Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Did the CIA Conduct Medical Experiments on Detainees?

As time goes by, the record of the Bush administration gets worse and worse. It could turn out that the most egregious offense of the Bush-esque Obama administration will be that its Justice Department let Bush-Cheney & Co. off scot-free.

It’s not enough that the last gang to occupy the Executive Branch got us into two illegal wars, accumulated autocratic powers, violated our civil liberties, and tortured suspects. Now it appears that it kicked things up a notch.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) says it has unearthed “evidence that indicates the Bush administration apparently conducted illegal and unethical human experimentation and research on detainees in CIA custody.”

Why would the U.S. government do this?

“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.”

PHR says its report 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.”

The organization demands that the Justice Department investigate the charges. It is also particularly concerned that health professionals participated to “calibrate and study the infliction of harm.” That, PHR says, “disgraces the health profession and makes a mockery of the practice of medicine.” The program violated “the Geneva Conventions, The Common Rule, the Nuremberg Code and other international and domestic prohibitions against illegal human subject research and experimentation,” the PHR news release states.

PHR says that declassified documents show, first, 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.” As a result, saline was added “to prevent putting detainees in a coma or killing them through over-ingestion of large amounts of plain water.”

Second, “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.”

Third, “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.”

PHR called on Congress to 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.” Legal authorities say that other U.S. statutes besides the WCA make such experimentation illegal.

After the 9/11 attacks the Bush administration ignored proven nontorture techniques for obtaining information from detainees in favor of techniques long regarded as torture. Cognizant of the illegality, administration legal personnel strained to justify “enhanced interrogation techniques” as something other than torture. Hence the famous “torture memos” from the Office of Legal Counsel. The monitoring of techniques by physicians was apparently to determine which were and were not susceptible to charges of torture. This is indistinguishable from medical research on nonconsenting persons. Of course it is not the first time in history that supposed healers have lent their skills to government torturers.

The Obama administration could do something constructive for a change by investigating PHR’s charges and, if they are borne out, bringing the offenders to justice — no matter how high up the chain of command. Let’s not forget that George W. Bush boasts of having approved water-boarding for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

If for no other reason, the Bush administration’s legerdemain over torture put a stain on America that will not soon be erased. At least we can make a start.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation ( and editor of The Freeman magazine.


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