Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

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


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

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

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