Headlines were made last week concerning revelations of a 64-year-old scandal only recently discovered by historian Susan M. Reverby of Wellesley College. Reverby discovered that a key researcher who was part of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis study had also headed a project in Guatemala that deliberately infected prisoners and insane asylum inmates with various venereal diseases, ostensibly in order to study how the diseases were transmitted and if they human contagion could be blocked.

Inoculation was difficult, the researchers found, and they had to result to making abrasions and dripping rabbit-infected pus on the genitals of human beings, some of whom had no idea what was being done to them, to try and get the desired results. The study was inconclusive, and ended after only a few years, but not before more than 700 individuals had been inoculated. The human subjects were supposed to be treated with penicillin if they contracted any disease, but record keeping and controls on the project were poor. None received adequate informed consent. Moreover, the researchers involved, working for the U.S. Public Health Service, knew the experiment would never pass muster if done in the United States. A similar experiment in U.S. prisons in 1911 was shut down because of controversy over the unethical experimentation upon prisoners. See Reverby’s preprint version (PDF) of her academic article for a much fuller discussion of what occurred.

These revelations are only the latest in an ongoing series of scandals regarding government illegal and unethical experimentation. Earlier this year, investigative journalist H.P. Albarelli detailed the many activities of the government its decades-long mind control project, as well as the use of drugs in clandestine operations in his book A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War. (Albarelli was also a guest at FDL Book Salon last January.) Albarelli’s book also covered the LSD poisoning by the CIA of the entire French village Pont-St.-Esprit in August 1951, a story picked up only a few months ago by BBC.

There are plenty of other underreported and important stories out there on the terrible scandal that has been U.S. illegal experimentation. The Department of Defense experimented on over 7000 soldiers at its Edgewood Arsenal, part of "a secret testing program in which U.S. military personnel were deliberately exposed to chemical and biological weapons and other toxins without informed consent." Troops were tested with "nerve gas, psychochemicals, and thousands of other toxic chemical or biological substances and perhaps most gruesomely, the insertion of septal implants in the brains of subjects in a ghastly series of mind control experiments that went awry." The program ended in 1976 after approximately twenty years. Remarkably, a lawsuit by veterans is still alive and wending its way through the courts.

It was approximately only ten years ago when another DoD experiment scandal became big news. Project Shad was a DoD experiment that exposed at least 4,000 Navy men to various chemical agents and decontaminant chemicals, "including Bacillus globigii (BG), Coxiella burnetii [which causes Q fever], Pasteurella tularensis [which causes tularemia or 'rabbit fever'], Zinc Cadmium Sulfide, Beta-propriolactone, Sarin, VX, Escherichia Coli (EC), Serratia Marcescens (SM), Sodium Hydroxide, Peracetic acid, Potassium hydroxide, Sodium hypochlorite, ‘tracer amounts’ of radioactivity and asbestos, [and] Methylacetoacetate." So outrageous were these experiments, denied by the government for 35 years, that there were Congressional hearings (PDF) in 2002, and major news reports by CBS Evening News. Today, the story has dropped off the radar, though thanks to some Congressional pressure, and the activism of some of the Shad victims, veterans and the government can get more information on Shad and its land-based twin experiment, Project 112, at this Veterans Administration webpage.

The government use of drugs and other experimental torture techniques during the Bush administration has led to a number of studies and reports. Most recently, the DoD Inspector General concluded an investigation on the drugging of detainees, or so-called "unprivileged enemy combatants" in DoD custody. But the results of the review remain classified, and the fact the report was even ever concluded was kept from public knowledge for many months. In 2008, now-Vice President Joesph Biden had been one of three senators asking for an investigation into the drugging charges. Biden’s office at the White House refused to reply to questions for comment on the report’s existence or what have been revealed by the investigation.

Finally, we have the ongoing question of human experimentation by the CIA as part of the construction of and operations concerning their "enhanced interrogation" torture program. Earlier this year, Physicians for Human Rights released a peer-reviewed white paper detailing some of the CIA actions. As the following press release by PHR explains, there is a direct line of scientific malfeasance and unethical behavior that runs from the Guatemala experiments of the 1940s to the CIA and DoD illegal experimentation of our era. In an excellent article on the topic by one of the PHR report authors, psychologists Stephen Soldz, explains:

Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was notified by letter of these abuses, abuses that violate the same research ethics principles — informed consent and minimization of harm — that were violated by the Guatemalan STD research. But, rather than express her outrage at this “reprehensible research,” Secretary Sebelius maintained her silence, as did every government official, other than a CIA press spokesman who denied our claims without presenting the slightest bit of evidence. Secretary Sebelius’ department referred an official complaint regarding unethical CIA research to the very same CIA that had already publicly denied the charges. So far, no government agency has committed to investigating these CIA abuses, which occurred far more recently than the Guatemalan horrors.

The letter denying the complaint and referring it back to the CIA was signed by Howard Koh, Assistant Secretary of Health at the U.S. Public Health Service, the same agency that conducted the Guatemala experiments decades ago (and conveniently never published the results).

What follows is a press release from Physicians for Human Rights (courtesy Stephen Soldz’s website):

Physicians for Human Rights Decries Obama Administration’s Double Standard on Illegal Human Experimentation; 1946 Guatemala Case and Alleged CIA Experimentation on Black Site Detainees Both Deserve Equal Justice

Cambridge, MA–In the wake of revelations about America’s experimentation on unwilling human subjects in Guatemala in 1946, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) calls on President Obama to equally investigate credible evidence of illegal human subject research on detainees in CIA custody during the Bush administration.

“What was done to 700 Guatemalans 64 years ago without their consent is appalling,” said Physicians for Human Rights CEO Frank Donaghue. “But President Obama’s apologies for the Guatemala case ring hollow when the White House refuses to investigate similar crimes that allegedly occurred in the past decade. The credible evidence of illegal human experiments by the CIA on black site detainees deserves equal attention and justice.”

PHR’s June 2010 report, Experiments in Torture: Human Subject Research and Evidence of Experimentation in the ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Program, was the first peer-reviewed analysis of evidence indicating that the Bush administration allegedly conducted illegal human research and experimentation on prisoners in US custody. The research was apparently used to insulate interrogators from potential prosecution and to standardize the use of torture.

“The conduct of health professionals in both cases—Guatemala and the CIA black sites—makes a mockery of bedrock principles of medical ethics and the law,” stated Scott Allen, MD, lead medical author of the PHR report. “Human subject research protections mean nothing if they don’t apply to all people all of the time—regardless of politics.”

CIA physicians and psychologists collected and analyzed data on the physical and psychological impact of the “enhanced” interrogation tactics, analysis which became the basis of Department of Justice memos justifying the torture program. This alleged program of illegal human subject experimentation violates medical ethics, federal law, and international research standards, including the Nuremberg Code and the Common Rule. These practices could, in some cases, constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“While the proposed federal commission on the abuses in Guatemala is welcome, the American people must also learn the truth about what was done in our name over the past decade to detainees in CIA custody,” said Nathaniel Raymond, Director of PHR’s Campaign Against Torture and lead author of the PHR report. “The Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services must investigate these credible allegations of human experimentation on detainees by the CIA with the same mandate as the Guatemala case.”

PHR calls on President Obama, working with Congress, to appoint a federal commission to investigate what American physicians and psychologists did to people subjected to torture in US custody. John Durham, the Department of Justice prosecutor tasked with investigating the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes as well as interrogations that went beyond what was authorized by the Department of Justice memos, should also be given a clear mandate to probe allegations of illegal research at the black sites, Guantanamo and elsewhere.