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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 6/7/10

CYA for the CIA: The CIA's Torture Research Program

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It is hard not to conclude that the CIA was conducting research upon detainees. These observations and experiments were not conducted for the benefit of the individuals being brutally interrogated but for the purpose of creating generalizable knowledge and thus constituted research subject to the laws and ethical rules regulating research, including the Common Rule.

Evidence Techniques Are Harmful

The PHR report also argues that literature existing in 2002 when the torture program began provides strong reason to believe that these "enhanced interrogation" torture techniques might well cause severe harm to those subjected to them. In an appendix, the report summarizes a set of studies on the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program that demonstrated a whole panoply of potentially serious effects that occurred when these techniques were administered to U.S. service members over a few days. The Resistance portion of the SERE program attempts to inoculate special forces and others at high risk of capture against breaking if subjected to techniques banned by the Geneva Conventions, that is, to torture. In SERE, soldiers are subjected to brief periods of "enhanced interrogations" in order to prepare them for the real thing if captured and tortured. It was to SERE that the CIA and Bush administration turned when they decided to adopt torture as official policy.

Despite the fact that those subjected to SERE were volunteers, had a "safe word' to end their abuse, and knew that their torment would end in a few days, an extensive program of research demonstrates that those subjected to the techniques even to a very limited degree suffered a whole range of potentially serious physical and psychological effects, including severely increased stress hormone levels and high rates of psychological dissociation, which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite this body of published research, when the Bush Justice Department worked on the torture memos, they argued -- ignoring this SERE research as well as many accounts from torture survivors -- that the SERE experience demonstrated that the techniques were not harmful. In later memos, however, Justice Department lawyers apparently tried to strengthen their case by citing the CIA research derived from its torture implementation as further evidence that the techniques did not cause serious harm. Thus, one of the main finding in the PHR report is that one set of potentially criminal acts, illegal and unethical research, was used, incorrectly, to justify another set of potentially criminal acts, torture of detainees.

Reason for CIA Torture Research

The language of the documents might be interpreted as suggesting that the CIA engaged in this research to avoid harming the detainees, to keep the interrogations "safe and ethical." This was far from the truth. Rather, the Justice Department torture memos argued that torturers could be protected from prosecution for their acts of torture if they demonstrated a "good faith" effort to avoid causing the "severe pain" involved in legal definitions of torture irrespective of how much suffering and harm the torturers actually caused.

One way they could demonstrate such a good faith effort was to consult with health professionals, the researchers, who could assure them that their actions would not cause harm. Another way to demonstrate good faith was to collect and analyze evidence of prior interrogations demonstrating, allegedly, that they did not cause severe harm. Thus, the quality of the research did not matter. Its very existence would provide the CIA torturers and responsible officials with a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The SERE studies described in the PHR report provided good reason to suspect that the CIA's torture would cause harm. That is likely why they were ignored by the CIA and the lawyers writing the torture memos.But the CIA's torture research claiming that the "enhanced interrogation" tactics were safe could be used as a legal defense for the torturers, possibly counteracting the body of legitimate research demonstrating the opposite. The CIA's research was junk science. But that was no problem because its purpose wasn't increasing understanding, but ass-covering, CYA, for the CIA.

Call for Investigation

This PHR report provides evidence that the CIA likely violated federal ethics rules as well as a prohibition in the War Crimes Act on biological experiments on prisoners "without a legitimate medical or dental purpose." Thus PHR calls for both a criminal investigation of this research and these experiments, which may well constitute a war crime, and an investigation by the Office of Human Research Protections of research ethics violations.

Regarding the call for a criminal investigation, 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. As far as is publicly known, there exist no "torture research" memos authorizing ignoring laws and regulations prohibiting research on torture techniques.

American Psychological Association

In addition to criminal and federal penalties, another necessary response to these reported torture experiments is professional sanctioning of any health professionals found to have participated in the research. Physician organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have adopted clear ethical rules prohibiting their members' participation in either the "enhanced interrogation" program or in research such as that described here. The exception among major health professional organizations is the American Psychological Association (APA).

In 2002 the APA modified its ethics code to allow psychologists to dispense with informed consent

"where otherwise permitted by law or federal or institutional regulations. " [ethics code standard 8.05.]

Whatever the reason for the APA making this modification, it could be interpreted as allowing psychologists to follow CIA (or military) directives authorizing exemption from the informed consent requirement. This lowered standard does not change psychologists' legal or ethical obligations in terms of causing harm, but it does unacceptably weaken research standards. This modification should be removed.

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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)
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