Physicians for Human Rights to File Federal Complaint: On CIA-led Human Experimentation and Research to Design Torture Techniques Used against Detainees

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) this week released a shocking and damning report (Experiments in Torture) that implicates psychologists and medical practitioners in human experimentation, under CIA leadership, to calibrate and design torture techniques applied to detainees held by the U.S. as part of its so-called “war on terror.” This is illegal activity that violates the Nuremberg Code, the Geneva Conventions, the U.S. government’s own “Common Rule,” and a number of other international and domestic prohibitions against illegal human subject research and experimentation.

“If health professionals participated in unethical human subject research and experimentation they should be held to account. Any health professional who violates their ethical codes by employing their professional expertise to calibrate and study the infliction of harm disgraces the health profession and makes a mockery of the practice of medicine.”—Scott A. Allen, MD, medical advisor to PHR, lead medical author of the report

These practices also open the door to prosecution of the officials and practitioners involved. However, since the Obama administration has refused to investigate and prosecute those involved, the PHR itself will file a complaint today with the federal Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) seeking an investigation into human experimentation on detainees by the CIA. The OHRP, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “is responsible for ensuring that federally funded research by federal agencies including the CIA involving human subjects complies with regulations collectively known as the Common Rule” (source) Moreover, the CIA itself cannot obstruct an OHRP investigation simply on the basis that evidence may be “classified”. The OHRP has “previously taken actions to suspend research activities at major research universities for violation of the Common Rule” (source). As PHR states, “since the Obama administration has not responded to the request to investigate possible incidents of human experimentation on detainees, the groups are seeking an official investigation by the OHRP”.

Indeed, if anything the Obama administration and Congress have facilitated the continuation of suspect interrogation practices and the employment of those involved in developing torture techniques. For example, as PHR reports, “as recently as February, 2010, President Obama’s then director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, disclosed that the U.S. had established an elite interrogation unit that will conduct ‘scientific research’ to improve the questioning of suspected terrorists. Admiral Blair declined to provide important details about this effort.” Congress has also continued distortion of the War Crimes Act (WCA), as changed in 2006 by the Bush Administration in order to “allow a more permissive definition of the crime of illegal experimentation on detainees in US custody” (source). Also, as has been recently reported by the BBC, detainees are still being abused at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan: “The abuses are all said to have taken place since US President Barack Obama was elected, promising to end torture.” Several months ago, a New York Times report, which also references the Washington Post, spoke of the “Black Jail” at Bagram, where detainees are held incommunicado.

Furthermore, an Obama administration official herself, Dr. Susan Brandon, a psychologist and Chief for Research in the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA), Defense Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence Center (DCHC) Behavioral Science Program, is linked to the use of psychology in various torture techniques applied to detainees, including mind control, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, and sleep deprivation. (See also: Field Evaluation in the Intelligence and Counterintelligence Context: Workshop Summary [2010]; the APA’s “Making psychological research a priority for countering terrorism”; National Science and Technology Council, “Combating Terrorism: Research Priorities in the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences”; but note also that the American Psychological Association has taken to airbrushing its site to remove all links, and all mentions, of “deception scenarios” workshops that were part of a conference it conducted with the CIA and Rand Corporation on 17-18 July 2003).

The DIA, for which Brandon works, operates the notorious black site at Bagram Air Base which, as we now know, continues to be the major source of reports of torture and abuse from prisoners released from U.S. custody in Afghanistan (see: “DIA and the Black Jail at Bagram,” Harper’s Magazine, May 2010, and “Inside the Secret Interrogation Facility at Bagram,” The Atlantic, 14 May 2010). Detainees are still being “interrogated” in line with the provisions of “the notorious Appendix M to the Army Field Manual, which the Pentagon itself acknowledges is not compliant with the Geneva Conventions standards for prisoners of war” (source). As Scott Horton asks in his Harper’s article:

“it’s time to ask Secretary Gates why he’s decided to put DIA in charge of a prison operation that looks almost identical to the one that President Obama outlawed back on January 22, 2009, and why he’s giving them free rein to employ the non-Geneva compliant techniques found in Appendix M.”

The program first took shape under the administration of President George W. Bush. However, while legal memos were drafted to justify the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” PHR finds that “there is no publicly available evidence that the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel determined that the alleged experimentation and research performed on detainees was lawful”. In other words, the use of the techniques was sanctioned, but not the performance of human experimentation, or research for developing such techniques.

“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. Not only are these alleged acts gross violations of human rights law, they are a grave affront to America’s core values.”—Frank Donaghue, PHR’s Chief Executive Officer

“In their attempt to justify the war crime of torture, the CIA appears to have committed another alleged war crime—illegal experimentation on prisoners. Justice Department lawyers appear to never have assessed the lawfulness of the alleged research on detainees in CIA custody, despite how essential it appears to have been to their legal cover for torture.”—Nathaniel A. Raymond, Director of PHR’s Campaign Against Torture and lead report author

PHR’s report, released on Monday (7 June 2010), provides new evidence that health professionals on the CIA payroll performed experiments on detainees captured and held by the U.S. since 11 September 2001, to apparently provide legal cover for torture. Knowledge about psychologists, doctors and other health professionals being involved in interrogations conducted by the CIA and the Defense Department had been previously by the International Committee of the Red Cross, based on interviews with several high-value detainees held by the CIA—a confidential report that was subsequently leaked and is available here and here. As PHR summarized about their new findings, “research and medical experimentation on detainees was used to measure the effects of large- volume waterboarding and adjust the procedure according to the results. After medical monitoring and advice, the CIA experimentally added saline, in an attempt to prevent putting detainees in a coma or killing them through over-ingestion of large amounts of plain water”. “Waterboarding 2.0,” was thus the product of the “CIA’s developing and field-testing an intentionally harmful practice, using systematic medical monitoring and the application of subsequent generalizable knowledge” (source). According to the same PHR summary, “health professionals monitored sleep deprivation on more than a dozen detainees in 48-, 96- and 180-hour increments. This research was apparently used to monitor and assess the effects of varying levels of sleep deprivation to support legal definitions of torture and to plan future sleep deprivation techniques”. In addition, “health professionals appear to have analyzed data, based on their observations of 25 detainees who were subjected to individual and combined applications of ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques, to determine whether one type of application over another would increase the subject’s ‘susceptibility to severe pain.’ The alleged research appears to have been undertaken only to assess the legality of the ‘enhanced’ interrogation tactics and to guide future application of the techniques” (source).

In a letter sent by PHR to President Obama, the organization says the purposes of this unethical and illegal research were threefold:

First, because the EITs had previously been considered torture, there was little scientific evidence prior to Sept. 11, 2001, about their effects on detainees and questions about their impact and effectiveness were arising as the program proceeded. Only experiments on detainees would be likely to determine the effects of more prolonged and intense application of the techniques in a non-simulated interrogation setting, although it is clear such experimentation would be illegal and unethical.

A second purpose of collecting generalizable medical data was to attempt to calibrate the level of pain caused by the techniques in a misguided effort to keep the pain from crossing the threshold deemed by the Department of Justice to constitute torture.

A third purpose to which the results of the experimentation were put was to create a basis for legal defenses for those engaging in acts that arguably constituted torture. Department of Justice lawyers argued that efforts to refine and improve the application of techniques would provide a potential “good faith” defense for interrogators against charges of torture.

Physicians for Human Rights calls on the Obama administration to offer compensation, health care, and a formal apology to the victims of research and experimentation perpetrated by the U.S. PHR also calls for a criminal investigation into the CIA and other government agencies, for illegal human experimentation and research on detainees. PHR also calls on Obama to “issue an executive order immediately suspending any federally-funded human subject research currently occurring in secret.” They also call for “a presidential task force to restore the integrity of the US regime of protections for human subjects of research.”

In what is a paragraph that will be of especial interest to anthropologists, debating the ethics of research engagement with the U.S. military to support counterinsurgency and intelligence, especially those who think that medical analogies support such endevours (“after all,” the argument by false analogy goes, “doctors also serve in war zones”), PHR states the following to Obama:

“The use of doctors to monitor intentionally harmful interrogation techniques places them in the service of national security objectives which are in conflict with the best therapeutic interest of those they are monitoring. The result has been a cooptation of health professionals by the national security apparatus and a violation of the highest medical admonition to ‘do no harm.’ The misuse of scientific expertise for expedient and exploratory goals leads to a corrosion of the high standards of the profession.”

Kaye says the following about both psychologists and anthropologists in the “war on terror” and its scandals, such as the Human Terrain System:

“As for psychologists, Dr. Soldz rightly notes, ‘Psychology as a profession is at a crossroads.’ The same holds true for other professions involved with this abusive and criminal history, including the activities of anthropologists in the military’s Human Terrain System teams in Afghanistan, researchers in numerous academic departments across the country, and the many reports of doctors and other medical personnel involved in the monitoring of torture activities for the CIA and Defense Department. The use of torture has suborned U.S. civil society as a whole in activities that are dark and evil, and the society as a whole must make a tremendous effort if it is to extirpate such evil from its midst.”—Jeffrey Kaye, The Public Record, 25 May 2010

To keep up to date, make sure to visit PHR’s page, The Torture Reports.

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5 thoughts on “Physicians for Human Rights to File Federal Complaint: On CIA-led Human Experimentation and Research to Design Torture Techniques Used against Detainees

  1. Pingback: Físicos por los derechos humanos denuncian experimentación en humanos para la tortura de detenidos(EN)

  2. Kathleen A. Sullivan, MSW

    At North American Freedom Foundation, we are in the process of working towards the development of a new US Truth and Reconciliation Act that will hopefully help all of us move pass the impasse and stonewalling that enables employees and contractors working for the CIA, US military, and more to continue abusing, torturing, and breaking the minds and wills of marginalized populations as part of ongoing “mind control human experiment” programs. To learn more, see our webpage at Thank you for your time and attention to this very serious matter. It’s time for the madness to end…and the healing to begin.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Many thanks Kathleen, and I had not noticed the petition before. I signed it, and am now circulating it through Twitter and other lists to bring more attention to this. Thanks also for the link to your page, there are a ton of very useful papers there, I hope others take the time to visit and peruse.

  3. Pingback: Human Experimentation for CIA Torture: Physicians for Human Rights Videos, Petition, Write to Obama « ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY

  4. Cristhian Restrepo

    In August of 2008 while incarcerated at the Florida Department of Corrections, I suffered a seizure and was taken to a nearby hospital. I was told that I had a brain tumor and was taken to Jacksonville Memorial Hospital in order to perform a surgery to remove the tumor. After the surgery was performed I was torture for about 10 days. I told every hospital official and corrections official that I came in contact with that I was being torture, but all my pleas were disregarded. However, none of my complaints were ever recorded. I am trying to file a complaint, but I am having difficulty finding an attorney willing to help. Can you please help me? Thank You.

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