Interview with Gregg Bloche – Is It Torture?

bloche_000Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, American Friends Service Committee and the Program for Torture Victims are working to hold California licensees accountable to the Geneva Conventions – to not engage in torture. To further the campaign, on April 1 PSR-LA spoke with Gregg Bloche M.D., PhD. He is visiting Professor of Law at UCLA, and he also serves as Professor of Law at Georgetown University, Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins Universityʼs Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Visiting Fellow at The Brookings Institution and the Harvard Program on Ethics and Health.

PSR-LA: Dr. Steven Miles (author of Oath Betrayed) reviewed US interrogation techniques employed at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and other military prisons. These include plunging a manʼs head underwater for minutes at a time, prodding a man to keep awake for eleven days straight, sexually humiliating prisoners and more. The military doesnʼt call these acts torture. Could you help me understand international standards of torture and the nomenclature currently used by the U.S. military?

Greg Bloche: Letʼs cut to the core. A rule of law that says that a doctor shall not participate in torture is only as strong as the definition of torture. The people who have participated in these interrogations do not view their actions as participating in or being complicit in torture.

What has happened is that torture has been defined downward both in the initial memos and opinion that the Bush Administration developed in the first few years after 9/11.

Although the infamous August 2002 torture memo was rescinded, (written by John Yoo, then-deputy assistant attorney general to then-White House counselor Alberto Gonzalez), the administration continues to behave as if international standards on torture do not apply.

There is ample documentation that mental suffering that comes about from stressors such as prolonged sleep deprivation is every bit as intense, as agonal, as physical abuse that everyone agrees is torture. A recent study (“Torture vs Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment; Is the Distinction Real or Apparent? By Metin Basoglu, MD, PhD; Maria Livanou, PhD; Cvetana Crnobaric, MD in the March 2007 edition of the Archives of General Psychiatry) measured a wide variety of physical and a psychological torture techniques and concluded that psychological techniques are every bit as agonal.

The authors interviewed victims of all manner of abuses from the recent Balkan wars, both physical and mental abuse. They categorized the different kinds of abuse. They used a variety of methods to assess the intensity of the suffering, including measurement of PTSD syndromes as well as subjective descriptions of how much suffering they experienced. The variety of physical and psychological abuses they received – including sleep deprivation and isolation – reached the same level of suffering as that of physical torture.

Empirically, you can say the kinds of methods – sleep deprivation, prolonged standing, exposure to temperature extremes, waterboarding etc. – that the US and others have used since 9/11 have at times met the criteria of torture.

PSR-LA: How did the U.S. come to use these particular forms of torture?

Bloche: The US developed these methods in a strange way. For years our country has trained some of our military folks to withstand torture, especially the kind from North Vietnamese and North Korean and Soviet era. It was a training program known as the survival, evasion, escape and resistance program (SEER). We then took those methods and applied them to develop our own interrogation strategies. Thereʼs a pretty openly documentable trail. Some of the leadership at Guantánamo has admitted coming to the psychologist at the SEER program to get advice. Their methods are the ones Secretary Rumsfeld approved.

Here is the mistake. Those methods were originally developed by the North Vietnamese and the North Koreans not to get at the truth but to get captives to say what they wanted. Thatʼs what those methods all are good at. If you want your prisoners to confess to all manner of crimes, real and imagined, these methods have a good chance of working.

Because they werenʼt designed to get at truth, it shouldnʼt be a surprise that people will say anything to end the torture. Which is not to say that todayʼs prisoners didnʼt do the things they claim they did, but we can say the confessions as unreliable.

PSR-LA: Are you aware of long-term effects of torture on the torturers?

Bloche: On some level, the torturer knows that the torture is an awful thing and therefore wants to believe that he or she is not doing a terrible thing. He wants to believe his act is somehow yielding crucial information that could not be obtained by any other means. The torturer can think of themselves as a hero, not a bad guy. With these presumptions in mind, it becomes much easier to believe the wild things the torture victim is saying.

For more information on Dr. Gregg Bloche, view our page on The Medical Consequences of War in Iraq.








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