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Steven Miles

Steven Miles will read from his new book, Oath Betrayed, at the Coffman Union bookstore on July 18 at 2 p.m.

Diagnosis: torture

New book details the role of American medical professionals in the torture of detainees

By Deane Morrison

July 14, 2006

In spring 2004, photos of prisoners abused at the hands of the U.S. military in the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad shocked the world. Among the outraged Americans was Steven Miles, a physician and professor in the University's Center for Bioethics. But his surprise wasn't directed at the soldiers involved.

"Where were the prison doctors while the abuses were taking place?" he wanted to know.

As he recounts in his new book, "Oath Betrayed," Miles found out exactly where they were: right there, helping the torturers, signing phony death certificates for those killed in custody, or at least keeping silent about the whole thing. Working with 35,000 pages of documents he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act such as FBI notes on prisoner interrogations, army criminal investigations, autopsy reports, and prisoners' medical records, he laid out the case for involvement in torture from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld all the way down the chain of command, through Pentagon senior health officials to health-care professionals on the scene.

"The front line human rights monitors in prisons are doctors," says Miles. "They should have been there on top of this. There is a clear pattern of abuse in the system."

In one case, the book documents how young Monadel Al-Jamadi, arrested in November 2003 at his home near Baghdad as a suspect in attacks against U.S. forces, died. A medic watched as Al-Jamadi, already having been beaten, underwent a harsh interrogation and groaned that he was going to die. Later, soldiers put a sandbag over his head, marched him into Abu Ghraib prison, bound his hands behind his back, and suspended him by his wrists, a move that caused his arms to bulge from the shoulder sockets. When Al-Jamadi had died from the torture, a medic inserted an IV in the body's arm and guards rolled the corpse out of the prison on a gurney in an attempt to "not upset the other detainees," according to a colonel at the site. Officials also concealed the cause of death until pictures of the young man's body were broadcast along with other photos from Abu Ghraib.

"That was six months later," says Miles. "Thus, an early warning system for the abuses at Abu Ghraib was [short-circuited]. According to international law and the Geneva Conventions, a death certificate must be filed immediately. If it had been, we would've known [about the abuses]." The complicity of pathologists from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, who autopsied Al-Jamadi, continues to outrage and puzzle Miles. "In case after case in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. pathology system was designed to be silent and hide deaths. Pathologists were essentially accessories after the fact," he says.

In another case, medics at Guantanamo Bay, under doctors' supervision, ran three bags of saline into a prisoner via an IV tube. Thus bloated, the prisoner soon had to urinate but was denied the chance and so had to void his bladder all over himself. The same man, says Miles, was chilled with an air conditioner until his heartbeat had dropped to 45 beats per minute. He was taken to a hospital and treated, then shipped back for more of the same. The abuse stopped only when the FBI stepped in.

Doctors are sworn to do no harm to any patient, and Miles is hard put to understand how doctors could get involved with such abuse. It's not as though American doctors face torture or death for revealing such behavior, unlike their counterparts in many other countries.

"I wrote the book to invite doctors to answer," says Miles. "And not just doctors, but nurses, psychologists, medics, and so on." Besides the injuries and deaths of prisoners, what gets under Miles' skin is the blow to the once sterling reputation of the U.S. military in its treatment of prisoners.

"The U.S. military is by and large honorable people, but Rumsfeld is temporary," he says. "We had set the standard for treatment of POWs, but we've now trashed our own reputation. Abuses also endanger our own military, because news of the abuses at Abu Ghraib are the kind of thing that leads insurgents to do the same to any U.S. soldiers who are captured.

The argument that torture is necessary to stop "ticking time bombs" doesn't hold up and also outs our soldiers at risk, he asserts. Torture tends to yield wrong information that prompts U.S. soldiers to go out on dangerous missions unnecessarily.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the United States' obligation to honor the Geneva Conventions will help, but fixing the situation requires a complete shake-up, says Miles.

"We need an investigation that's independent of the military by a special prosecutor with subpoena powers...," says Miles. "We need a truth and reconciliation committee like the ones in South Africa, Chile, Argentina and elsewhere."

It will require tenacious professionalism on the part of the U.S. medical community to remove the stain on its reputation, acquired by indulging in or condoning the same cruelties that the United States condemns in other countries, he says. Miles will read from his book Tuesday, July 18, at 2 p.m. at the Coffman Union Bookstore on the Twin Cities campus.

Further reading

Homegrown hero: Steven Miles recognized for accomplishments near and far University of Minnesota News Service release