,648 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the US, and sex trafficking of women and girls, those born in the U.S. as well as those brought here from overseas, remains an intractable and growing problem. These acts of violence are crimes of opportunity – and crimes of impunity, in a U.S. system of justice that convicts very few perpetrators.

U.S. torture overseas. A year ago, the Pentagon formally acknowledged that U.S. military personnel are conducting interrogations in prisons in Yemen, part of our “proxy war” in that country. Escaped prisoners report whippings, use of electric shocks, and other extreme measures.

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A Minnesota proposal

Help hold Minnesota medical professionals responsible. This is an important step toward bringing Minnesota into compliance with global efforts to end impunity for torture – and to end torture.

Raise the issue with every political candidate. Visit for more information.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.


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