New Report Reveals How Bush Torture Program Involved Human Experimentation

[tweetmeme source= “DandelionSalads” only_single=false]

Bookmark      and Share

by Andy Worthington
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
7 June, 2010

In a 27-page report, “Experiments in Torture: Human Subject Research and Evidence of Experimentation in the ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Program” (available here), the organization Physicians for Human Rights has brought into sharp focus the role played by US medical personnel in torture and human experimentation. As the introduction on PHR’s website states, this is “the first report to reveal evidence indicating that CIA medical personnel allegedly engaged in the crime of illegal experimentation after 9/11, in addition to the previously disclosed crime of torture. In their attempt to justify the war crime of torture, the CIA appears to have committed another alleged war crime — illegal experimentation on prisoners.”

This important report, which follows research undertaken by, amongst others, Jeff Kaye and Marcy Wheeler, deserves thorough coverage, and as I don’t have time to write my own analysis, I’m cross-posting below a very useful article published on Truthout by my colleague Jason Leopold, which analyzes the report, puts it in context, links to the work of Jeff Kaye, Marcy Wheeler and others, and also expands on the significance of the human experimentation program in the torture of the supposed “high-value detainee” Abu Zubaydah, about whom both Jason and I have written at length.

Human Experimentation at the Heart of Bush Administration’s Torture Program
By Jason Leopold, Truthout, June 6, 2010

High-value detainees captured during the Bush administration’s “war on terror” who were subjected to brutal torture techniques were part of a Nazi Germany-type program involving illegal human experimentation, the purpose of which was to collect research “data,” according to a disturbing new report that calls on President Barack Obama, Congress and other government agencies to immediately launch inquiries and Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the allegations.

The findings contained in the 27-page report, “Experiments in Torture: Human Subject Research and Evidence of Experimentation in the ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Program,” is based on extensive research of previously declassified government documents that shows the crucial role medical personnel played in establishing and justifying the legality of the Bush administration’s torture program.

The report said the research and experimentation of detainees its authors have documented is not only a violation of the Geneva Conventions, but is a grave breach of international laws, such as the Nuremberg Code, established after atrocities committed by Nazis were exposed in the aftermath of World War II.

“Health professionals working for and on behalf of the CIA monitored the interrogations of detainees, collected and analyzed the results of [the] interrogations, and sought to derive generalizable inferences to be applied to subsequent interrogations,” states an executive summary of the report, prepared by Physicians for Human Rights. “Such acts may be seen as the conduct of research and experimentation by health professionals on prisoners, which could violate accepted standards of medical ethics, as well as domestic and international law. These practices could, in some cases, constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

For example, PHR said the drowning method known as waterboarding was monitored in early 2002 by medical personnel who collected data about how detainees responded to the torture technique. The data was then given to Steven Bradbury, the former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), who used it to write a legal opinion in 2005 advising CIA interrogators on how to administer the technique, referred to in the PHR report as “Waterboarding 2.0.”

“According to the Bradbury memoranda, [CIA Office of Medical Services] teams, based on their observation of detainee responses to waterboarding, replaced water in the waterboarding procedure with saline solution ostensibly to reduce the detainees’ risk of contracting pneumonia and/or hyponatremia, a condition of low sodium levels in the blood caused by free water intoxication, which can lead to brain edema and herniation, coma, and death,” the report says. In Bradbury’s torture memo, he wrote that “based on advice of medical personnel, the CIA requires that saline solution be used instead of plain water to reduce the possibility of hyponatremia (i.e. reduced concentration of sodium in the blood) if the detainee drinks the water.”

PHR noted that the presence of CIA medical personnel during the waterboarding sessions “could represent evidence of human experimentation” because it underscores “the danger and harm inherent in the practice of waterboarding and the enlistment of medical personnel in an effort to disguise a universally recognized tactic as a ‘safe, legal and effective’ interrogation tactic.”

CIA medical personnel also obtained experimental research data by subjecting more than 25 detainees to a combination of torture techniques, including sleep deprivation, according to the report, as a way of understanding “whether one type of application over another would increase the subjects’ susceptibility to severe pain.” The information derived from the research informed “subsequent [torture] practices.”

“This investigation had no direct clinical health care application, nor was it in the detainees’ personal interest, nor part of their medical management,” the report says. “It appears to have been used primarily to enable the Bush administration to assess the legality of the tactics, and to inform medical monitoring policy and procedure for future application of the techniques.”

The torture methods used on detainees derived from the Army and Air Force survival training program called Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE), which was meant to prepare US soldiers for abuse they might suffer if captured by an outlaw regime.

PHR and other human rights groups plan on filing a complaint this week with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) demanding the agency launch a probe into the CIA’s Office of Medical Services. Additionally, the group wants the Justice Department’s ethics watchdog, the Office of Professional Responsibility, to launch a separate investigation.

OPR recently concluded a four-year long investigation into the legal work former OLC attorneys John Yoo, now a Berkeley law professor, and Jay Bybee, a federal appeals court judge on the 9th Circuit, did when drafting the August 2002 torture memos. [The report] concluded both men violated professional standards when they issued their legal opinions that allowed CIA officers to use brutal methods when interrogating suspected terrorists and recommended [they] be referred to their state bar associations to face possible disbarment.

The judgment was softened by career prosecutor David Margolis, who was put in charge of the final recommendations and who said he was “unpersuaded” by OPR’s “misconduct” conclusion, which faulted Yoo and Bybee for their approval of brutal interrogation techniques that were used against terrorism suspects after the 9/11 attacks.

And despite the new revelations about the Bush administration’s torture program that seem to surface regularly, Obama still refuses to allow for war crimes investigations, saying he still prefers to “look forwards, and not backwards” when it comes to Bush administration’s crimes.

Case in point, last March, during an interview with a reporter for an Indonesian television station, Obama was asked whether he was satisfied with the way Indonesia dealt with its past human rights abuses.

The president’s response was stunning, to say the least.

“We have to acknowledge that those past human rights abuses existed,” Obama said in the interview. “We can’t go forward without looking backwards.”

Stephen Soldz, a psychoanalyst and one of the authors of the PHR report, said “it is important to realize that the logic used by the Obama administration to refuse an investigation of torture claims — that the torture memos allowed the torturers to believe their actions were legally sanctioned — does not apply to potential research on detainees.”

“As far as is publicly known, there exist no ‘torture research’ memos authorizing ignoring laws and regulations prohibiting research on torture techniques,” Soldz said.

Frank Donaghue, PHR’s chief executive officer, said the report released by his organization appears to demonstrate that the CIA violated “all accepted legal and ethical standards put in place since the Second World War to protect prisoners from being the subjects of experimentation.”

“Not only are these alleged acts gross violations of human rights law, they are a grave affront to America’s core values,” he added.

Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of the the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said PHR’s findings “recalls some of humanity’s darkest days –charges from which no person of faith can afford to turn away.”

As expected, the CIA denied the report’s assertions. Spokesman Paul Gimigliano said the agency, “as part of its past detention program, [did not] conduct human subject research on any detainee or group of detainees.”

But Gimigliano’s denials are contradicted by dozens of former intelligence and national security officials who, as recently as last March, said detainees were experimented on.

Indeed, the conclusions the report’s authors reached in the area of sleep deprivation confirm several recent investigative reports published by Truthout related to the torture and experimentation the Bush administration’s first high-value detainee, Abu Zubaydah, was subjected to after he was captured in March 2002.

A former National Security official knowledgeable about the Bush administration’s torture program previously told Truthout that Zubaydah was “an experiment … a guinea pig” used so CIA contractors could obtain data. The data was then shared with officials at the CIA and the Justice Department, who used that information to draft the August 2002 torture memos stating what interrogation methods could be legally used, how often the methods could be employed and how it should be administered without crossing the line into torture.

The PHR report does not identify Zubaydah by name.

In March, Truthout reported, based on interviews with more than two dozen intelligence and national security officials, that one of the main reasons Zubaydah’s torture sessions were videotaped was to gain insight into his “physical reaction” to the techniques used against him.

For example, one current and three former CIA officials said some videotapes showed Zubaydah being sleep deprived for more than two weeks. Contractors hired by the CIA studied how he responded psychologically and physically to being kept awake for that amount of time. By looking at videotapes, they concluded that after the 11th consecutive day of being kept awake Zubaydah started to “severely break down.” So, the torture memo signed by Bybee concluded that 11 days of sleep deprivation was legal and did not meet the definition of torture.

PHR’s analysis on sleep deprivation concluded, based on a review of documents, that “government lawyers used observational data collected by health professionals from varying applications of sleep deprivation to inform legal evaluations regarding the risk of inflicting certain levels of harm on the detainee, and to shape policy that would guide further application of the technique.”

The report also determined that the experimentation helped create a framework to protect the torturers from war crimes and other charges.

“OLC lawyers argued that efforts to refine and improve the application of techniques would provide a potential ‘good faith’ defense for interrogators against charges of torture,” the report said. “They argued that such a medical monitoring regime would remove the element of intent to cause harm from the act, which is a necessary requirement for a successful prosecution of a torture charge under US law, and that a ‘good faith belief need not be a reasonable belief; it need only be an honest belief.’ Thus, research on the detainees became a key part of the OLC legal strategy to demonstrate the lack of intent to commit torture.”

Nathaniel Raymond, director of PHR’s Campaign Against Torture, said, “Justice Department lawyers appear to have never assessed the lawfulness of the alleged research on detainees in CIA custody, despite how essential it appears to have been to their legal cover for torture.”

Brent Mickum, Zubaydah’s attorney, said PHR’s report is evidence that there was an “experimental element to the torture program and it was approved at the highest levels of government.”

“I have said literally for years that I believe my client was tortured before any of these enhanced interrogation techniques were approved by the Justice Department,” Mickum told Truthout. “And now we know that not only was my client subjected to torture but he was part of an experiment. This is so ugly, so shameful, so unlawful. If this revelation doesn’t kick in an obligation on the part of the Department of Justice to investigate war crimes than I don’t know what does. The Obama administration has essentially refused to do that. At some point, the Obama administration has to take seriously what their obligations are under the law.”

Mickum said he is preparing to file a series of motions in federal court calling for the preservation of documents based on the conclusions contained in PHR’s report.

For those who have closely followed the details that have surfaced over the years related to the Bush administration’s torture program, a chunk of the information contained in the report related to human experimentation that has already been painstakingly documented by Marcy Wheeler at her blog Emptywheel, and Truthout’s own Jeffrey Kaye on his blog Invictus and in articles published on this website and at Firedoglake.

In her analysis, Wheeler focused on a section of the report dealing with revisions the Bush administration made in 2006 to the War Crimes Act (WCA), which “retroactively changed[d] the law on human experimentation [so] that experimentation no longer needed to have a personal benefit to the research subject, and could instead be justified because of a ‘legitimate’ interest.”

According to PHR’s report, “the new language of the WCA added two qualifications that appear to have lowered the bar on biological experimentation on prisoners.”

“That language requires that the experiment have a ‘legitimate’ purpose, but does not require that it be carried out in the interest of the subject,” the report noted. “It also adds the requirement that the experiment not ‘endanger’ the subject, which appears to raise the threshold for what will be considered illegal biological experimentation.”

PHR has called on Congress to amend the law.

In his coverage of the PHR report, Kaye wrote that one of the “various threads left dangling” he remains most concerned about involves “the links between the SERE research undertaken by investigators led by Dr. Charles A. Morgan and the CIA experimental torture program, as reported in an appendix to PHR’s report.”

“PHR describes the SERE research undertaken during the years prior to the issuance of the OLC memos, and explains that the results of that research demonstrated how the risk of harm was inherent in the SERE techniques,” wrote Kaye, who has reported extensively on Morgan’s connections to the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” “In addition, [the report notes], ‘the experimental framework of these studies intentionally or unintentionally laid the groundwork for unethical and illegal human experimentation that would follow.’”

Meanwhile, Obama’s presence in the White House has not resulted in an abandonment of the research side of the interrogation program.

Last March, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, who recently resigned, disclosed that the Obama administration’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), planned on conducting “scientific research” to determine “if there are better way to get information from people that are consistent with our values.”

“It is going to do scientific research on that long-neglected area,” Blair said during testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. He did not provide additional details as to what the “scientific research” entailed.

Note: For further information, see this BoingBoing interview with Dr. Scott Allen, the lead medical author of the report, who is co-director of the Center For Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Brown University, and Medical Advisor to PHR.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.


Quarterly Fundraising Appeal: Please Support my Guantánamo Work | Andy Worthington