NYT Editorial Calls for Investigations on Illegal Torture Experiments

9:55 pm in Uncategorized by Jeff Kaye

The June 8 New York Times will carry an editorial, "Doctors Who Aid Torture," that endorses the recommendation of Physicians for Human Rights in their new report, "Experiments in Torture: Evidence of Human Subject Research and Experimentation in the ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Program" (PDF), for investigations by the executive branch and Congress of the charges of illegal human experimental research undertaken in support of Bush and Cheney’s torture program. The editorial is online now.

Disturbing new questions have been raised about the role of doctors and other medical professionals in helping the Central Intelligence Agency subject terrorism suspects to harsh treatment, abuse and torture….

The report from the physicians’ group [PHR] does not prove its case beyond doubt — how could it when so much is still hidden? — but it rightly calls on the White House and Congress to investigate the potentially illegal human experimentation and whether those who authorized or conducted it should be punished. Those are just two of the many unresolved issues from the Bush administration that President Obama and Congressional leaders have swept under the carpet. [bold emphasis added]

Within only a day of the report’s release, there has been an amazing amount of coverage, from the New York Times itself, to Scott Horton at Harper’s, Jason Leopold at Truthout, Marcy Wheeler at Emptywheel, Adam Serwer at The American Prospect/Tapped, and dozens of other commentators and news outlets. I had my own article covering the report’s release yesterday.

Especially interesting was an interview at BoingBoing with the reports lead medical author, Dr. Scott Allen. The story has also penetrated the academic and scientific communities with stories at Nature and Scientific American.

You don’t charge "Nuremberg crimes" and not have people sit up and listen.

In their report, PHR charged that "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." In other words, they engaged in research. Except, when you engage in research with human beings, you must get their full informed consent. The history of government research is replete with criminal failures to do that, with tragic results.

In recent history, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the U.S. government’s Human Radiation Experiments are two of the more egregious examples. Another example are the MK-ULTRA and Artichoke and other mind-control experiments of the 1950s-1970s.

In the case of the CIA "enhanced interrogation" program (EIP), the government used medical professionals (doctors and psychologists) to determine the parameters of the torture techniques, to make them conform to the twisted ideas of John Yoo, David Addington and Jay Bybee about the torture and what constituted "severe pain," so they could write a near-blank check for torture in the Office of Legal Counsel memos approving the EIP. While Yoo was gaming the system by drawing definitions out of obscure Medicare regulations, the doctors and psychologists at CIA black sites were determining whether or not extending sleep deprivation, the amount of water during waterboarding, and manipulating various combination of torture techniques would cause severe pain — or not. This patently constituted unethical research in the service of constructing an illegal, experimental torture program.

A Hideous Crime

Using people as guinea pigs without their consent, i.e., against their will, or indifferent to their will, in the name of science, is a crime. When practiced upon prisoners, it is a war crime. A hideous crime with special reference to the place of doctors and psychologists in our society.

Doctors/psychologists who work for the state to "refine the techniques" of torture upon unwilling subjects, subjects indeed held prisoner, are guilty of war crimes under a number of different laws, including laws that forbid illegal research and experimentation. It is like those doctors who were interested in how little food a concentration camp prisoner could survive on, so they studied the reactions of the prisoners to various diets. They did not want them to die (if they did), and one could say they were trying to help the prisoners. Just substitute interrogation for diet and one gets a sense of the issue. (In a bizarre similarity to the concentration camps example here, it is remarkable that the CIA doctors also experimented with putting waterboarded prisoners on a liquid diet "so their emesis would be soft and less likely to cause choking or aspiration pneumonia if the detainee were to vomit." See pg. 9 of PHR’s report.)

One important aspect of the PHR report covered the ways in which the government manipulated the war crimes laws in order to cover for their crimes. In 2006, Congress passed and Bush signed the Military Commissions Act. This law changed the wording of the 1996 War Crimes Act to soften the language around war crimes concerning "biological experimentation," which had formerly been derived from the Geneva Convention’s implementation of the Nuremberg protocols.

As I noted on June 6:

While there is some evidence that the Bush administration was concerned with loosening the legal parameters surrounding research using human subjects (story to come), there is no evidence, as PHR’s White Paper points out, that OLC ever considered the legality of the medical monitoring of prisoners as part of the CIA torture program. According to Director of PHR’s Campaign Against Torture and lead report author, Nathaniel A. Raymond, “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.”

The failure to assess the lawfulness of the illegal experiments they were conducting may yet turn out to be the Achilles heel of the Bush/Cheney torture program. The use of prisoners as guinea pigs affronts every sense of decency. I salute the New York Times editorial board for making the right call and supporting PHR in their call for investigations.

The CIA has been quoted as denying any wrong doing. In James Risen’s article earlier today at the Times:

“The report is just wrong,” said Paul Gimigliano, an agency spokesman. “The C.I.A. did not, as part of its past detention program, conduct human subject research on any detainee or group of detainees. The entire detention effort has been the subject of multiple, comprehensive reviews within our government, including by the Department of Justice.”

I suspect the CIA did consider the issue of human subject research. There is too much evidence of manipulation of laws and policies surrounding research (some of which has not yet been reported upon) to make me think differently. My hypothesis is that they have some document or memo somewhere approving the use of medical monitors in what they will call the "field testing" of the EIP. But this will await the issuance of subpoenas to confirm.

In a phone conference this afternoon, Raymond told those present, "It is time for an investigation. We’ve shown our evidence, and it’s time for the administration to show theirs."

H/T to Jason Leopold for pointing me to the NYT editorial