(Illustration: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t )
In 2002, as the Bush administration was turning to torture and other brutal techniques for interrogating "war on terror" detainees, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz loosened rules against human experimentation, an apparent recognition of legal problems regarding the novel strategies for extracting and evaluating information from the prisoners.
Wolfowitz issued his directive on March 25, 2002, about a month after President George W. Bush stripped the detainees of traditional prisoner-of-war protections under the Geneva Conventions. Bush labeled them "unlawful enemy combatants" and authorized the CIA and the Department of Defense (DoD) to undertake brutal interrogations.
Despite its title - "Protection of Human Subjects and Adherence to Ethical Standards in DoD-Supported Research" - the Wolfowitz directive weakened protections that had been in place for decades by limiting the safeguards to "prisoners of war."
"We're dealing with a special breed of person here," Wolfowitz said about the war on terror detainees only four days before signing the new directive.
One former Pentagon official, who worked closely with the agency's ex-general counsel William Haynes, said the Wolfowitz directive provided legal cover for a top-secret Special Access Program at the Guantanamo Bay prison, which experimented on ways to glean information from unwilling subjects and to achieve "deception detection."
"A dozen [high-value detainees] were subjected to interrogation methods in order to evaluate their reaction to those methods and the subsequent levels of stress that would result," said the official.
A July 16, 2004 Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) report obtained by Truthout shows that between April and July 2003, a "physiological warfare specialist" atached to the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program was present at Guantanamo. The CID report says the instructor was assigned to a top-secret Special Access Program.
It has been known since 2009, when President Barack Obama declassified some of the Bush administration's legal memoranda regarding the interrogation program, that there were experimental elements to the brutal treatment of detainees, including the sequencing and duration of the torture and other harsh tactics.
However, the Wolfowitz directive also suggests that the Bush administration was concerned about whether its actions might violate Geneva Conventions rules that were put in place after World War II when grisly Nazi human experimentation was discovered. Those legal restrictions were expanded in the 1970s after revelations about the CIA testing drugs on unsuspecting human subjects and conducting other mind-control experiments.
For its part, the DoD insists that it "has never condoned nor authorized the use of human research testing on any detainee in our custody," according to spokeswoman Wendy Snyder.
However, from the start of the war on terror, the Bush administration employed nontraditional methods for designing interrogation protocols, including the reverse engineering of training given to American troops trapped behind enemy lines, called the SERE techniques. For instance, the near-drowning technique of waterboarding was lifted from SERE manuals.
Retired US Air Force Capt. Michael Shawn Kearns, a former SERE intelligence officer, said the Wolfowitz directive appears to be a clear attempt to shield then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from the legal consequences of "any dubious research practices associated with the interrogation program."
Scott Horton, a human rights attorney and constitutional expert, noted Wolfowitz's specific reference to "prisoners of war" as protected under the directive, as opposed to referring more generally to detainees or people under the government's control.
"At the time that Wolfowitz was issuing this directive, the Bush administration was taking the adamant position that prisoners taken in the 'war on terror' were not 'prisoners of war' under the Geneva Conventions and were not entitled to any of the protections of the Geneva Conventions.
"Indeed, it called those protections 'privileges' that were available only to 'lawful combatants.' So the statement [in the directive] that 'prisoners of war' cannot be subjects of human experimentation ... raises some concerns - why was the more restrictive term 'prisoners of war' used instead of 'prisoners' for instance."