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Evidence Indicates that the Bush Administration Conducted Experiments and Research on Detainees to Design Torture Techniques and Create Legal Cover

CIA medical personnel accused of conducting torture experiments on detainees

Written by Meredith Wadman   
Tuesday, 08 June 2010—Medical personnel on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) participated in experimentation and research on detainees during interrogations following the US terror attacks of 11 September 2001 according to an independent report released today. The actions documented in the report took place during the administration of President George W. Bush and contravene principles of research ethics set out in the Nuremburg Code, including those explicitly stated by the US government.

The report, Experiments in Torture: Human Subject Research and Evidence of Experimentation in the `Enhanced' Interrogation Program, was published by the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It relies on previously classified documents released by US President Barack Obama's administration between May 2009 and February 2010.

The 30-page document alleges that personnel in the CIA's Office of Medical Services (OMS) were involved in activities such as adjusting saline levels in water used for the simulated drowning technique called waterboarding, and comparing prisoners' pain tolerance after various techniques, such as slapping, water dousing and sleep deprivation, were applied serially or in combination.

"The CIA appears to have broken all accepted legal and ethical standards put in place since the Second World War to protect prisoners from being the subjects of experimentation," says Frank Donaghue, PHR chief executive.

The report notes that there is no publicly available evidence that the spy agency sought or obtained from the Department of Justice a legal justification for the alleged experimentation — in contrast to the careful legal language crafted by the department to justify the use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. What's more, the report alleges, the data systematically collected by CIA medical employees were used as a basis for the department's legal argument that the "enhanced" techniques did not constitute torture and that the people who implemented them would not be subject to prosecution.

"In an attempt to justify the war crime of torture, the CIA appears to have committed another alleged war crime — illegal experimentation on prisoners," says Nathaniel Raymond, director of the PHR's Campaign Against Torture and the report's lead author.

Neither the White House nor the CIA responded to requests for comment on Sunday; the Department of Justice did not reply to an interview request on Friday.

The report lacks the actual data it alleges were gathered by medical personnel; these were not released by the authorities in documents that are heavily redacted. But, says Raymond: "This report is appropriately sourced, reviewed and written to serve as a basis for further criminal investigation."

Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, reviewed the report and says: "It's very hard to believe, given everything that I've read here, that research was not going on. There's an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence."

According to Nancy Berlinger, a research scholar who studies clinical ethics at The Hastings Center in Garrison, New York, the report is distressing in part because it reveals a complete disregard for the Nuremberg Code. The 1947 code was created in response to evidence of Nazi-era experimentation and forms the basis for subsequent US regulations governing research. "To see evidence of experimentation on detainees in US custody feels like a body blow to people who care about research ethics," says Berlinger.

Data collected

In one example of what it calls research experimentation, the PHR report quotes CIA guidelines for its health professionals — who included physicians, psychologists and physicians' assistants — as requiring them to record, for each instance of waterboarding: "how long each application (and the entire procedure) lasted, how much water was used in the process (realizing that much splashes off), how exactly the water was applied, if a seal was achieved, if the naso- or oropharynx was filled, what sort of volume was expelled, how long was the break between applications, and how the subject looked between each treatment."

On the basis of this data collection, the report continues, CIA medical personnel replaced water in the waterboarding procedure with saline (salt) solution, to reduce the risk of a detainee contracting pneumonia or developing dangerously low levels of sodium in the blood, which can result from swallowing huge quantities of water. They further modified the procedure by putting detainees on a liquid diet before interrogation, to make them less likely to choke on their own vomit, and introducing a specially designed gurney to move the detainee upright quickly in case of choking.

Matthew Alexander (a pseudonym), a former US Air Force interrogator in Iraq and author of the book How To Break a Terrorist, says: "It's shocking. This was a feedback cycle. It was a process of doing something, measuring it and then reinserting that into the process. Which the report says is the definition of experimentation."

In another instance, the report cites a 2005 memo from Steven Bradbury, principal deputy assistant attorney general, to a senior CIA lawyer, John Rizzo, in which observations by CIA medical personnel of some 25 detainees were cited to conclude that enhanced interrogation techniques used in combination, rather than individually, were not likely to make detainees more susceptible to pain.

Describing combination techniques, "for example, when an insult slap is simultaneously combined with water dousing or a kneeling stress position, or when wall standing is simultaneously combined with an abdominal slap and water dousing," Bradbury concluded: "As we understand the experience involving the combination of various techniques, the OMS medical and psychological personnel have not observed any such increase in [pain] susceptibility."

The Common Rule, which governs US research on human subjects by 17 federal agencies, including the CIA, lays out requirements for rigorous pre-approval of studies by an Institutional Review Board. Rules include the need for the subjects' voluntary informed consent, lack of coercion and the right of subjects to withdraw from the research at any time.

The PHR has indicated that, along with other organizations, it will file a complaint later this week with the US government's Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and call for the OHRP to investigate the CIA's medical office. The OHRP's mandate includes the power to review all federal agencies that engage in federally funded research, whether that research is classified or unclassified.

The group also called on President Obama to ask the attorney general to investigate whether crimes had been committed under the War Crimes Act. In 2006, Congress amended the research provisions of that law to make them more lenient, and made the new language retroactive to 1997. The amended law, for instance, does not require that any biological experiment on a prisoner be carried out in the interests of the subject. The PHR also called on Congress to restore the law to its original wording.

Meredith reported her first Nature story - on gene therapy - in December 1995, fresh from a stint covering Capitol Hill and White House politics as Washington correspondent for The Oakland Tribune. She has a BSc in human biology from Stanford University, studied medicine as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and went to journalism school at Columbia University in New York. Meredith has also contributed to the Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The following is the media release from Physicians for Human Rights

Evidence Indicates that the Bush Administration Conducted Experiments and Research on Detainees to Design Torture Techniques and Create Legal Cover

Illegal Activity Would Violate Nuremberg Code and Could Open Door to Prosecution

Media Contact: Benjamin Greenberg, [email protected], Tel: 617-301-4237, Cell: 617-510-3417

(Cambridge, MA) In the most comprehensive investigation to date of health professionals' involvement in the CIA's "enhanced" interrogation program (EIP), Physicians For Human Rights has uncovered evidence that indicates the Bush administration apparently conducted illegal and unethical human experimentation and research on detainees in CIA custody. The apparent experimentation and research appear to have been performed to provide legal cover for torture, as well as to help justify and shape future procedures and policies governing the use of the "enhanced" interrogation techniques. The PHR report, Experiments in Torture: Human Subject Research and Evidence of Experimentation in the 'Enhanced' Interrogation Program, is the first to provide evidence that CIA medical personnel engaged in the crime of illegal experimentation after 9/11, in addition to the previously disclosed crime of torture.

This evidence indicating apparent research and experimentation on detainees opens the door to potential additional legal liability for the CIA and Bush-era officials. There is no publicly available evidence that the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel determined that the alleged experimentation and research performed on detainees was lawful, as it did with the "enhanced" techniques themselves.

"The CIA appears to have broken all accepted legal and ethical standards put in place since the Second World War to protect prisoners from being the subjects of experimentation," said Frank Donaghue, PHR's Chief Executive Officer. "Not only are these alleged acts gross violations of human rights law, they are a grave affront to America's core values."

Physicians for Human Rights demands that President Obama direct the Attorney General to investigate these allegations, and if a crime is found to have been committed, prosecute those responsible. Additionally, Congress must immediately amend the War Crimes Act (WCA) to remove changes made to the WCA in 2006 by the Bush Administration that allow a more permissive definition of the crime of illegal experimentation on detainees in US custody. The more lenient 2006 language of the WCA was made retroactive to all acts committed by US personnel since 1997.

"In their attempt to justify the war crime of torture, the CIA appears to have committed another alleged war crime – illegal experimentation on prisoners," said Nathaniel A. Raymond, Director of PHR's Campaign Against Torture and lead report author. "Justice Department lawyers appear to never have 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."

PHR's report, Experiments in Torture, is relevant to present-day national security interrogations, as well as Bush-era detainee treatment policies. As recently as February, 2010, President Obama's then director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, disclosed that the US had established an elite interrogation unit that will conduct "scientific research" to improve the questioning of suspected terrorists. Admiral Blair declined to provide important details about this effort.

"If health professionals participated in unethical human subject research and experimentation they should be held to account," stated Scott A. Allen, MD, a medical advisor to Physicians for Human Rights and lead medical author of the report. "Any health professional who violates their ethical codes by employing their professional expertise to calibrate and study the infliction of harm disgraces the health profession and makes a mockery of the practice of medicine."

Several prominent individuals and organizations in addition to PHR will file a complaint this week with the US Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and call for an OHRP investigation of the CIA's Office of Medical Services.

The PHR report indicates that there is evidence that health professionals engaged in research on detainees that violates the Geneva Conventions, The Common Rule, the Nuremberg Code and other international and domestic prohibitions against illegal human subject research and experimentation. Declassified government documents indicate that:

Research and medical experimentation on detainees was used to measure the effects of large- volume waterboarding and adjust the procedure according to the results. After medical monitoring and advice, the CIA experimentally added saline, in an attempt to prevent putting detainees in a coma or killing them through over-ingestion of large amounts of plain water. The report observes: "'Waterboarding 2.0' was the product of the CIA's developing and field-testing an intentionally harmful practice, using systematic medical monitoring and the application of subsequent generalizable knowledge."

Health professionals monitored sleep deprivation on more than a dozen detainees in 48-, 96- and 180-hour increments. This research was apparently used to monitor and assess the effects of varying levels of sleep deprivation to support legal definitions of torture and to plan future sleep deprivation techniques.

Health professionals appear to have analyzed data, based on their observations of 25 detainees who were subjected to individual and combined applications of "enhanced" interrogation techniques, to determine whether one type of application over another would increase the subject's "susceptibility to severe pain." The alleged research appears to have been undertaken only to assess the legality of the "enhanced" interrogation tactics and to guide future application of the techniques. Experiments in Torture: Human Subject Research and Experimentation in the 'Enhanced' Interrogation Program is the most in-depth expert review to date of the legal and medical ethics issues concerning health professionals' involvement in researching, designing and supervising the CIA's "enhanced" interrogation program. The Experiments in Torture report is the result of six months of investigation and the review of thousands of pages of government documents. It has been peer-reviewed by outside experts in the medical, biomedical and research ethics fields, legal experts, health professionals and experts in the treatment of torture survivors.

The lead author for this report was Nathaniel Raymond, Director of the Campaign Against Torture, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and the lead medical author was Scott Allen, MD, Co-Director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Brown University and Medical Advisor to PHR. They were joined in its writing by Vincent Iacopino, MD, PhD, PHR Senior Medical Advisor; Allen Keller, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine, NYU School of Medicine, Director, Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture; Stephen Soldz, PhD, President-elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and Director of the Center for Research, Evaluation and Program Development at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis; Steven Reisner, PhD, PHR Advisor on Ethics and Psychology; and John Bradshaw, JD, PHR Chief Policy Officer and Director of PHR's Washington Office.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) mobilizes the health professions to advance the health and dignity of all people by protecting human rights. As a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, PHR shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

The report was extensively peer reviewed by leading experts in related medical, legal, ethical and governmental fields addressed in the document.




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