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U.S. Torture Program Constituted Illegal, Unethical Human Experimentation

New PHR Report: health professionals tested flawed assumptions about the efficacy of torture through applied research

For Immediate Release

The CIA’s post-9/11 torture program – conducted at secret prisons around the globe – constituted an illegal, unethical regime of human experimentation. According to a new report released today by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), recently declassified documents confirm that the CIA conducted experimental research to test an unsupported hypothesis that torture could break the resistance of detainees and aid interrogation. This research was conducted to support the operation of the “enhanced interrogation” program and to provide legal cover for the use of torture to the Bush administration.

“The CIA torture program was based on the unproven theory that torture could produce compliance and ultimately assist with intelligence collection,” said PHR’s Sarah Dougherty, lead author of PHR’s new report. “Although it was junk science, it was peddled by two psychologists who saw an opportunity to make a profit by setting in motion a crude program of experimentation to study the effects of torture on detainees. Even if this research had been benign, it’s still illegal to perform research without informed consent.”

Through an analysis of thousands of pages of declassified U.S. government records, PHR’s latest report –“Nuremberg Betrayed: Human Experimentation and the CIA Torture Program” – shows that CIA contract psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen promoted the unsupported claim that “breaking” detainees psychologically could produce compliance and cooperation, and thus yield intelligence. They designed an interrogation program in which health professionals were charged with not only monitoring the application of torture, but also reviewing whether the tactics “worked” and would not injure detainees beyond thresholds established by the Bush administration.

“Because their torture tactics were wholly unproven – even the CIA previously said torture was counterproductive – Mitchell, Jessen, and nameless others used observations during torture to formulate clinical procedures to modify subsequent torture techniques and guide similar monitoring for future torture sessions,” said PHR’s director of programs, Homer Venters, MD. “Instead of living by the ethical tenet of ‘do no harm,’ health professionals applied their professional skills and engaged in research to aid torture. This was human experimentation on nonconsenting prisoners who were being tortured, a crime within a crime.”

PHR’s report further shows that health professionals participating in the torture program were under pressure from the CIA to generate data to justify torture practices. Those health professionals were also used to determine the threshold of pain and suffering of the torture subjects, calibrating levels as they progressed. That data was then used by CIA legal counsel to provide legal cover, with the CIA’s lawyers advising officers that such evidence could be used to sidestep criminal prosecution for torture.

“Health professionals were used to give experimental torture practices a false mantle of safety and legitimacy,” said PHR’s Dougherty. “There’s evidence that CIA personnel recognized that illegal human experimentation was taking place. The CIA’s own contracts with Mitchell and Jessen even referred to the program as ‘applied research.’ Any researcher or health professional even minimally versed in the basics of ethics and professionalism can tell you that such research without consent is completely outside the realm of the acceptable.”

PHR’s report also debunks Mitchell and Jessen’s claim that abusive interrogation tactics were sound. The contract psychologists based this hypothesis on military training in which U.S. personnel underwent mock interrogation and exploitation. PHR’s new study points out that this training was designed to improve students’ resistance to torture, not to make them cooperative. Further, unlike military trainees, CIA prisoners were nonconsenting participants, indefinitely detained, who were subjected to abuse far beyond that meted out on the military trainees and who had no recourse to stop the pain. PHR’s report shows these fundamental differences not only rendered any claims of safety and efficacy absurd, but were purposely exploited to achieve the program’s aim to psychologically destroy detainees.

“Seven years ago, PHR publicly raised the concern that the post 9/11 CIA interrogation program possibly involved elements of unethical human experimentation,” said Scott Allen, MD, the report’s lead medical author. “We can now conclusively say that the CIA’s torture program was conceived as an experimental program based on untested and unproven theories. The research may have been crude, ad hoc, and based on poorly founded hypotheses, but it was research nonetheless. Research on prisoners without their consent, regardless of the legal status of the prisoner, is a crime. That the research was on the effects of torture makes it even more unconscionable.”

PHR’s report calls on the medical and scientific communities to convene a commission to lay out the public record of what is known. PHR also urges the Trump administration to launch criminal investigations into allegations of illegal experimentation in order to get a full accounting of the crimes committed and enabled by health professionals in the name of national security.

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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