Report suggests U.S. physicians experimented on detainees

A report by Physicians for Human Rights released on Monday claims that U.S. physicians and psychologists betrayed ethical standards by collecting data on detainees’ reactions to abusive interrogations to as to improve their effectiveness. This would appear to constitute experimentation on human prisoners, which is a professional ethics violation for physicians. The group is calling for an official investigation.

“Medical doctors and psychologists colluded with the CIA to keep observational records about waterboarding, which approaches unethical and unlawful human experimentation,” PHR medical adviser and lead report author Scott Allen, M.D., said in a statement released with the report.

Physicians, for example, would monitor detainees’ reactions to having their breathing blocked by a cloth over their head and try to figure out at what point the person feels helpless and out of control. As I noted in my Washington Independent story today about sleep deprivation, “learned helplessness” was one of the major goals of the CIA’s interrogation program, which operated on the false belief that a detainee who believes he is helpless will provide whatever information the interrogator is asking for. (The flaw in the plan is that the information is often false.)

Dr. Steven Miles, author of Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors, makes a similar observation about possible unethical human experimentation in an appendix to the second edition of his book.

He writes: “Circumstantial evidence is leading me to believe that abusive research may have been done at Guantanamo and that an investigation of this matter is needed.” That circumstantial evidence is based on the “interrogation log” of Mohammed al-Qahtani, which “meticulously record[s] the prisoner’s tears and bathroom privileges, digressions on dinosaurs and reactions to the interrogators playing checkers.” Miles continues:

The peculiar content and structure of this document makes sense if it is the log of research on coercive interrogation. This would account for why it focuses on the emotions and interactions of the prisoner, rather than on the questions that were asked and the information that was obtained. From the nature of prior CIA interrogation research and the log, it is possible to infer a design of the research project. As a research log, this log appears to be a chronological recording of clusters of stimuli (a stressor and a Theme) and responses.

PHR’s Scott Allen adds: “It is profoundly unsettling to learn of the central role of health professionals in laying a foundation for US government lawyers to rationalize the CIA’s illegal torture program.”

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