Human Experimentation at the Heart of Bush Administration's Torture Program

Sunday, 06 June 2010 22:53 By Jason Leopold, t r u t h o u t | Report | name.

Human Experimentation at the Heart of Bush Administration
(Illustration: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t)

High-value detainees captured during the Bush administration's "war on terror," who were subjected to brutal torture techniques, were used as "guinea pigs" to gauge the effectiveness of various torture techniques, a practice that has raised troubling comparisons to Nazi-era human experimentation. according to a disturbing new report released by Physicians for Human Rights, an international doctors' organization.

PHR, based in Massachusetts, called on President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and the US Congress to launch investigations into the role of physicians and psychiatric experts in the monitoring and assessments of the brutal interrogations.

"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," said the 27-page report, entitled "Experiments in Torture: Human Subject Research and Evidence of Experimentation in the 'Enhanced' Interrogation Program." "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."

The report 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. Many of the details contained in the document 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 web site and at Firedoglake.

Written by medical and psychological experts, some of who have worked with victims of torture, the report said the research and experimentation on detainees violate medical professional standards, the Geneva Conventions on treatment of detainees, and international law based on the Nuremberg principles that were embraced by the civilized world after it was revealed that the Nazis engaged in medical atrocities on prisoners during World War II.

“The essence of the ethical and legal protections for human subjects is that the subjects, especially vulnerable populations such as prisoners, must be treated with the dignity befitting human beings and not simply as experimental guinea pigs,” the PHR report said.

Frank Donaghue, PHR's chief executive officer, said the report 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."

Waterboarding and Combined Techniques

For example, CIA medical personnel obtained experimental research data by subjecting more than 25 detainees to individual and combined torture techniques, including sleep deprivation and stress positioning, as a way of understanding "whether one type of application over another would increase the subjects' susceptibility to severe pain," the report said, adding that the information derived from that research informed "subsequent [torture] practices." 

The study of combined and individual torture tactics “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 report said.

Drawing from the study of torture tactics, Steven Bradbury, then head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), prepared a memo in 2005 that approved combinations of torture tactics, including forced nudity, “wall-slamming,” stress positions and repeated periods of sleep deprivation.

PHR's analysis on sleep deprivation concluded 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."

PHR also 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 Bradbury, who cited it in advising CIA interrogators how to administer the technique.

"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 said.

In Bradbury's memo urging revised techniques – what the PHR report termed "Waterboarding 2.0" – the Bush lawyer 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 … if the detainee drinks the water."

The Bush administration also used the medical studies to mitigate any blame that might be placed on CIA interrogators or their superiors, by suggesting that doctors were involved to protect the health of the detainees even if a side benefit was to make the torture more effective, the report said. 

Shielding Torturers

But the administration apparently anticipated accusations of human experimentation by adding language in the 2006 Military Commissions Act. The PHR’s report noted that the law amended the War Crimes Act, and made it retroactive to 1997, “to delineate the specific violations of [the Geneva Conventions’] Common Article 3 that would be punishable. Among those violations is ‘performing biological experiments.’ 

“The amended language prohibits: The act of a person who subjects, or conspires or attempts to subject, one or more persons within his custody or physical control to biological experiments without a legitimate medical or dental purpose and in so doing endangers the body or health of such person or persons.”

According to the PHR report, "the new language of the WCA added two qualifications that appear to have lowered the bar on biological experimentation on prisoners" by creating a loophole regarding a “legitimate” purpose that does not necessarily match up with the interests of the subject. The word “endangers” also would open the door to some forms of human experimentation, the report said.

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Calls for Accountability

PHR and other human rights groups plan to file a complaint Wednesday 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 (OPR), to launch a separate investigation.

The 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 Ninth Circuit, did when drafting the August 2002 torture memos and 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 both men 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.

The CIA denied the PHR's allegations of wrongdoing. 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."

Despite the latest revelations regarding the torture program and other war crimes, President Obama still refuses to allow war-crimes investigations into the actions of President George W. Bush and his subordinates, saying it is better to "look forward, and not backwards." 

However, Obama appears to have different standards for other countries. 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.

"We have to acknowledge that those past human rights abuses existed," said Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a child and whose step-father was Indonesian. "We can't go forward without looking backwards." 

Stephen Soldz, a psychoanalyst and one of the author's 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.

Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of 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."

"A Guinea Pig"

The PHR report's conclusions regarding sleep deprivation also buttresses previous information that the Bush administration practiced its torture techniques on the first “high-value detainee,” Abu Zubaydah, after he was captured in March 2002 and confirm several recent investigative reports published by Truthout.

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 regarding different techniques.

The data was then shared with officials at the CIA and the Justice Department, who used the information to draft the August 2002 torture memos regarding the preferred interrogation methods and their frequency of use, setting parameters that supposedly prevented the interrogators from crossing the line into torture.

In an interview with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Zubaydah said the torture he was subjected to after his capture "felt like [his torturers] were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people."

Moreover, in her book "The Dark Side," New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer wrote that Zubaydah's interrogation sessions became more aggressive and experimental in April 2002, after the CIA sent in Dr. James Mitchell, a psychologist under contract to the agency, to take over the interrogations.

Mayer wrote that when Mitchell arrived he told Ali Soufan, an FBI agent who had first interrogated Zubaydah using rapport-building techniques, that Zubaydah needed to be treated “like a dog in a cage.”

Mitchell said Zubaydah was “like an experiment, when you apply electric shocks to a caged dog, after a while he’s so diminished, he can’t resist.”

Soufan and the other FBI agent argued that Zubaydah was “not a dog, he was a human being” to which Mitchell responded: “Science is science.”

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.

Those videotapes were destroyed and the issue is now the subject of a criminal investigation lead by John Durham, a US attorney from Connecticut.

PHR's report said, "information collected by health professionals on the effects of sleep deprivation on detainees was used to establish sleep deprivation policy" and "guide further application of the technique."

The report determined that the human experimentation side of the program 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, this president and his appointees have 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 on the government to preserve evidence related to the CIA's research and experimentation.

"Research" Continues

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 ways 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.

Last modified on Tuesday, 08 June 2010 13:17