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Did the U.S. government misuse science to justify torture?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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detainee-cia-experimentIn 2001, Pakistani soldiers captured Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi as he fled Afghanistan. The Pakistani government turned the Libyan paramilitary trainer affiliated with al Qaeda over to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency requested permission to take al-Libi instead and send him to another country—Egypt—for interrogation, permission the Bush administration granted. While undergoing interrogation—potentially of the "enhanced" variety that includes prolonged sleep or sensory deprivation or painful body positions, among other treatments—al-Libi revealed that Iraq had been providing al Qaeda with training in making weapons of mass destruction.

What al-Libi revealed was false, and a trio of physicians now points to this case as an example of how torture provides information of "questionable reliability," in the January 6 issue of Science.

In fact, the doctors, from Physicians for Human Rights and the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture, argue that science has proven that torture is an unreliable method for obtaining accurate information. In support of their claim, they cite a review paper published in Trends in Cognitive Science in September 2009 by neuroscientist Shane O’Mara of Trinity College in Dublin. Dr. Vincent Iacopino and his colleagues also argue in the latest essay that the "enhanced interrogation techniques" employed by the CIA and explicitly authorized by the Bush administration constitute torture.

Regardless of whether that’s true or not, the Bush administration may have misused science to justify such enhanced interrogation, Iacopino and his colleagues note in Science. A memo from the Department of Justice in 2005 explicitly authorized such techniques, noting that CIA doctors observed no long-lasting ill effects in detainees or intent to torture in interrogators during the application of such techniques to 25 detainees.

The actual observations themselves have not been released publicly and may have constituted illegal and immoral scientific research, Iacopino and his colleagues charge. It is also possible that CIA doctors may have "neglected and/or concealed medical evidence of intentional harm" among detainees held after the September 11, 2001 attacks, according to a separate report from Physicians for Human Rights.

The CIA has denied that any such research took place, though the agency’s guidelines did call for medical personnel to monitor waterboarding, confinement in a box and other techniques when used. Iacopino and his colleagues assert that such monitoring constitutes a breach of both basic medical ethics—do no harm—and research norms—an international ban on research conducted on non-consenting human beings.

As a result, the authors call for reforms, including requiring military medical personnel to follow all civilian medical ethics standards, as well as an investigation into what role, if any, such CIA or Department of Defense doctors played in torture or human experimentation. At the very least, such an investigation might provide some more useful information than that elicited via enhanced interrogation techniques.

Image of detainees at Guantanamo Bay courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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  1. 1. Al Toti 9:24 pm 01/6/2011

    Stupidity in action, rationalized argument, the reality: anyone will lie under torture. The result: inefficient use or resources that are scarce in other words running around in circles so sure of yourself acting on fabricated lies. Uncertain of friend or foe, this is the best source of intelligence? No source at all is better than confusion.

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  2. 2. Iahmad 1:13 am 01/7/2011

    All the global torture regimes (US, Israel, Muslim dictators and Asian democracies) have a strong notorious nexus. They protect and glorify each other as moderate and beacon of light but are actually brutal psychopaths. Most of the western human rights agencies are directly influenced by zionist controlled governments. The kind of inhuamn treatment that happens to minorities and pro-democracy supporters in US ally states is unimaginable. But blind western media and agencies are focused in China, Iran, Syria, N Korea as they are oppoents of Global genocidal US and its allies. US and its allies have no better human right records than China, Iran or Syria. It is just that war mongering western media and their cheer leading western experts make blind people believe other way. Truth can not be suppressed for long by loud and outspoken chronic liers. It is coming out and it will come out.

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  3. 3. letxequalx 4:05 am 01/7/2011

    This is not what we are supposed to do in this country- we are supposed to be above torture. If we do this to these guys how far are we from doing this to our own people.

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  4. 4. Marc Lévesque 9:45 am 01/7/2011

    I agree that torture is unreliable and should not be used. If the very unlikely and hypothetical situation: "what if you know a prisoner knows for sure where a bomb is that will kill 10,000 people when it goes off in 6 hours" ever comes up we can decide what to do then, in the mean time torture is not justified, is illegal, and is counter productive.

    Those who say, legally speaking, that water boarding is a Simulation of Drowning rather than Torture and is therefore legal: they are playing with words at best but are more likely hiding behind unsupported, and made to order, (il-)legal opinions. Water boarding is torture: the body reacts the same as when it is drowning, the subject feels they are drowning, and you can easily kill someone if you water-board them enough –that is torture.

    On the issue of doctors being present during torture sessions, I think the situation arose because too many prisoners were dying while detained and this happened because it’s so easy for an interrogator to kill a prisoner "by mistake", i.e. prisoners were dying before the interrogator could detect the signs and stop the torture. So to fix this –stop prisoners from dying under torture– doctors had (have) to be present to monitor the prisoners vital signs and resuscitate, inject adrenaline, and/or etc when the prisoner starts to die.

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  5. 5. frgough 12:10 pm 01/7/2011

    "people lie under torture." Too bad this talking point fails in the face of reality. You see, when we waterboarded those terrorist leaders, we actually gained legitimate intel that led to the discovery and thwarting of additional attacks, and the capture of additional terrorists. Because, you see, the terrorist leader is smarter than you are. He knows that he’s still in prison and if he lies, his interrogators are going to find out soon enough and waterboard him again until he gives them accurate information.

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  6. 6. Marc Lévesque 12:15 pm 01/7/2011


    I agree there are credible reports but overall I think the fruits of torture are not useful, probably generating more false leads than true ones and because we can’t know before what is true and what is not we waste resources, that would be better spent elsewhere, following dead ends. The illegality of torture, the death of prisoners (they aren’t all guilty as accused, and they aren’t even all soldiers) only reduces the moral standing of the west’s use of combat and deadly force and raises the value of "illegal combatant’s" complaints both locally and abroad.

    “Illegal Combatant” is another expression I find self serving and counter productive. What difference does it make what we call them? Is it only an attempt to profit from some theoretical and unsupported legal loop hole and make it seem ok we act illegally? And how are the US forces, the US secret services deployed internationally, and the over 10,000 US payed mercenaries any less or more valiant because they are not called “illegal combatants” by the west ?

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  7. 7. Marc Lévesque 12:34 pm 01/7/2011


    What do you mean by terrorist attacks: enemy attacking US citizens on US territory, enemy attacking US soldiers deployed abroad, or what? Backup?

    John McCaine explained well why the use of torture is a bad idea and promotes violent conflict rather than reduces it. International laws and agreements also exist and remind us that the use of torture is so overwhelmingly counter productive, by who ever uses it, them or us, that we made it illegal.

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  8. 8. mhenriday 3:05 pm 01/7/2011

    «Torture is physical abuse with the specific purpose of wringing out a confession of guilt. … Interrogation is using psychological techniques to gain military intelligence.» Is this to be taken to mean that such practices as waterboarding, «painful body positions» or repeated blunt trauma to the lower limbs, leading to death from internal bleeding or stuffing prisoners head first in a sleeping bag, leading to death from suffocation, as practiced by US troops in, e g, Iraq, are to be regarded as «psychological», rather than «physical» ? Perhaps Mr Gough also believes that Uri Geller bent spoons with the help of his psyche ?…


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  9. 9. SpoonmanWoS 4:24 pm 01/7/2011

    The problem is, those who actually know what they’re talking about disagree with you completely.

    Even if we were to agree on the effectiveness, effective evil is still evil. I know how much you conservatives hate America and our values, but we promise…as soon as we’ve identified all of you, we’ll send you back to Iraq and/or Iran where people like you belong.

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  10. 10. OXYMAN 4:48 pm 01/7/2011

    too bad my post was deleted, many layman would agree, shame if the mod deleted it.

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  11. 11. Marc Lévesque 5:18 pm 01/7/2011

    OXYMAN, I saw a few other comments disappear too (Soccerdad’s for example, and his was clearly not out of place or abusive). I don’t remember your comment, I don’t think I agreed, but I also don’t recall it as abusive. I may not have agreed with them but for moderators to act like this does clearly seem like abusive behavior to me. Or is there some rule, bug, or breakdown, I’m not aware of ?

    What’s going on.

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  12. 12. Mark Heinemann 5:43 am 01/8/2011

    During the Inquisition, tens of thousands "confessed" to being witches. With enough torture, a human will "confess" to being guilty of anything.

    The Salem witch trials showed the same. Torture gets confessions, but it gets confessions regardless of the truth! Bush and Cheney wanted to justify attacking Iraq, and they wanted to get Iraq citizens to name names, even though both Bush and Cheney already new that they had lied to the American people! The evidence they claimed "proved there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq" had been shown to be fake in a CIA briefing 2 years before.

    The "proof that Sadam and Bin Laden spoke" turned out to be a recording of Sadam telling Bin Laden to "go to hell!" All this was known 2 years before Bush went to Congress and lied.

    Bush, Cheney and Rice all sat on oil company boards, and they all made fortunes off the Iraq war!

    As a real combat veteran, Bush and Cheney sicken me!

    Mark Heinemann
    US Veteran 1968-70

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  13. 13. Jackson 11:11 am 01/8/2011

    Perhaps the AMA, the American Medical Association could chime in. Never an organization to shy away from political positions (medicare, HMO’s, climate change)why the silence on this most important subject. When the doctors in fascist Germany collaborated with the regime the world condemned them. Couldn’t the AMA and other medical associations make a public statement backed by noisily throwing any member out of the organization who uses the healing profession to torture.

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  14. 14. Jackson 11:33 am 01/8/2011

    Any Doctor who participates in, observes, advises on, or facilitates in any way the torture of other human beings should have their license to practice medicine revoked. The AMA should ostracize such people. With professional solidarity doctors should refuse to prostitute themselves to political and military thugs. This is a cancer that threatens to contaminate the ethics of the American medical community as it did in Nazi Germany.

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  15. 15. jdswitz 12:12 pm 01/8/2011

    I would agree, the "modding" here clearly seems to be censorship of ideas not palatable to the moderator.
    I strongly disagreed with your post, but saw no valid reason it should have been deleted. Mine was deleted as well.
    I’ve been a follower and subscriber of Scientific American since 1983. This sort of censorship is beneath the intellectual values previously espoused by this publication. Perhaps this publication no longer properly represents reasonable levels of free speech.

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  16. 16. jdswitz 1:32 pm 01/8/2011

    It seems clear the Bush /Cheney administration used the CIA to abuse both the "carrot" & the "Stick".
    There are reports of the CIA offering what amounted to a lifetime income ($10K) to report their neighbors as "Terrorists".
    Under this level of temptation, reports indicate innocent people were abducted and tortured at Gitmo and other "Rendition" locations.
    The "information" garnered from this torture was then used to deploy US operatives, endangering their lives chasing bogus information.
    SO: These methods corrupted their society, caused innocents to be tortured and endangered US citizens who had volunteered to protect our society.

    There is not, and can never be, any justification for these methods.

    World opinion of US foreign policy (justifiably) plunged to the lowest level in the history of our nation.
    One can only hope we learned something from this string of embarrassing, incompetent and immoral acts.

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  17. 17. roblevine 9:41 am 01/9/2011

    The gathering of <em>misinformation</em> is a FEATURE, not a BUG of torture. Bush got "information" linking al Qaeda to Saddam that was bogus, but helped support his drive for war in Iraq.

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  18. 18. overdoneputaforkinit 3:32 pm 01/9/2011

    During the Korean war crisis in the 1950′s the CIA and academic psychologists did a lot of research on torture and concluded the same result in this article. Which is that torture causes prisoners to want to comply and guess the information they think will stop the torture, and say it. Go to any university library, in the psychology area there will be several old books about mind control and torture authored by academics at the time which examine the effects and results of torture in totalitarian regimes. Their conclusion it was well known by despots at that time that that torture is provides unreliable information, that the only real purpose behind using torture is to generate false confessions for show trials used as propaganda.

    The last Bush administration purposely remained very naive about the limitations of torture, or they hoped to get any such evidence including false evidence to justify their foreign policy path.

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  19. 19. bucketofsquid 11:44 am 01/10/2011

    I’m not sure where you get your information frgough, but the department of defence has thoroughly documented that the bulk of supposed "intel" gained from water boarding is completely fabricated. I had no idea that you are a Satanist. I always thought you to be a Christian.

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  20. 20. bucketofsquid 11:47 am 01/10/2011

    OXYMAN – try not being offensive or advertising anything. Posts only get removed if they are foul.

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  21. 21. Ipsi Dixit 11:49 am 01/11/2011

    Has anyone else noticed that the picture that goes with this story probably, in so far as it actually depicts someone in the act of torture, contitutes material evidence that can be used in a court of law to indict the American soldiers shown under the Geneva Conventions.

    It actually shows people in forced ‘stress positions’ (a form of physical torture’) and sensory deprivation (a form of psychological torture).

    Does anyone know who these soldiers are and is there anyway they can be brought to justice?

    It would seem there is one law for the Nazis and quite another for the Allies.

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  22. 22. Ipsi Dixit 12:14 pm 01/11/2011

    Regimes in the Third World (most of them put in power by western governments) tortured people as an end in itself, that is, as a means of intimidation of the general population. It was never really designed to extract information but to kill perceived enemies of the state and discourage dissidence.

    Anglo-American torture, on the other hand, IS designed to elicit information (at least some of the time). Remember, many of the genuine members of the original Al-Qaida (the authentic Al-Qaida that is, before, like communism, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, it became just another name for anyone who stands in our way) were American intelligence agency assets so their American handlers knew that they knew certain things which could be of interest; after all, America had set them up to take the fall for 9/11 – trained them, equpped them, fed them intelligence, etc. – but then they had ‘blowback’.

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  23. 23. biosensei 5:25 pm 01/11/2011

    … it sounds like at least one US citizen is undergoing a form of torture already, and he’s already told all he knows… to Wikileaks.
    Then there’s the suffering of those undergoing lethal injection and, previously, electrocution…. cruel and unusual for sure.
    There are many great and admirable things about the US, but the use and propagation of torture undermine all of this and, as a de facto leading country in the world, this is a serious weakening factor.

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  24. 24. harryhaller 5:12 pm 01/14/2011

    To Letxequalx:
    I agree with your sentiments on a personal basis,
    but let’s face it, you’re misguided.
    When you have a country that was based on genocide and the worst form of slavery in human history, not to mention on white male racism from the start, you can’t be surprised that they use this once again.
    Our job is to stop them from doing this again (we’ve
    already had over 400 years of treating people in horrible fashion)!

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  25. 25. Galyleo 2:21 am 02/1/2011

    Just read a book that really nails the use and mis-use of psuedo-science for torture during the war on terror: None of Us Weren’t like this before. I highly recommend it…

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