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Did CIA doctors perform torture research on detainees?

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detainee cia interrogation torture human research experimentationDoctors and other health professionals working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) might have been illegally performing research on detainees after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to a new report issued by the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights.


If confirmed, the research would be in violation of the American Common Rule, the Nuremberg Code and other professional, national and international ethical guidelines that ban research on non-consenting human subjects. The CIA has denied that any such research or human experimentation has occurred in its detainee program.


To ensure new "enhanced interrogation" techniques did not cross the line into torture (by causing "severe and long-lasting" pain) after 9/11, the U.S. Department of Justice required health professionals to be present during many CIA interrogation sessions with detainees. But in the process of monitoring, doctors often "collected and analyzed the results of those interrogations, and sought to derive generalizable inferences to be applied to subsequent interrogations," according to the report. And that process, the report authors noted, qualifies as illegal research.


"There is evidence that they were calibrating the harm inflicted by the techniques…and extend[ing] their knowledge of the effectiveness of the techniques," lead report author Nathaniel Raymond, director of the Campaign Against Torture for the group, said in a June 7 teleconference. In the U.S., using human subjects in any research requires approval from an institutional review board (IRB), informed consent of subjects and minimal possibility of harm.


The CIA's Office of Medical Services (OMS) guidelines for enhanced interrogation, however, required detailed medical observation of waterboarding and other techniques. And "the OMS policy of compulsory monitoring was followed by a series of revised waterboarding practices" as well as other changes in policy documented in now-public government memos, the report authors noted.


Some of these changes included a switch from water to a salt-water solution, which had not been used in previous, approved training for consenting soldiers (the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program), as well as the use of a special gurney and measurements of blood oxygen levels.


Medical personnel also assessed observational data from 25 detainees who had been "subjected to individual and combined applications" of enhanced interrogation techniques, the authors reported. And the results of this analysis provided generalized findings to support a policy based on the assumption that using more than one enhanced interrogation technique at a time would not increase a detainee's susceptibility to pain, the authors noted.


The CIA, however, has said that the report's conclusions are unfounded. "The CIA did not, as part of its past detention program, conduct human subject research on any detainee or group of detainees," Paul Gimigliano, a spokesperson for the agency told The New York Times.


The authors of the report pointed out that they did not uncover any formal plan or mandate to carry out research on detainee subjects, or evidence of "stated hypotheses, methodology, results, and conclusions—the fundamental elements of all legitimate scientific investigation."


Raymond and his colleagues had access only to public documents, many of which had been "heavily blacked out," Allen Keller, a clinician at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture and co-author on the report, noted during the press conference. And despite the two years of investigation that went into the report, "we simply don't have detail about what data was collected," said co-author Scott Allen, a co-director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Brown University.


Any data collection or analysis might be seen as an effort to ensure the ultimate safety of detainees, but the report authors also note that, "the research information gathered was used by government lawyers to create a basis for defending interrogators against potential charges of violating U.S. anti-torture law." And the "medical monitoring would demonstrate, according to the Office of Legal Counsel memos, a lack of intent to cause harm to the subjects of interrogations," Raymond and his colleagues wrote.


Under law, however, whether the medical personnel intended to be doing formal research on the detainees, however, "is irrelevant," Allen said.


He noted that doctors tasked with interrogation observation and analysis were likely under "a tremendous amount of pressure" from those higher up on the chain of command, and a previous report by the group assessed the health professions' involvement in potentially harmful interrogation techniques. "These techniques are designed to cause harm, cause pain, and cause suffering, so it's ridiculous to think you can make them safe," Allen noted.


The physicians group has called for a government review of medical professionals' possible role in conducting human experimentation on detainees, despite the CIA's Paul Gimigliano's explanation to the Times that "the entire detention effort has been the subject of multiple, comprehensive reviews within our government, including by the Department of Justice." 


Raymond said: "We've shown our evidence. It's time for the administration to show theirs."


Image of detainees at Guantanamo Bay courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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

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