“Human Experimentation” and the CIA


Thirty years after the Convention against Torture has been introduced, the world has been exposed to a damning report on CIA interrogation revealing US government support for torture.

The report details an extensive use of waterboarding, rectal feeding, sleep deprivation and other cruel and degrading treatments used against detainees. In June this year, sections of a previously classified CIA document have been made public by the Guardian.

The new publication raises concerning questions about the limits on the CIA’s contracted medical research, also known as “human experimentation”. The document enables the agency’s director – with no medical experience – to approve or disapprove all proposals pertaining to human research, meaning there is little opportunity for ethical procedures.

George Tenet, CIA director approved inhumane interrogation techniques implemented by CIA contractor psychologists violating medical ethics. However, the disclosure of the guidelines has provoked criticism over CIA’s hypocrisy. On the one hand the agency supports “enhanced interrogation techniques”, while at the same time it campaigns against “research on human subjects” without a given consent.

The presence of health professionals during brutal interrogations can be portrayed as a war crime as doctors take oaths to guarantee they inflict no harm on their patients. The medical personnel were heavily involved in the torture of the detainees by advising interrogators on the physical and psychological oversight of the torture techniques. The CIA doctors, known as the Office of Medical Services (OMS), fully participated in the act of human experimentation by blurring the lines between providing medical aid to maintain detainees capable of enduring further abusive interrogations. In the case of Abu Zubaydah, the OMS were responsible for reviving him after the detainee lost consciousness during a long waterboarding interrogation while in CIA custody.

According to Steven W. Hawkins, Amnesty USA’s Executive Director, human experimentation “was not some rouge operation. This was a program, chilling in its detail, unlawful from day one, that gave green light to commit the crimes under international law of torture and enforced disappearance – with impunity.”

The full horror including some of the gruesome details of the torture methods used in secret CIA-run prisons are buried within the report summary. The CIA used a wider array of sexual abuse and other forms of torture than was previously disclosed in a Senate report last year. According to a testimony given by Majid Khan, interrogators poured ice water on his genitals and touched his ‘private parts’ on numerous occasions. At least five detainees underwent rectal feeding and rehydration, while many others experienced confinement in a box in an intense period of time. The use dousing in cold water during interrogation was another technique employed by the CIA, which has reportedly caused the death of Gul Rahman, who in 2002 died of hypothermia. Another use of water based torture technique is waterboarding – the process of suffocation by water – stimulating drowning and inducing panic. Other forms of CIA torture include beatings, stress positions, sleep deprivation and restricted diets, all causing muscle fatigue, exhaustion, hallucinations, insomnia, paranoia and even attempts at self-harm.

After the attacks of 9/11 people gave in to the politics of fear, thus in a way legitimizing the right of the CIA to torture men to death simply because Americans were frightened. And it was exactly this explanation which President Obama used to defend role of the CIA, by stating that “when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this.” What happened was fear became an overt expression of strength making national security the number one priority.

President Obama might want to look into the future rather than the past when it comes to torture but the past has its consequences which we are living with today. If peace is what we are hoping to achieve one needs to re-examine the legacy of the War on Terror, instead of moving on as if the many millions of lives and dollars lost meant completely nothing.

In most of the developed world, torture has been replaced by prison, while the spectacle of violence has been replaced by the spectacle of the trial. The American term of “enhanced interrogation” closely resembles that of the Gestapo’s “sharpened interrogation”, which included sleep deprivation, starvation, exhaustion, and beatings only allowed in the presence of a doctor. It is a real shame that instead of learning from the past, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay scandals, the War on Terror has provided us with yet another mistake. In order to prevent another one from happening we need to know about the details and understand what went wrong during the CIA led interrogations. To break this vicious cycle we need to confront the psychological and physical harm it causes to its victims, the degradation of institutions that use it, and seek proactive prosecution.

Senator Dianne Feinstein has written a letter addressed to President Obama urging for reforms to “make sure that the United States never ever again engages in actions that you have acknowledged were torture”.

However, the Obama administration just like the Bush administration, argues that the CIA’s criminal actions can be classified under “intelligence sources and methods”. And neither Congress, nor the president, have taken any legal action to limit what counts as an intelligence source and what does not. What the Congress needs to do is to form a legal definition that clearly excludes torture and other crimes from “intelligence sources and methods”.

We must choose law over secrecy. The future lasts a long time, so let us remember the ideas that were considered terrible yesterday remain so today and forever.


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