Over the last year there have been an increasing number of accounts suggesting that, along with the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" torture program, there was a related program experimenting with and researching the application of the torture.
For example, in the seven paragraphs released by a British court summarizing observations by British counterintelligence agents of the treatment of Binyan Mohamed by the CIA, the first two of these paragraphs stated:
It was reported that a new series of interviews was conducted by the United States authorities prior to 17 May 2002 as part of a new strategy designed by an expert interviewer".
BM had been intentionally subjected to continuous sleep deprivation. The effects of the sleep deprivation were carefully observed. [emphasis added]
The suggestion was that a new strategy was being tested and the results carefully examined. Several detainees have provided similar accounts, expressing their belief that their interrogations were being carefully studied, apparently so that the techniques could be modified based on the results. Such research would violate established laws and ethical rules governing research.
Since Nazi doctors who experimented upon prisoners in the concentration camps were put on trial at Nuremberg, the U.S. and other countries have moved toward a high ethical standard for research on people. All but the most innocuous research requires the informed consent of those studied. Further, all research on people is subject to review by independent research ethics committees, known as Institutional Review Boards or IRBs.
In the US, there was a major push toward more stringent research ethics when the existence of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was publicly revealed in the early 1970s. In that study nearly 400 poor rural African-American men were denied existing treatment for their syphilis, and indeed, were never told they had syphilis by participating doctors. The study by the US Public Health Service was intended to continue until the last of these men died of syphilis. When the study became public the resulting outcry helped cement evolving ethical standards mandating informed consent for any research with even a possibility of causing harm. These rules were codified in what has become known as the Common Rule, which applies to nearly all federally-funded research, including all research by the CIA.
Experiments in Torture
A new report of which I am a coauthor, Experiments in Torture: Evidence of Human Subject Research and Experimentation in the "Enhanced" Interrogation Program, just released by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) confirms previous suspicions and provides the first strong evidence that the CIA was indeed engaged in illegal and unethical research on detainees in its custody. The report, the result of six months of detailed work, analyzes now-public documents, including the "torture memos" from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and the CIA's Inspector General Report and the accompanying CIA Office of Medical Services (OMS) guidelines for monitoring of detainees.
The report points to several instances where medical personnel - physicians and psychologists - monitored the detailed administration of torture techniques and the effects upon those being abused. The resultant knowledge was then used both as a legal rationale for the use of the techniques and to refine these abusive techniques, allegedly in order to make them safer.
For example, the OMS guidelines contain this note emphasizing how important it is "that every application of the waterboard be thoroughly documented" by medical personnel, and clarifying the nature of this documentation:
"how long each application (and the entire procedure) lasted, how much water was applied (realizing that much splashes off), how exactly the water was applied, if a seal was achieved, if the naso- or oropharynx was filled, what sort of volume was expelled, how long was the break between applications, and how the subject looked between each treatment."
This type of documentation was not part of routine medical care as it was not being done in the interests of the person being waterboarded. Rather, the OMS made clear that this was being done
"[i]n order to best inform future medical judgments and recommendations" [regarding how to torture people.]
The purpose of this systematic monitoring was to modify how these techniques were implemented, that is, to develop generalizable knowledge to be utilized in the future. As Renee Llanusa-Cestero demonstrated in a recent paper on CIA research in the peer-reviewed journal Accountability in Medicine, the medical personnel conducting these observations were primarily present as researchers to observe and monitor, not as treating doctors.
Other examples in the PHR report describe instances in which OMS staff investigated the degree to which severe pain that may meet the legal definition of torture arose from the applications of a specific technique (sleep deprivation) or from combinations of individual techniques. In the combined techniques example, they apparently experimented with different combinations of abusive techniques - "for example, when an insult slap is simultaneously combined with water dousing or a kneeling stress position, or when wall standing is simultaneously combined with an abdominal slap and water dousing" - and studied the suffering that each combination created. The Office of Legal Counsel drew upon this research in one of the torture memos to argue that, because they claimed the individual "enhanced techniques" were not harmful, combining these varied techniques also would not cause interrogators to slip over the line allegedly separating legal techniques from illegal "torture."