The doctors merely established threshold exposure limits, rather than taking into account whether the techniques caused mental or physical pain, according to Leonard S. Rubenstein of Johns Hopkins and Dr. Stephen Xenakis of the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.
They authored a commentary on the subject in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association.
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"This medical participation in enhanced interrogation represents a failure by the physicians involved, and by the [CIA's Office of Medical Services] institutionally, to uphold ethical medical values," they wrote.
Rubenstein and Xenakis based their commentary on documents released by the Obama administration in 2009 that revealed CIA physicians, psychologists, and other health professionals had "important roles in enhanced interrogation."
The CIA's enhanced interrogation program began in 2002, and it was designed to maximize a detainee's feelings of vulnerability and helplessness.
The methods used in the program were applied in escalating fashion, from the removal of clothes and limitation of food and sleep, on to facial and abdominal slaps, dousing with cold water, wall standing, and confinement in a box. The final step was waterboarding.
Physicians provided opinions to the agency and lawyers on whether these techniques would be expected to cause severe pain or suffering, thus constituting torture.
Based on the advice, the CIA's Office of Medical Services approved these and other methods, as long as limitations were in place, including:
Limits on exposure to specified temperatures
A limit on body weight loss of 10 percent or evidence of malnutrition
A limit on stress positions of up to 48 hours as long as the detainee's hands weren't above the head, the weight was borne by the lower extremities, and preexisting conditions were not aggravated
The Office of Medical Services' endorsement that these methods don't cause severe mental or physical pain "is contrary to clinical experience and research," Rubenstein and Xenakis wrote.
In fact, the few sources that the office did cite "weren't derived from interrogation or detention programs," and ignored the collective effects of the enhanced interrogation methods on physical and mental health.
Physicians also performed medical evaluations before and during interrogation, and their presence was required during waterboarding.
"Exercising these functions violated the ethical standard that physicians may never use their medical skills to facilitate torture or be present when torture is taking place," the researchers wrote.
They concluded that the situation "demands further investigation, accountability, and reform."