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'Oath Betrayed' Questions Doctors' Roles in Torture

In the spring of 2004, when Americans were horrified by the pictures of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, medical ethics expert Steven Miles had just one question: Where were the doctors?

Miles, a doctor and medical ethics expert who has treated victims of torture throughout the world, had just one question: Where were the doctors?

To answer that question he poured through records of army criminal investigations, FBI notes on debriefings of prisoners, autopsy reports, and prisoners' medical records.

The result is his new book -- Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity and the War on Terror, in which Miles -– who has treated victims of torture throughout the world -- indicts the medical profession for failing to perform its role as protector.

"Doctors and nurses are frontline human rights monitors," Miles says. "They are present in prisons that the Red Cross never gets to and they are there when other human rights monitors are not. And even if they don't see the abuses themselves, they see the signs of the abuses."

So why didn't the medical system blow the whistle at Abu Ghraib?

"The physicians' obligation in prison camps is to the health of the prisoners," Miles says. "Prisons are totally different from battlefields. These people are outside of combat. They are disarmed and captive, and in those circumstances, the medical system's first obligation is to the health of the captives."

Miles disagrees with lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz's assertion that torture is inevitableand effective in certain cases. "Torture has never been confined to narrow channels," Miles says. "You can't find an instance of the selective use of torture."

Miles says that Dershowitz' idea that the president should be required to seek torture warrants has been tried before and hasn't worked. And besides, Miles says, torture often yields "bad information."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.