"You Can't Use People As Laboratories"

Ah, but you can, providing you have sufficient power and are untroubled by ethical considerations. And it seems we have. So say Physicians for Human Rights, who today issued a white paper entitled Experiments in Torture: Evidence of Human Subject Research and Experimentation in the "Enhanced" Interrogation Program. From that document's Executive Summary:
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration initiated new human intelligence collection programs. To that end, it detained and questioned an unknown number of people suspected of having links to terrorist organizations. As part of these programs, the Bush administration redefined acts, such as waterboarding, forced nudity, sleep deprivation, temperature extremes, stress positions and prolonged isolation, that had previously been recognized as illegal, to be “safe, legal and effective” “enhanced” interrogation techniques (EITs).

Bush administration lawyers at the Department of Justice’s (DoJ’s) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) accomplished this redefinition by establishing legal thresholds for torture, which required medical monitoring of every application of “enhanced” interrogation. Medical personnel were ostensibly responsible for ensuring that the legal threshold for “severe physical and mental pain” was not crossed by interrogators, but their presence and complicity in intentionally harmful interrogation practices were not only apparently intended to enable the routine practice of torture, but also to serve as a potential legal defense against criminal liability for torture.

Investigation and analysis of US government documents by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) provides evidence indicating that the Bush administration, in the period after Sept. 11, conducted human research and experimentation on prisoners in US custody as part of this monitoring role. Health professionals working for and on behalf of the CIA monitored the interrogations of detainees, collected and analyzed the results of those interrogations, and sought to derive generalizable inferences to be applied to subsequent interrogations. 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.
Pish and tosh, says the CIA.
“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.”
The CIA here, however, seems to have redefined the word "entire" – and possibly the words "did" and "not" – to complement its unconventional redefinition of the words "safe", "legal", and "effective". Specifically, there has been no government investigation of medical personnel involved in the interrogation of detainees. The New York Times quotes Dr. Steven H. Miles of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota "and an expert on the role of medical professionals in torture", saying:
There are countries that, over the years, have condemned medical complicity in torture in principle, but which haven’t really been willing to investigate medical professionals or hold them accountable. That group of countries includes the United States.
Aren't we special. I wonder who else is included? I'm sure we're in good company.

The PHR report doesn't present new information about what was done during enhanced interrogation torture sessions conducted by the CIA. What it does is evaluate, based on information about those sessions which has become available thus far, the role medical professionals played in designing and refining the "enhancements" used. This is the basis for their charge that the work done by medical personnel in these interrogations constituted medical experimentation. The purpose of the research the health professionals were conducting was the "improvement" of the torture techniques themselves.

It's true that the research being done on these subjects was not the purpose of the torture. It is difficult to see, however, how the fact that the abhorrent practice of medical experimentation on captives was done, not as an end in itself, but only secondarily to the primary purpose of torture, somehow resolves all ethical difficulties.

Says Jonathan D. Moreno, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania:
There was no therapeutic purpose or intent to monitor and collect this data. You can’t use people as laboratories.
But the question seems to be: can you do it, in the United States, with impunity for all those complicit - the President who authorized it, the C.I.A. personnel who set it up, and the medical personnel who used their training to monitor torture and refine its conduct with scientific precision?

A couple other questions suggest themselves when contemplating the extensive role played by medical professionals in crafting methods of interrogation designed both to satisfy the CIA's and the White House's desire to inflict torture on detainees, and their desire to do it in a way which would support their effort to avoid legal penalty for doing so:

Who among all those responsible, in addition to the torturer-in-chief, would do it again?

And given a desire to do it again among politicians, spies, and even health care professionals, what is to stop them, in the absence of any legal penalties being imposed on those who are known to have done it?

PHR has a form here for emailing President Obama to urge that he instruct the Attorney General to investigate this matter, and prosecute anyone found to have committed a crime.

The PHR white paper can be downloaded here: The Torture Papers.

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