Published online 7 June 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.284

News

Medics performed 'interrogation research'

Human-rights advocacy group alleges major ethics breaches.

In this photo, reviewed by a US Department of Defense official, a Guantanamo detainee's feet are shackled to the floor as he attends a 'Life Skills' class inside the Camp 6 high-security detention facility at Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base, Cuba, on AprilA report says US medical professionals stepped over the line by using interrogation subjects overseas at prisons like this one at Guantanamo Bay for research and experimentation.M. Shepard/AFP/Getty Images

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."

ADVERTISEMENT

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. 

Comments

If you find something abusive or inappropriate or which does not otherwise comply with our Terms or Community Guidelines, please select the relevant 'Report this comment' link.

Comments on this thread are vetted after posting.

  • #61271

    Keep an eye on what goes into that manual. I think we could wind up right back where we started in regards to water boarding.

Commenting is now closed.