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Science Article Shows that the US Government Used Bad Science to Commit and Conceal Torture

For Immediate Release

(CAMBRIDGE, MA) In an article to be published tomorrow by the journal Science, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) experts show that the Bush administration relied on flawed science to justify the use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques(EITs)which were previously recognized as torture by the U.S. government. The article, “Bad Science Used to Support Torture and Human Experimentation,” can be found in the January 7 issue of Science.

According to the article, policy makers used science to justify EITs and required systematic medical monitoring of each EIT. However, policy makers neglected to assess the very pain that they defined as torture, namely severe, long-term psychological pain. But as PHR demonstrated in June of 2008, EIT practices constituted torture based on medical evidence of severe, long-term physical and psychological harm among detainees in U.S. custody.

“We have long known that the enhanced interrogation program was illegal and unethical, but now we have found that the science used to justify EITs provides evidence of criminal negligence and possibly an intent to commit and conceal a systematic policy of torture,” said Frank Donaghue, CEO of Physicians for Human Rights.”We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that policy makers acted in bad faith and that science and medicine was used to aid and abet torture.”

In June 2010, PHR released Experiments in Torture, a comprehensive investigation of health professionals’ involvement in the CIA’s”enhanced” interrogation program (EIP), which uncovered evidence that the Bush administration conducted illegal and unethical human experimentation and research on detainees in CIA custody.

According to the Science article, the science used to justify torture was bad because it repeatedly failed to assess impor­tant long-term physical and mental health out­ comes stemming from the use of EITs on detainees. It also violated the most basic tenet of medical ethics and scientific inquiry—primum non nocere—”first, do no harm.”

“Science and medicine were used to justify the predetermined conclusion that torture could be ‘safe, legal and effective’ when, in fact, the health professionals who were charged with ensuring detainees’ safety were instead calibrating the harm inflicted upon them.” said Vince Iacopino, Senior Medical Advisor at Physicians for Human Rights. “Not only does that make for bad science, but it is also contradicts every ethical code that these professionals should be operating under.”

The evidence of “bad science” that PHR uncovered includes:

  • Ignoring scientific literature and legal precedent – Health professionals and policy makers blatantly disregarded both decades of scientific literature on the harmful physical, psychological, and social health consequences of EITs and other forms of torture and the legal precedent of U.S.recognition of EITs as torture in its annual reports on human rights practices.
  • Drawing unsupported research conclusions – Human subject research used to justify torture did not include any meaningful assessment of psychological harm.
  • Standard Operating Procedures for medical personnel failed to include guidelines for legally relevant psychological assessments for possible torture – The Department of Defense (DoD) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) failed to include any guidelines for psychological assessments of torture as defined by Bush administration lawyers.
  • Ignoring international standards for the effective documentation of torture – Policy makers and medical personnel failed to apply international standards for the effective documentation of torture included in the Istanbul Protocol.
  • “Psychological Assessments” were conducted to identify psychological vulnerabilities – Psychological assessments referred to in declassified documents indicate that medical personnel evaluated detainees to identify psychological vulnerabilities to achieve states of debility, dependency and dread,euphemistically referred to as “ego down,” “futility,” and “fear up.”

The article states that, “Scientists and health professionals must hold themselves to the highest professional standards of commitment to th ehuman rights and dignity of the people whose lives they have the privilege of serving,” and includes a number of recommendations designed to help scientists and health professionals uphold their commitment to the human rights and dignity of all people.

The recommendations call for:

  • Independence and accountability of all government scientists from the security chain of command and military medical personnel compliance with all civilian medical ethics standards.
  • Monitoring of government health profes­sionals by peers from outside of the security chain of command in addition to documentation and reporting of torture and other human rights violations in accor­dance with international standards.
  • Training and education for government sci­entists and health professionals, particu­larly those in national security settings, including professional ethics, human rights standards, and medical documenta­tion of torture and ill treatment in accor­dance with international standards.
  • Governmental accountability including independent investigation of all officials, including health professionals, involved in the authorization and imple­mentation of possible torture and unethi­cal human experimentation.

The authors of the article are Vincent Iacopino, Senior Medical Advisor at PHR; Scott Allen, Medical Advisor at PHR;and Allen Keller, Director, Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture Director, NYU School of Medicine Center for Health and Human Rights.

About Physicians for Human Rights

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is an independent, non-profit organization that uses medical and scientific expertise to investigate human rights violations and advocate for justice,accountability, and the health and dignity of all people. We are supported bythe expertise and passion of health professionals and concerned citizens alike.

Since 1986, PHR has conducted investigations in more than 40 countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Congo, Rwanda,Sudan, the United States, the former Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe:

1988 First to prove Iraq’s use of chemical weapons on Kurds
Exhumed mass graves in the Balkans
Discovered critical evidence of genocide in Rwanda
Won the Nobel Peace Prize for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines
Warned of health and human rights catastrophe prior to the invasion of Iraq
Documented and analyzed the genocide in Darfur
Detailed the story of tortured detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay
Showed how CIA medical personnel sought to improve waterboarding and other interrogation techniques that amount to torture

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.

Media Contact

Kevin Short

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