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Bush's Torture Experiments Criticized

By Jason Leopold
June 7, 2010

Physicians for Human Rights has accused the Bush administration of using “war on terror” detainees as human “guinea pigs” to gauge the effectiveness of various torture techniques, a practice that has raised troubling comparisons to Nazi-era human experimentation.

PHR, an international doctors’ organization based in Massachusetts, called on President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Congress to launch investigations into the role of physicians and psychiatric experts in the monitoring and assessments of the brutal interrogations.

"Health professionals working for and on behalf of the CIA monitored the interrogations of detainees, collected and analyzed the results of [the] interrogations, and sought to derive generalizable inferences to be applied to subsequent interrogations," said the 27-page report, entitled "Experiments in Torture: Human Subject Research and Evidence of Experimentation in the 'Enhanced' Interrogation Program."

The report said the research and experimentation on detainees violate medical professional standards, the Geneva Conventions on treatment of detainees, and international law based on the Nuremberg principles that were embraced by the civilized world after it was revealed that the Nazis engaged in medical atrocities on prisoners during World War II.

“The essence of the ethical and legal protections for human subjects is that the subjects, especially vulnerable populations such as prisoners, must be treated with the dignity befitting human beings and not simply as experimental guinea pigs,” the PHR report said.

Frank Donaghue, PHR's chief executive officer, said the report appears to demonstrate that the CIA violated "all accepted legal and ethical standards put in place since the Second World War to protect prisoners from being the subjects of experimentation."

For example, CIA medical personnel obtained experimental research data by subjecting more than 25 detainees to a combination of torture techniques, including sleep deprivation and stress positioning, as a way of understanding "whether one type of application over another would increase the subjects' susceptibility to severe pain," the report said, adding that the information derived from that research informed "subsequent [torture] practices."

The study of combined torture tactics “appears to have been used primarily to enable the Bush administration to assess the legality of the tactics, and to inform medical monitoring policy and procedure for future application of the techniques," the report said.

Drawing from the study of torture tactics, Steven Bradbury, then head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), prepared a memo in 2005 that approved combinations of torture tactics, including forced nudity, “wall-slamming,” stress positions and repeated periods of sleep deprivation.

PHR's analysis on sleep deprivation concluded that "government lawyers used observational data collected by health professionals from varying applications of sleep deprivation to inform legal evaluations regarding the risk of inflicting certain levels of harm on the detainee, and to shape policy that would guide further application of the technique."

PHR also said the drowning method known as waterboarding was monitored in early 2002 by medical personnel who collected data about how detainees responded to the torture technique. The data was then given to Bradbury, who cited it in advising CIA interrogators how to administer the technique.

"According to the Bradbury memoranda, [CIA Office of Medical Services] teams, based on their observation of detainee responses to waterboarding, replaced water in the waterboarding procedure with saline solution ostensibly to reduce the detainees' risk of contracting pneumonia and/or hyponatremia, a condition of low sodium levels in the blood caused by free water intoxication, which can lead to brain edema and herniation, coma, and death," the report said.

In Bradbury's memo urging revised techniques – what the PHR report termed "Waterboarding 2.0" – the Bush lawyer wrote that "based on advice of medical personnel, the CIA requires that saline solution be used instead of plain water to reduce the possibility of hyponatremia … if the detainee drinks the water."

The Bush administration also used the medical studies to mitigate any blame that might be placed on CIA interrogators or their superiors, by suggesting that doctors were involved to protect the health of the detainees even if a side benefit was to make the torture more effective, the report said.

But the administration apparently anticipated accusations of human experimentation by adding language in the 2006 Military Commissions Act. The PHR’s report noted that the law amended the War Crimes Act “to delineate the specific violations of [the Geneva Conventions’] Common Article 3 that would be punishable. Among those violations is ‘performing biological experiments.’

“The amended language prohibits: The act of a person who subjects, or conspires or attempts to subject, one or more persons within his custody or physical control to biological experiments without a legitimate medical or dental purpose and in so doing endangers the body or health of such person or persons.”

According to the PHR report, "the new language of the WCA added two qualifications that appear to have lowered the bar on biological experimentation on prisoners" by creating a loophole regarding a “legitimate” purpose that does not necessarily match up with the interests of the subject. The word “endangers” also would open the door to some forms of human experimentation, the report said.

PHR and other human rights groups plan to file a complaint this week with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) demanding the agency launch a probe into the CIA’s Office of Medical Services. Additionally, the group wants the Justice Department's ethics watchdog, the Office of Professional Responsibility, to launch a separate investigation.

The CIA denied the PHR's allegations of wrongdoing. Spokesman Paul Gimigliano said the agency, "as part of its past detention program, [did not] conduct human subject research on any detainee or group of detainees."

Despite the latest revelations regarding the torture program and other war crimes, President Obama still refuses to allow war-crimes investigations into the actions of President George W. Bush and his subordinates, saying it is better to "look forward, and not backwards."

However, Obama appears to have different standards for other countries. During an interview  with a reporter for an Indonesian television station, Obama was asked whether he was satisfied with the way Indonesia dealt with its past human rights abuses.

"We have to acknowledge that those past human rights abuses existed," said Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a child and whose step-father was Indonesian. "We can't go forward without looking backwards."

Nathaniel Raymond, director of PHR's Campaign Against Torture, said "Justice Department lawyers appear to have never 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."

Stephen Soldz, a psychoanalyst and one of the author's of the PHR report, said, "it is important to realize that the logic used by the Obama administration to refuse an investigation of torture claims - that the torture memos allowed the torturers to believe their actions were legally sanctioned - does not apply to potential research on detainees."

Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said PHR's findings "recalls some of humanity's darkest days — charges from which no person of faith can afford to turn away."

The PHR report's conclusions regarding sleep deprivation also buttresses previous information that the Bush administration practiced its torture techniques on the first “high-value detainee,” Abu Zubaydah, after he was captured in March 2002.

A former national security official knowledgeable about the Bush administration's torture program told me that Zubaydah was "an experiment...a guinea pig" used so CIA contractors could obtain data regarding the different techniques.

The data was then shared with officials at the CIA and the Justice Department, who used the information to draft the August 2002 torture memos regarding the preferred interrogation methods and their frequency of use, setting parameters that supposedly prevented the interrogators from crossing the line into torture.

I also reported  that one of the main reasons Zubaydah's torture sessions were videotaped was to gain insight into his "physical reaction" to the techniques used on him.

For example, one current and three former CIA officials said some videotapes showed Zubaydah being sleep deprived for more than two weeks. Contractors hired by the CIA studied how he responded psychologically and physically to being kept awake for that amount of time.

By looking at the videotapes, they concluded that after the 11th consecutive day of being kept awake Zubaydah started to "severely break down." So, the torture memo signed by Bybee concluded that 11 days of sleep deprivation was legal and did not meet the definition of torture.

Brent Mickum, Zubaydah's attorney, said PHR's report is evidence that there was an "experimental element to the torture program and it was approved at the highest levels of government."

"I have said literally for years that I believe my client was tortured before any of these enhanced interrogation techniques were approved by the Justice Department," Mickum said. "And now we know that not only was my client subjected to torture but he was part of an experiment.

“This is so ugly, so shameful, so unlawful. If this revelation doesn't kick in an obligation on the part of the Department of Justice to investigate war crimes than I don't know what does. The Obama administration has essentially refused to do that. At some point, the Obama administration has to take seriously what their obligations are under the law."

Mickum said he is preparing to file a series of motions in federal court calling for the preservation of documents based on the conclusions contained in PHR's report.

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