Medical Care and Detainees

Burton Lee
Former White House Physician and Member, Physicians for Human Rights
Friday, July 1, 2005 12:30 PM

Who are the medical examiners and health professionals in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay? What role do these professionals play in the lives of detainees? How do they interact with military personnel?

Burton Lee , a former White House physician and member of Physicians for Human Rights, believes that medical examiners and doctors play a critical role in the treatment of detainees. He was online Friday, July 1, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss ethics for doctors caring for detainees.

A transcript follows.


Pittsburgh, Pa. Other than contacting elected representatives, how can I as an individual physician work to stop the abuse being done by and to the medical profession?

Burton Lee: Physicians for Human Rights is running a Call To Action for all medical personnel in this country. We are trying to make significant progress both legislatively and in the White House. The Web site address is: Please help us.


New York, N.Y.: Have you communicated your views on this subject to either the current or former President Bush? And did you get a reply?

Burton Lee: My Op Ed piece is personal and related to the Physicians for Human Rights organization. I have discussed this matter with neither President.


Boone, N.C.: If the reports of torture are correct, do you think our national leadership, up to and including the President, lays itself open to international sanction as war criminals?

Burton Lee: This question has extensive legal and political ramifications. My Op Ed piece was principally involved with the complicity of medical personnel in abusive interrogations of prisoners. I emphasized that it is the civilian direction of our proud and professional military that is to blame. I have been in the military and know about their long-standing professional ethics. That means that the buck stops with us, the ordinary civilian citizens of the USA. We all are responsible here.


Cincinnati, Oh.: For those of us who aren't entirely familiar with military medical examiners, would you explain the differences between code of conduct for militia and doctors?

Burton Lee: I am talking about doctors and ALL medical personnel. I am not commenting on militia practices.


Concord, Ma.: What are the medical consequences of psychological torture such as sleep deprivation and isolation?

Burton Lee: The consequences are severe and can be permanent. There are psychological tortures that can be as damaging as physical.


Maryland: What are the specific differences between physicians and other healthcare workers' standards/former ethics? What has changed within those ethical guidelines?

Burton Lee: There should be no differences and to the best of my knowledge, there are no differences. All medical personnel are in the same ethical and moral boat here. I have looked to nurses for guidance during my entire professional career.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: As physicians, the individuals assisting with interrogations and detainee abuse have to realize their actions are against the Hippocratic Oath. What do you think motivates them?

Burton Lee: Each interrogator is different and their motivations will vary from simple patriotism to sadism to terribly deranged personalities. It is safe to say that the torturer commonly ends up as permanently damaged as his victim.


Washington, D.C.: Why has Congress been so silent on this issue? When Abu Ghraib pictures first appeared, they said no "white-wash" this time. But the investigation report said it was just a few bad apples and no one batted an eye. What is going on?

Burton Lee: I have tried to be very critical of the civilian leadership of the military in my OP Ed piece. Nobody in America believes that the problem is limited to a few Reserve non-coms who "went out of control" in Iraq. These Reservists were also principally directed by Intelligence personnel and not the professional Army. Why doesn't Congress do something? The answer, sadly enough, is politics.


Washington, D.C.: Do you believe military medical personnel should be reporting incidents of torture to the public in an effort to stop the practice?

Burton Lee: Yes. In my original article, before it was edited, I tried to make a case for re-instituting the draft during a war that has been endorsed by both Congress and the President. Citizens who have been drafted into the military would speak out far more quickly than career military.


Bowie, Md.: Could you give examples of when torturers were as harmed as victims?What's the coping method? How does coping differ for both parties (victim and torturer)?

Burton Lee: Man's inhumanity has always simply boggled my mind. It is only a deranged personality who can really conduct torture and if that person continues to do so, the mind never recovers. The fact that John McCain appears to have recovered from his ordeal seems to me to establish him as really an extraordinary personality. I have taken care of torture victims who certainly will never recover, nor will their families. I cannot believe that the human beings who did these things will ever return to normal either, if they were normal to begin with.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think future physicians and other healthcare professionals would benefit from having more human rights-related education in the undergraduate and post-graduate curricula? There is a dirth of such education currently. As such, doesn't the medical education system share some of the blame with individuals?

Burton Lee: Yes. In our world today we will continually be involved with internecine conflict, local and sometimes extremely brutal. Our professional standards are so important and it is unfortunate that many of our cohorts do not value those standards as much as they should.


Washington, D.C.: What is your reaction to the investigation report that basically concluded that it was just a few bad apples responsible for the torturing?

Burton Lee: No one in America believes that this is due to a couple of Reserve non-coms. In a prior question I have answered by saying that we have to look to the civilian leadership of the military for the blame.


Fredericksburg, Va.: I think President Bush should establish an anti-torture organization as part of his intelligence community restructuring effort. It could take advantage of our extensive intelligence capabilities to document torture in other countries. This would supplement the efforts of non-profit human rights groups to deter governments from torturing people by threatening to expose them.

What do you think?

Burton Lee: There are many possible solutions that could be tried. Yours sounds like a good one. Physicians are trying to approach this through a Web site: www. An independent bi-partisan commission has also been suggested. It would be nice if the AMA were involved. Many of our national medical leadership members are involved with Call To Action, see the Web site noted above.


Boston, Ma. : Where do the major medical associations stand on torture?

Burton Lee: Their positions are clear and unambiguous and anti-involvement by any medical personnel in abusive interrogations. The problem is that our civilian leadership at the Pentagon has gone astray.


Washington, D.C.: How can health professionals help to stop the US government from participating in torture?

Burton Lee: Please join our Call To Action. Go to:


Burton Lee: I would like to thank the Washington Post and Physicians for Human Rights for allowing me to reaffirm the standards and ethics of our medical profession and of all medical professionals. These standards mean very much to me and if we as physicians do not speak out, who will?


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