The Complicity Chronicles

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Chalk up another first for University of Minnesota physician-ethicist Steve Miles: Earlier this week the U's Center for Bioethics and Human Rights Center launched an online archive of documents Miles collected while writing a book about medical operations at U.S. prisoner of war facilities overseas. The searchable database is thought to be the first ever human rights archive documenting an ongoing series of abuses.

In 2004, when Miles, a UM medical professor, first heard the reports about abuse at Abu Ghraib, he wondered about the doctors and other health care workers who had to have known--or covered up. After two painstaking years of research via the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, much of it conducted by the ACLU, Miles had amassed 35,000 pages of autopsy reports, e-mails, memos, medical records and other grim source materials, some handwritten, some containing just a footnote or offhand reference to a prisoner's death.

Miles read every single one of the documents, cross-referencing each by prisoner, detention facility, and type of abuse or death. He catalogued his findings in "Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror," released last year.

After its publication, Miles heard from a number of people who wondered whether he could share the raw data, and still others who had more documents to contribute. The whole time, reams more documentation were becoming declassified. Last week, when the archive went online, it contained 60,000 pages.

"Each document has a little slice of a story," says Miles. "This way you can see the whole story."

Never mind that the Internet made the historic archive possible, many of the scattered documents were PDFs, meaning Miles had to read each and every word, tag each document with a number identifying the detainee in question, and create a searchable index. As a result, the archive makes it possible to cross-reference documentation from different branches of the government pertaining to an individual.

There are seven records on homicide of prisoner no. 80, for example, from both the Defense Department and Medcom, a database of clinical reports and other medical documents, most of them from Iraq. Named only as Dilwar, he was found dead, restrained in his cell at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, supposedly after being forcibly subdued following an escape attempt.

Some of the documents raise new questions, Miles says. A footnote in an otherwise uninteresting report refers to a child who died of untreated tuberculosis while in custody; he's been unable to locate any other reports of a child dying in custody.

One of the most recent additions to the collection describes a pregnant detainee giving birth in Abu Graib and the efforts of military personnel to find a relative or orphanage to take the baby before her interrogation.

The archive is part of the UM's Human Rights Library, located in the Law School and used by 200,000 people from 150 countries each month.

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