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A report published by the charity Physicians for Human Rights has documented illegal medical experimentation carried out on prisoners detained on suspicion of involvement in terrorism whilst being held in CIA custody[1]. The report, entitled Experiments in Torture: Human Subject Research and Evidence of Experimentation in the ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Program, outlines numerous instances of illegal testing carried out on prisoners in violation of both medical ethics and international treaties.

Among the experiments performed were tests to analyse how detainees would cope with subjection to prolonged periods of sleep deprivation, and experiments which involved adding a saline solution to the water used to simulate drowning during waterboarding sessions in order to prevent complications related to dilution of the blood.

Members of Physicians for Human Rights spent two years carefully analysing declassified but redacted documents pertaining to the treatment of detainees suspected of terrorism who were taken into custody following the attacks of September 11th 2001. The group has called for a congressional investigation into the allegations contained in its report, and has called on the White House to investigate.

According to the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based non-governmental organisation, such experiments – illegal under the Nuremburg Code and Geneva Conventions – were carried out with complicity on the part of CIA-appointed doctors, psychologists and other medical staff. PHR accuses the US government of having used such professionals to shield itself from criminal liability and charges that the physicians involved were complicit in “the routine practice of torture”. Page 9 of the 30 page report states that the experiments undertaken, “had no direct clinical health care application, nor [were they] in the detainee’s personal interest nor part of their medical management”.

The report observes that the illegal experimentation carried out, “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”. Page 10 informs that, “US government lawyers used… observational data collected by health professionals… 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 on other detainees”.

The report reveals that medical professionals under the authority of the US government observed and analysed the effects of sleep deprivation on more than a dozen prisoners in 48, 96 and 180-hour increments. Scott A. Allen, MD, a PHR medical advisor and lead medical author of the report remarked that, “Any health professional [that] 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”. He stated that any medical practitioner who participated in “unethical human subject research… should be held to account”[2].

Frank Donaghue, Physicians for Human Rights’ Chief Executive Officer, affirmed that it appears that the CIA violated, “accepted legal and ethical standards put in place since the Second World War”, which are designed to protect detainees from inhumane experimentation. Donaghue described the abuses detailed in the group’s report as “gross violations of human rights law” and “a grave affront to America’s core values”[3].

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano responded to the allegations on behalf of the agency, stating that PHR’s report is “just wrong”, and that the CIA did not carry out “human subject research on any detainee or group of detainees”[4].

President Barack Obama officially outlawed the practice of waterboarding not long after taking office, but has controversially preserved an undefined number of “black sites” or clandestine prisons situated in countries whose governments collaborate with the United States, and has preserved the practice of rendition whereby those suspected of broadly defined terror offences can be taken to such sites and “interrogated” with no judicial oversight.

Upon releasing four top secret Bush-era memos, which permitted the CIA to use torture against terror suspects, in April of 2009, President Obama guaranteed immunity to those who had been responsible either for encouraging and authorising such acts or for directly carrying them out. Obama called it a time for “reflection, not retribution”[5], and to date not a single member of the Bush administration has been prosecuted despite overwhelming documented evidence that torture was routinely used against people who had not been charged with any crime.

Lawyers acting on behalf of the administration of George W. Bush in 2002 had authorised the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, including but not limited to: waterboarding, subjecting detainees to extremes of temperature, forced nudity and forcing detainees to maintain stress positions. Such techniques were allowed providing medical staff present ensured prisoners did not endure “severe physical and mental pain”. This arbitrary proviso was widely derided at the time, with critics maintaining that this essentially gave US interrogators, who in many cases were devoid of experience and even basic training, a free hand to administer any type of punishment they saw fit with little interference from the upper echelons of government.

Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Romero, commented that, “President Obama’s assertion that there should not be prosecutions of government officials who may have committed crimes before a thorough investigation has been carried out is simply untenable”, with the ACLU characterising the legal basis for torture as “spurious”.

One memo declassified by the Obama administration, dated 1 August 2002, lists permissible techniques, which include: attention grasp, walling (pushing the detainee into a wall), facial hold, facial slap, cramped confinement, sleep deprivation, food deprivation, wall standing, placing a detainee with a fear of insects in a confined box containing insects, and waterboarding.

A secret 2004 US army investigation into allegations of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib military prison in Baghdad, Iraq, uncovered evidence of sustained and repeated mistreatment of prisoners held in US custody. The report revealed a damning catalogue of inhumane behaviour which included the following abuses[6]:

  • Sodomising a male detainee with a chemical light and possibly a broomstick
  • Threatening detainees with a charged 9mm pistol
  • A male military police guard having sex with a female detainee
  • Using military working dogs, without muzzles, to intimidate and frighten detainees; in at least one case biting a detainee and causing severe injury
  • Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid onto detainees
  • Beating detainees with a broom handle and chair
  • Pouring cold water on naked detainees
  • Punching, slapping & kicking detainees
  • Allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall of his cell
  • Threatening male detainees with rape
  • Jumping on detainees’ naked feet
  • Videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees
  • Forcibly arranging detainees in numerous sexually explicit positions in order to photograph them
  • Forcing detainees to strip naked and depriving them of clothing for days at a time
  • Forcing naked male detainees to wear women’s underwear
  • Forcing groups of naked male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed & videotaped
  • Arranging naked male detainees in a pile and jumping on them
  • Positioning a naked male detainee on an MRE box with a sandbag on his head, and attaching wires to his fingers, toes and penis and electrically shocking him
  • Placing a dog chain around a naked male detainee and having a female soldier pose for a photo
  • Taking photographs of dead Iraqi detainees

The report´s author, Major General Antonio Taguba, later confirmed that photographic evidence from Abu Ghraib which the Obama administration declined to release depicts “sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube”. Taguba described the photographs as providing categoric evidence of “torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.” “The mere description of these pictures is horrendous enough, take my word for it”, he added[7].

Senior figures in the Bush administration came in for heavy criticism as it emerged that abuses amounting to torture were widespread both in Iraq and at US-controlled detention facilities in other countries. US Justice Department official John Yoo drew consternation from anti-torture advocates when he endorsed the sexual torture of terror suspects’ children in front of their parents as an acceptable method of extracting a confession[8].

Douglass Cassel, professor at Notre Dame Law School, quizzed Yoo in December of 2005 about an August 2002 memo he had authored, asking, “If the president deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?” “No treaty”, replied Yoo, who in addition to writing many of the memos which cemented the practice of “enhanced interrogation” as accepted policy also wrote extensively in favour of domestic surveillance and wiretapping of citizens of the United States without warrants. Cassel pressed the South Korea-born attorney further, “Also no law by Congress. That is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo.” “I think it depends on why the President feels he needs to do that,” was Yoo’s now infamous response.

Tom Kavanagh


[1] Experiments in Torture: Human Subject Research and Evidence of Experimentation in the ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Program, http://phrtorturepapers.org/?dl_id=9

[2] Evidence Indicates that the Bush Administration Conducted Experiments and Research on Detainees to Design Torture Techniques and Create Legal Cover, http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/library/news-2010-06-07.html

[3] Evidence Indicates that the Bush Administration Conducted Experiments and Research on Detainees to Design Torture Techniques and Create Legal Cover, http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/library/news-2010-06-07.html

[4] Physicians group accuses CIA of testing torture techniques on detainees, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-torture-20100608,0,1471800.story

[5] Obama releases Bush torture memos – Insects, sleep deprivation and waterboarding among approved techniques by the Bush administration, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/16/torture-memos-bush-administration

[6] Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade, http://www.npr.org/iraq/2004/prison_abuse_report.pdf

[7] Abu Ghraib abuse photos ‘show rape’, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5395830/Abu-Ghraib-abuse-photos-show-rape.html

[8] Meek, mild and menacing, http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/blumenthal/2006/01/12/alito_bush/

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