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Physicians for Human Rights: CIA Performed Illegal Medical Experiments While Torturing Prisoners

by Matt Clarke

According to a report released by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) in June 2010, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) performed illegal non-consensual human medical experiments on high-value terrorism detainees in connection with torturing those detainees. Also see article on p. 8.

The PHR report was released following a two-year review of declassified but redacted government records related to the treatment of terrorism detainees subjected to Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs), which included waterboarding (controlled drowning), sleep deprivation, excessive temperatures and infliction of severe pain.

The human-subject medical research was performed by doctors from the CIA’s Office of Medical Services (OMS). OMS physicians were present during the use of EITs, monitored the detainees’ medical condition and documented the EIT practices and outcomes.
Knowledge gained from this medical research was then used to refine future EIT protocol, determine the ability of detainees to endure severe pain, calibrate the level of pain caused by certain EITs, research the effects of sleep deprivation, and determine the advisability and effectiveness of using simultaneous combinations of EITs.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) set up a legal framework to permit torture and protect the torturers from legal consequences. To do this, they used a twofold approach. First, they claimed that terrorism detainees were not prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions because they were not uniformed military personnel of a national government. That was a correct interpretation.
However, the OLC took this valid legal premise a step further and claimed that terrorism detainees were not covered by the Geneva Conventions. This is incorrect. The Geneva Conventions cover all persons involved in warfare, even those labeled by the DOJ as “unlawful combatants.” This was eventually confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 548 U.S. 557 (2006) [PLN, Sept. 2006, p.27].

The second part of the DOJ’s legal framework was the redefinition of “torture” to circumvent statutes criminalizing such acts. To accomplish this, the OLC issued a memorandum redefining torture as an act that causes long-term mental harm or physical pain and suffering equivalent to the pain and suffering caused by organ failure or death. OLC lawyers argued for medical monitoring of the EITs and to use the monitoring information to refine the EITs as a way of showing concern for the detainees’ safety, so as to avoid accusations of torture.

Apparently, no one in the DOJ or OLC ever considered the legality of allowing such medical monitoring to become medical experimentation. There was a disturbing feedback loop established between the military and CIA in refining torture techniques to make them more effective. When the OLC gave its approval to EITs by redefining torture, the CIA was faced with a dilemma – it had no current experience or knowledge of torture.
Therefore it turned to the military, which had two sources of information concerning torture: military personnel who had been captured and tortured by an enemy, and torture performed by the military itself as part of its Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program.

SERE was designed to teach military personnel what they could expect to experience should they be captured by an enemy. The SERE program included waterboarding, but it was limited to a single instance of short duration. Further, participation in SERE was voluntary and only with the participant’s consent. Thus, it differed considerably from the torture inflicted by the CIA on terrorism detainees.

Nonetheless, the CIA used information from the SERE manual and SERE personnel to set up EITs. The knowledge flowed both ways. When OMS doctors suggested using saline solution instead of water to avoid a potentially fatal drop in blood salinity caused by repeated waterboarding, the SERE manual was revised to reflect that change. Thus, the medical research results obtained from monitoring torture sessions were used by both the CIA and the military.

The prohibition against non-consensual human experimentation arose from the Nazi medical atrocities of World War II, and stems from three sources: the Nuremberg Code, the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (National Commission), and the Common Rule. The Nuremberg Code requires the voluntary, informed consent of the human subject of any experiment and mandates that the subject be free to terminate participation in the experiment at any time. This is considered “customary” international law, violations of which are universally condemned. Unfortunately, the U.S. has a history of ignoring the Nuremberg Code when it comes to socially marginalized populations, such as the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments involving poor southern black men and numerous experiments on prisoners. [See, e.g., PLN, March 2008, p.1].

The National Commission was created by Congress following public outrage over such non-consensual government experiments. The Commission – a group of leading experts in medicine, law and ethics – issued the Belmont Report in 1979, which recommended requiring informed consent, established additional safeguards for vulnerable populations such as prisoners whose ability to give informed consent was compromised, and called for the establishment of an institutional review board of researchers, ethic experts and lay people within each medical or scientific organization to oversee the design of human research studies.

These protections became codified in codes of professional conduct and federal regulations collectively referred to as the Common Rule. All federally-funded research, including that performed by the CIA and military, are subject to the Common Rule.

Additionally, all four Geneva Conventions list “biological experimentation” as grave breaches, and the War Crimes Act of 1996 criminalizes grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. However, there is no indication that any U.S. official will be investigated, much less held accountable, for the illegal human medical experiments performed on terrorism detainees by the CIA.

The PHR report calls for a wide-ranging, multi-pronged investigation into the CIA’s human medical experimentation on terrorism detainees and the legal framework that purported to legitimize it; the suspension of federally-funded human medical experimentation; and the adoption of stronger policies prohibiting torture and torture-related human medical experiments.

Not surprisingly CIA officials contested the conclusions in the PHR report, claiming they did not conduct any human medical experiments as part of the agency’s detention program. An impartial investigation might reveal who is right and whether the CIA was complicit in human rights violations related to illicit medical experimentation on terrorism detainees.

The report is available on PLN’s website or at An article detailing the findings of the PHR report appeared in the January 7, 2011 issue of Science, a leading journal that covers scientific research.

“Science and medicine were used to justify the predetermined conclusion that torture could be ‘safe, legal and effective’ when, in fact, the health professionals who were charged with ensuring detainees’ safety were instead calibrating the harm inflicted upon them,” stated Vince Iacopino, Senior Medical Advisor for Physicians for Human Rights. “Not only does that make for bad science, but it also contradicts every ethical code that these professionals should be operating under.”

Sources: Los Angeles Times; “Experiments in Torture: Evidence of Human Subject Research and Experimentation in the ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Program,” Physicians for Human Rights (June 2010);

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