“Law must apply to everyone equally or it’s not law at all. Those who are pushing the other view have a misguided idea of what law is all about.” – Benjamin Ferencz

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) released today the results of a landmark investigation that, according to the organization’s press release, “uncovered evidence that indicates the Bush administration apparently conducted illegal and unethical human experimentation and research on detainees in CIA custody.” PHR is asking President Obama to “order the attorney general to undertake an immediate criminal investigation of alleged illegal human experimentation and research on detainees conducted by the CIA and other government agencies following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.” They are also seeking other investigations by Congress, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Justice.

As PHR’s White Paper — “Experiments in Torture: Evidence of Human Subject Research and Experimentation in the ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Program” (PDF) — makes clear, illegal experimentation upon human subjects was an integral part of the Bush/Cheney/CIA “enhanced interrogation” program (EIP) from the very beginning. Medical and psychologist monitors were used to collect and analyze data from the EIP interrogations in order “to derive generalizable inferences to be applied to subsequent interrogations.” The use of illegal experimentation both reveals the actual parameters of the torture program, and raises the stakes surrounding the need for accountability for these actions to a new level.

According to PHR’s White Paper:

Such acts may be seen as the conduct of research and experimentation by health professionals on prisoners, which could violate accepted standards of medical ethics, as well as domestic and international law. These practices could, in some cases, constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The charges are expected to resonate throughout the legal, human rights and religious communities. The executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), Rev Richard Killmer, commenting in a press release on PHR’s report, said he deplored the “deeply disturbing evidence that our government committed, in our names, forced human experimentation that recalls some of humanity’s darkest days — charges from which no person of faith can afford to turn away.” (NRCAT has also released a new video today, “Accounting for Torture.”)

Research Violated U.S. and International Law

PHR’s CEO Frank Donaghue states, “The CIA appears to have broken all accepted legal and ethical standards put in place since the Second World War to protect prisoners from being the subjects of experimentation.”

PHR examined three instances of the CIA’s illegal medical research, although it should be understood this most likely does not constitute the full extent of the torture research program. Some of the experiments concerned the elaboration of more extensive forms of waterboarding, testing the use of large-volumes of water, the use of saline solution as a substitute for plain water, as well as the use of ancillary equipment, such as a gurney that could swing the prisoner into different angles, and use of a blood oximeter to measure subject vital signs and calibrate them with experimental techniques. The CIA also experimented on different levels of sleep deprivation in order to assess effects and coordinate practice with legal definitions constructed by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC).

In one gruesome set of experiments, at least 25 detainees were submitted to both individual and combined use of the different “enhanced interrogation” techniques developed by the CIA through reverse-engineering of the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program, techniques which were originally developed to inoculate U.S. military personnel against torture. The purpose of this experiment, monitored by doctors, was to ascertain the effects of the different combinations of techniques as they pertained to “susceptibility to severe pain,” attempting thereby to calibrate levels of pain in order to keep the interrogations within the dubious frontiers of legality proposed by John Yoo and Jay Bybee in their infamous torture memos.

The purpose of this experimental program was apparently to help provide legal cover for the torture program, as well as both examine the effects of torture upon live subjects, and further the design of the torture program itself. No existing research protocol has come to light, and the evidence has been organized via the use of open source documents and FOIA releases. From these sources, one can see that the use of medical monitors and experimental medical data was used as supposed “good faith” evidence against possible prosecution for torture.

A Legal Limbo

The actions of the Bush Administration to legally justify their torture program via the use of executive orders and OLC rulings has been well-documented. Only last February, the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Conduct released their finding that the actions of Yoo and Bybee in constructing the 2002 memos that authorized torture did not amount to unprofessional or unethical conduct, but simply constituted “bad judgment.” Whatever the judgment upon the OLC memos, it is apparent the use of torture pre-dated the OLC approval of the EIP.

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.” But, after a number of Supreme Court decisions, culminating in the Hamdan v Rumsfeld ruling in June 2006, the government apparently had second thoughts about its legal liabilities.

One of the most original pieces of research in the PHR report concerns the rewriting of the War Crimes Act (WCA) as part of the 2006 Military Commissions Act (MCA). Concerned, it would seem, over their vulnerability to criminal prosecution for illegal and unethical research conducted upon detainees, including, as I’ve pointed out before, Abu Zubaydah, the Bush administration amended the WCA language in the MCA to weaken the protections against the strict prohibitions against scientific experiments on prisoners found in the Geneva Conventions. These changes were then made retroactive to 1997, which suggests the U.S. government was shielding interrogators and other officials for illegal acts going back four years prior to 9/11. And to their shame, Congress passed this legislation, and the language on the WCA was then retained by the Democratic Party-controlled Congress when the MCA was amended in 2009.

One of PHR’s recommendations in their report is that Congress undertake a revision of the War Crimes Act “to eliminate changes made to the Act in 2006 which weaken the prohibition on biological experimentation on detainees, and ensure that the War Crimes Act definition of the grave breach of biological experimentation is consistent with the definition of that crime under the Geneva Conventions.”

Outstanding Issues To Be Resolved

It has been some years since the experimental aspects of the torture program were first recognized. The breach of medical ethics by doctors was first discussed by M. Gregg Bloche and Jonathan H. Marks in the New England Journal of Medicine in January 2005. In July 2005, a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, “The Experiment,” looked at the “reverse-engineering” of the SERE techniques, and noted both the prohibition on scientific experiments of prisoners in Geneva, and the “[n]umerous experiments aimed at documenting trainees’ stress levels… conducted by sere-affiliated scientists.”

One of the authors of the PHR report, Stephen Soldz, wrote about the experimental aspects of “behavioral science-based torture techniques” in use at Guantanamo in a August 2006 article. In 2007, physician Steven Miles noted the experimental aspects of the Al Qahtani interrogation at Guantanamo in late 2002 – early 2003. The experimental aspect of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah was broached by FBI agent Ali Soufan in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2009. Soufan’s presence at the Zubaydah interrogation in April-May 2002 led him to characterize a CIA contractor’s treatment of Zubaydah as an experiment (“Once again the contractor insisted on stepping up the notches of his experiment…”). The contractor is believed to have been former SERE psychologist, James Mitchell.

The PHR report should not be seen as a full history of the torture-experimentation program, but is a blueprint offering the outlines of what that program consisted of and how it progressed. For instance, except for Khalid Sheik Mohammed, none of the CIA prisoners are named in the report, although it is noted that “the authorized policy of using multiple ["enhanced interrogation" techniques] simultaneously was officially based on medical observations of 25 detainees.”

A full understanding of all that happened awaits future investigations. A more comprehensive understanding of the issues raised, e.g., the development of the waterboarding and sleep deprivation techniques, has been investigated by Marcy Wheeler at Emptywheel/Firedoglake, while the torture of Abu Zubaydah has been intensively covered by Jason Leopold at Truthout. Leopold noted the “extensive back-and-forth between CIA field operatives and agency officials” on matters such as “medical updates” and “behavioral comments.”

In an article last April, I noted that “psychologist’s notes” had been cataloged as a part of Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation materials. Such notes would indicate just what variables of interest were being recorded by the psychological experimenter, especially given recent revelations in a story by Jason Leopold that a second taping system was used in the interrogation of Zubaydah, with “torture sessions that were stored on computers and separate hard drives.”

Variables of interest to CIA psychologists might include head movements and hand movements, facial expressions or microexpressions, used in detecting deception or behavioral manifestations of stress. These types of observation are synonymous with computer analysis and argue for the use of a digital video system or the transfer of analog video into data stored on magnetic or optical media. The same release of documents… also described CIA officials asking for “instructions” regarding the “disposition of hard drives and magnetic media” associated with the torture of Zubaydah.

Among the various threads left dangling from the PHR investigation, none concerns me more than the links between the SERE research undertaken by investigators led by Dr. Charles A. Morgan and the CIA experimental torture program, as reported in an appendix to PHR’s report. In an appendix to their report, PHR describes the SERE research undertaken during the years prior to the issuance of the OLC memos, and explains that the results of that research demonstrated how the risk of harm was inherent in the SERE techniques. In addition, they note, “the experimental framework of these studies intentionally or unintentionally laid the groundwork for unethical and illegal human experimentation that would follow.”

The full details of my own investigation into those links were published back in September 2009.

What is indisputable is that by virtue of his position, Dr. Morgan had access to CIA officials just at the time that another department of the CIA, one to which he is affiliated, was, according to the CIA’s own Office of Inspector General Report (large PDF) involved in vetting the SERE techniques for use in interrogations….

… it looks like the CIA used DOD/JPRA as a cover for the safety of techniques that it knew were in fact harmful from their own analysis of the “data.” [JRPA, or Joint Recovery Personnel Agency is, among other things, the "Executive Agency" for the SERE training schools.]

One especially lingering thread concerns the assertion in the PHR report that all of Dr. Morgan’s SERE research had been properly vetted by Institutional Research Boards. While this is true for his published research, a report for which Dr. Morgan is listed as second author, The War Fighter’s Stress Response: Telemetric and Noninvasive Assessment, conducted on behalf of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Ft. Detrick, beginning approximately in November 2001, states — even by its final addendum in October 2003 — that “due to Institutional Review Board delays no human subjects data are available.”

The exact interactions between CIA and DoD/JPRA, between the White House and both DoD and CIA, the role of other actors, such as the Defense Intelligence Agency and Joint Special Operations Command, not to mention the actual origins of the torture research program, remain unclear. It is a vital necessity that that investigations take place, and hopefully PHR’s report will provide the added impetus to push this issue to the forefront of a tired, confused, and frightened country, a country misled in so many ways over the past decade, and now forced to confront the full panoply of evil that has resulted from having a portion of the government held apart from public scrutiny. That must end now.