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DoD Confirms Forced Use of Psychoactive Drugs on Detainees

For Immediate Release

A recently declassified report by the Pentagon’s Inspector General confirms concerns raised years ago by PHR that health professionals administered mind-altering drugs to detainees in Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, and elsewhere without their consent and without telling them which medications they were receiving. The report contains the first explicit admission by the US government that these types of drugs were used on detainees against their will.

The initial story about the report was published on the website, which pressed for nearly two years to get it declassified under the Freedom of Information Act.

In 2008, Congress directed the Inspectors General for the Department of Defense (DoD) and Central Intelligence Agency to investigate allegations that mind-altering drugs were administered to detainees for the purpose of facilitating their interrogation. The recently declassified DoD report concludes that, while such drugs were not used for interrogation purposes, “several detainees received psychoactive drugs on a regular and continuing basis in order to treat behavioral health issues” and that the psychoactive drugs were “forcibly administered” in some cases. The report fails to address whether detainees’ mental health problems might have been caused by their conditions of confinement and/or the enhanced interrogation techniques themselves.

“PHR has previously documented the failure of mental health professionals to examine the history of abuse that may have contributed to the need to treat detainees with psychotropic medications,” said Vincent Iacopino, Senior Medical Advisor to PHR. “At the same time, we have documented the link between enhanced interrogation techniques and other conditions of confinement and the development of mental illness among detainees. The IG report focuses entirely on treatment of the injury without considering prior abuse that might have caused it.”

Previous government reports have confirmed PHR’s contention that detainees were subject to extreme isolation, sensory deprivation, temperature extremes, stress positions, and other abusive interrogation techniques. If detainees’ mental illness was caused and perpetuated by the interrogations, health care professionals would have been “treating” their patients only to improve their condition in order to return them to the very situation that had caused their illness. 

“That detainees whose mental suffering was so great they were forced to take psychotic drugs continued to be subject to coercive interrogation which may have caused their mental deterioration is of great concern,” said Donna McKay, Executive Director of PHR. “Health care professionals also violated their ethical obligations when they failed to disclose to the detainee-patient what type of medicine they were administering.”

The DoD report states that it followed the same protocol for detainees that it uses for forcibly administering drugs to its own mental health patients and that all involuntary administrations of medicine to detainees were conducted in accordance with US medical standards. Detainees, however, lack the access to outside help and the involvement of family members in medical decision-making that is available to mental health patients in DoD hospitals. And in US prisons, by contrast, prison doctors are forbidden from forcibly medicating a prisoner unless a judge determines at a hearing that the prisoner lacks the competency to give informed consent and that the prisoner’s mental health has deteriorated to the point where forced medication is necessary.

Declassification of the DoD report still leaves many questions about detainees’ treatment unanswered. The Inspector General for the CIA has not declassified the congressionally-mandated report regarding its own black sites, for example, where most of the worst interrogation abuses occurred. Much greater transparency is needed for the American public to get a clear picture of how detainees were treated in the past—and to what extent those practices continue today. Only when such information is brought to light can those responsible for abuses be held accountable.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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