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American Forces Press Service

Medical Personnel Didn't Commit Widespread Detainee Abuse, Say Officials

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2005 - Senior DoD officials told reporters Feb. 9 they reject media allegations that military doctors, nurses and medics participated in widespread abuse of detainees held at U.S. detention faculties at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There's no evidence at this time, despite significant investigative efforts and on-going assessments and interviews, that military doctors "were involved in any way in detainee abuse," Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr. told reporters at a Pentagon roundtable meeting. And other reports that accused U.S. military medical personnel of falsifying autopsy results of deceased detainees are also false, he said.

Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who accompanied Winkenwerder to the roundtable, reported that a seven-member medical assessment team established in November 2004, will soon visit Afghanistan and Iraq, and should finish its work in a couple of months. The team has already conducted hundreds of interviews with military medical personnel, including those who served in the Guantanamo detention facility. He said he directed the formation of the team because limited specific information regarding medical issues involving U.S. military medical personnel and detainees was contained in various military-sanctioned reports produced since the Abu Ghraib scandal surfaced.

So far, the medical team has identified just one military member, who worked at an undisclosed location, for further discussions with investigators, Kiley reported, noting that doesn't indicate the person is guilty or innocent of any crime. That team is to notify military criminal investigators if it finds evidence of misconduct, he noted.

All told so far, only five to seven incidents, principally involving enlisted medics potentially not reporting the observation of detainee abuse, have been identified, Winkenwerder pointed out. He cautioned, however, that if on-going assessments uncovered more incidents, these would be identified and addressed.

He emphasized DoD has a standard of medical-practice conduct "that goes well beyond any required standard, in any other international rule, or law of war or Geneva Conventions."

The department, he reiterated, has seen "no evidence" of the falsification of detainee death reports or that medical personnel had shared health records with interrogators for the purpose of misconduct.

And contrary to a recent news report, the department has no evidence that military dentists ever performed heart surgeries on detainees, Winkenwerder declared. Nor is there evidence, he added, that physician assistants performed amputation operations on detainees.

While Kiley acknowledged a dentist might have assisted a physician "with the placement of a chest tube" during an emergency operation on a detainee after a mortar attack, he doesn't consider that heart surgery.

DoD's top medical official also offered detailed background on DoD's tracking of detainee medical issues.

After visiting the Guantanamo facility in March 2002 Winkenwerder said he was "positively impressed" with the humane treatment of detainees and the quality of their medical care. Guantanamo houses mostly prisoners who'd been transferred from Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.

In April 2002 Winkenwerder said he issued a policy that "made clear" detainees' medical care "should be guided by professional judgment and standards similar to those that would be used to evaluate medical issues for U.S. personnel."

That policy, Winkenwerder added, also underlined that the Geneva Conventions applied to detainees' medical care and treatment.

Another policy issued by U.S. Southern Command in August 2002 "makes clear that the medical personnel have an obligation to maintain confidential records with exceptions only for very specific circumstances that are in accordance with U.S. laws," Winkenwerder noted. The command has jurisdiction over Guantanamo.

That policy, he pointed out, also said detainees "should also be treated humanely, without adverse distinction based on sex, race, nationality, religion, political opinions, or other similar criteria."

The SOUTHCOM policy also noted that communications between detainees, U.S. medical personnel and other care providers "are not confidential," Winkenwerder said. That's "very consistent with policy that exists in the United States in prisons," he noted, as well as "other situations where individuals are under criminal investigation or other similar circumstances."

Winkenwerder said he first became aware of allegations U.S. medical personnel had abused or had undertaken improprieties with detainees in Iraq around May- June 2004. He noted several media reports at that time alleging U.S. servicemembers had abused detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

One such report, Winkenwerder said, cited much evidence of the alleged abuse inflicted on detainees at Abu Ghraib "came from medical documents." Another article, he noted, implied that military doctors were involved in the abuse of detainees.

Winkenwerder said he then directed a review of "all pertinent policies and procedures" involving U.S. military medical care of detainees.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld issued a policy in June 2004, Winkenwerder noted, that directed detention facility commanders to immediately report detainee deaths to the appropriate military criminal investigation agencies. That policy, he added, also requires commanders to contact the Armed Forces Medical Examiners' Office.

Then, the "Armed forces medical examiner would make the determination about (performing) an autopsy," he said.

Winkenwerder also said he'd asked DoD lawyers in July 2004 to evaluate the department's policy on confidentiality issues between military medical personnel and detainees. That legal review, he noted, reaffirmed that communications between detainees and U.S. medical personnel weren't confidential information, he said, but also noted that medical personnel aren't allowed to share detainee's medical record information with interrogators.

Finally, a revised manual that outlined requirements and responsibilities for military healthcare personnel in combat operations was published in December 2004. The manual was updated, Kiley noted, to "more clearly articulate" the requirement that military healthcare personnel are to report any observed or suspected abuse of detainees to proper authorities.

Winkenwerder noted that last year he'd asked Navy Vice Adm. Albert T. Church, who's in charge of a military investigation of U.S. detention and interrogation practices worldwide, to create a medical section to his report. The Church report hasn't been released yet, but Winkenwerder said it includes assessments of the relationship between military healthcare providers and the detainees in their care.

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