Experiments in Torture: Physicians group alleges US conducted illegal research on detainees

(Illustration: Rob Beschizza)

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today released evidence it says indicates that the Bush administration conducted "illegal and unethical human experimentation and research" on detainees' response to torture while in CIA custody after 9/11. The group says such illegal activity would violate the Nuremburg Code, and could open the door to prosecutions. Their report is based on publicly available documents, and explores the participation of medical professionals in the CIA's "enhanced interrogation program." Download the full report at phrtorturepapers.org.

Boing Boing spoke with the lead medical author of the report, Dr. Scott Allen, who is co-director of the Center For Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Brown University, and Medical Advisor to PHR.

Boing Boing: The first thing that came to mind as I read this report is that we're really talking about treating a vulnerable population—prisoners, war detainees—like lab rats.

PHR: Correct. I am a former prison doctor and have conducted some research in prisons. I speak from direct experience in understanding what is allowable, and why there is a rigorous regime of human subject protections, especially for vulnerable subject populations.

Boing Boing: What is the significance of the report you and your colleagues are releasing today?

PHR: This is the first report to describe evidence that the CIA interrogation program not only involved torture, but it also involved human experimentation. That experimentation is related to the role of the "medical monitors," the doctors and psychologists who are directed by policy to monitor torture techniques.

As a framing exercise: if you are an M.D. who is tasked with keeping torture safe, you have a practical problem. Set aside the ethical problem for a moment. How do you know how to do it? We were pretty thorough in thinking through it: we scoured the literature and found what experience was on the scientific record about the effects of these techniques. There's one body of evidence out there from torture survivors, which is in our prior report, "Leave No Marks." Everything in that report points to the understanding that this cannot be made safe. It is all very dangerous, and it's designed to harm, so it's ridiculous to think you can make it safe.

The other body of evidence was the experience of investigators who worked with soldiers. In that program they did limited application of these techniques on volunteer subjects. The mock interrogations never went beyond 2 or 3 days, the waterboarding when it happened was limited to 1 or 2 short exposures, and in a technique that was dramatically different than what was applied to detainees in the black sites.

No one really understands the long or short term effects of these techniques.

So, in order to do the job the medical monitors were given to do, it left them two choices, both of which were awful:

One, they could just wing it. You're talking about techniques that carry high risks of PTSD, but also high risks of physical injury and death (we know that there is public evidence that at least 4, maybe as many as 8 detainee deaths are related to these techniques)—you don't want to wing it. So I think it's certainly possible that while they weren't eagerly looking forward to setting up research they might have been backed into this by saying, let's take notes. That citation we note of Appendix F in the CIA 2004 Inspector General's report, the one that describes the directives to doctors, says, 'Take these notes in a very meticulous way about how detainees respond to waterboarding so we can better inform our procedures in future.' That's describing the framework of a research protocol.

Now, whether they considered it research or not is irrelevant. There are some crimes for which you must prove intent. Human subject protections have no such qualifier. Particularly when there's risk for injury to the subject, you've crossed that line.

We believe it's like alchemy: The US government may have wanted scientists to wave a wand and turn an ordinary object into gold. And the scientist who was asked may have believed that this was possible. But it's not. We say that the idea of trying to make [torture] safe is a fool's errand.

Boing Boing: The Bush Administration called the "enhanced interrogation" techniques "safe, legal and effective." What do we know about their effectiveness? Is it possible to study the effectiveness of torture and compare data to "common sense"? Has anyone done this?

PHR: I don't have expertise in this area. But efficacy of these techniques is irrelevant to the legal and moral issues at hand. If they were unethical for medical professionals to participate, and if they were unethical as legal techniques, whether they worked or not is irrelevant. We didn't try to speculate in this report on that particular question of effectiveness. But even if that was the reason, to say, 'We just want to know if what we're doing works better than rapport-building,' it still crosses the line if they did what it appears they did. It would cross the line into research, and human subject protections should kick in. They should have gone before a human subject review board, and protections should have been put in place. And mind you, we say that knowing that it never would have been approved. It never would have passed muster.

Most importantly, no detainee ever would have given consent. They would have had to receive an informed consent document, 'here's what we're doing, here are the risks to you, you can revoke your consent at any time, sign here.' Come on, detainees are not going to consent to that. There was no way for the medical professionals to do this right.

Boing Boing: Is pain something that we understand well enough that it is possible to create objective thresholds and call one side of the line 'torture' and the other side 'not torture'?

PHR: My feeling, and I think it's a consensus feeling, is that this is one of those areas where lawyers want to pretend that scientists have the answers when they don't. If you review pain literature, you will find that ultimately pain is subjective. You can expose any number of people to the same painful stimuli and their responses will widely vary. There's no way of proving that. The experience of people who work in the pain field says that pretty much, people are very direct and straightforward about reporting pain. So, that variability is well-documented, which makes the task of how you calibrate pain to be a fool's errand. How you calibrate it is to ask them, and their answer is the final answer. You can't research beyond that. The thing that is done is to avoid things that are painful, particularly when they're not being done in the best interests of the person, and beyond that you ask, "does it hurt, are you experiencing pain?"

Boing Boing: Does pain correlate with physical or mental damage in most people?

PHR: Again there is variability. Related to the concept of pain is the risk of the body's response. Even though we tend to separate psychology and psychiatry from neurology and the rest of medicine, they are related in a physical process. There's response of hormone levels to stress and pain that are real physical responses. And there's variability in those as well. And then, on top of that, even for those responses there is variability in who's going to go on to develop PTSD, alcoholism, anxiety, suicidality, uncontrollable anger, all the consequences of trauma we're aware of. In other words, the medical profession is not there yet. We know what risks are and who is at risk. But what the lawyers wanted the doctors to do is be really exact about when the line is crossed. They should have been told, 'Sorry, it can't be done. The risk is very high for pain and injury that would cross the legal threshold, and therefore these techniques cannot be used.' That would have been the correct answer based on the science.

Boing Boing: Sleep deprivation is another widely used technique according to this report, and all of the other publicly available documents on torture. How does sleep deprivation affect the brain in terms of our ability to remember and think logically? Why would interrogators believe that sleep deprivation yields accurate confessions or information, when it has a tendency to make people hallucinate?

PHR: There is extensive study on the effect of stress, which is the common final pathway for all these techniques—there are studies on the effects of acute and uncontrollable stress on the brain, which are not helpful on retrieving accurate information. They seem to have effects on the memory center, in a way that makes people confused.

Based on our limited understanding of the science, this doesn't look like a particularly promising way to get reliable information.

We stuck entirely with publicly available government documents describing this program. They are heavily redacted. Many pages are mostly blacked out, and multiple pages in a row are entirely blacked out. If we found evidence of a crime in reviewing the sanitized record, someone who has access to the full record needs to investigate this.

Boing Boing: How would you respond to questions about whether you can call these actions 'experimentation' if they don't follow the scientific method? Some who support the use of 'enhanced interrogation' techniques might argue that you can't call this medical experimentation if it doesn't follow standard procedure.

PHR: Going back to the "grand-daddy" experiments that prompted all of this, everyone thinks about Nuremberg and the Nazis, but remember that the Japanese also did experiments. That doesn't get mentioned as much because there weren't an equivalent to the Nuremberg doctor trials for Japanese doctors. Just as bad if not worse experiments were committed by the Japanese, involving possibly more people. In those cases, the science was even more sloppy and the record-keeping was terrible. For political or deal-making reasons to close the war they didn't prosecute those, but no one would have disputed that they were prosecutable, and it didn't have anything to do with bad science.

Bad science is not a defense.

We believe it's like alchemy: The client—the US government—may have wanted these scientists to wave a wand and turn an ordinary object into gold. And the scientist who was asked may have believed that this was possible. But it's not. We say that the idea of trying to make torture (or at the very least, a technique designed to create acute, severe, uncontrollable stress) 'safe' is a fool's errand. It's junk science. Bad science does not give you a pass.

Boing Boing: Can you talk a little about the background of human experimentation ethics?

PHR: In the course of history there have been a number of unethical experiments on human populations including prisoners. There were experiments in the past—product testing experiments for cosmetics—there was a book written about that called "Acres of Skin," a phrase used by the chief investigator who arranged those prison experiments. Those were experiments that took advantage of the fact that the subjects, prisoners, were vulnerable easy to coerce into participation and convenient.

That was the type of thing that protections that have been put in place try to prevent. There is a very small and narrow window of legitimate and ethical research. That tends to be when we do things like, for example—if someone is already involved in getting experimental HIV treatment in a clinic, and they get picked up on some charge and they spend a brief time in jail, a few weeks, is it permissible for the investigator to come to the jail and for the subject to continue taking the investigational drug... something like that, it's chiefly in subject's interest, and they would have given voluntary consent.

Boing Boing: Where do you and your colleagues go from here, what are you hoping to accomplish?

PHR: We have provided credible evidence of a crime.

When that threshhold is crossed, it then becomes the responsibility of the responsible authorities to thoroughly investigate the allegations.

In this case, we believe there are a number of people we believe should respond, ranging from the office of human subjects protections to the white house and the Department of Justice. We are making an allegation that we have credible evidence of a crime and therefore that should be investigated by the proper authorties in that area. Obviously Congress; we are going to make recommendations that they look into these.

We reviewed only publicly available documents on this subject. Note that we didn't drift into all sorts of other evidence that may be floating around out there, but can't be verified. We stuck entirely with publicly available government documents describing this program. They are heavily redacted. Many pages are mostly blacked out, and multiple pages in a row are entirely blacked out. If we found evidence of a crime in reviewing the sanitized record, someone who has access to the full record needs to investigate this. And they need to investigate it with qualified people who can look into it with expertise on what constitutes human subjects research, and what constitutes research in general.

This Associated Press story includes an administration response saying that this has been looked into multiple times. It has not.

Abuses have been looked into multiple times. The role of health professionals has been looked into in a broad way. But there has never been any investigation into the question of human experimentation.

The administration is being slippery. Their response, as noted in the Associated Press story on our report, is either not true or there is no public record of such an inquiry that we're aware of. If there was, it's incumbent upon them to share at least a sanitized version that specifically looked at human experimentation.

People have suggested it before. But I don't think anyone has raised a credible allegation with verifiable evidence before.

Boing Boing: Looking even beyond whether an investigation will take place, and whether those who may have committed crimes will be brought to justice, what are the implications of this activity, of America conducting medical experiments on the effects of torture on so-called terror suspects we are detaining?

PHR: There are a lot of implications. As someone who's worked in a similar environment, I get very concerned when people who go into service for the U.S. government—in this case the CIA, and on other topics of torture and abuse we could include those in the uniformed services—are asked to do things like this.

I start with the assumption that these are very ethical people who have good moral compasses and who are not themselves looking to do the wrong thing.

One of the terrible things about this story is that we have directed good people in the service of our country to violate their values and the values of their country. That's a terrible thing to ask anyone to do. For them, we need to review what they were asked to do, and see how it happened, so we can make sure it never happens again.

Ultimately this will not help keep America safer, either. You have to factor in all the costs. It's not clear at all that it worked the way they wanted it to work. And at the same time, the fact that we've been revealed now to be hypocprites about our own values cannot help us in the global struggle for the moral high ground.

Boing Boing: What are the odds that this will result in an investigation?

I don't know.

All I can say is that we have done all we can do as citizens, as a small nonprofit.

We have said that we are reporting evidence of a crime. What the authorities do with that, they will own.

# # #

Read the Physicians for Human Rights "Experiments in Torture" report in full at phrtorturepapers.org.

(This Boing Boing feature was produced by Xeni Jardin, with contribution by Maggie Koerth-Baker and Rob Beschizza).


  1. From a BBC article from a few days ago…

    Mr (Philip) Alston, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings…expresses concern that the US has put forward what he describes as “a novel theory that there is a law of 9/11”, enabling it to legally use force in the territory of other states as part of its inherent right to self-defence.

    Although he’s speaking about drone attacks rather than medical torture, it really gets to the mindset that we can (and must) do whatever we want now because none of the rules matter anymore.

    1. I cannot recall any time when “the rules” applied to America in the pursuit of her interests.

      When have we ever seen America abide by trade agreement, treaty, or international law when she found them at odds with her interests?

      Free-trade agreements only restrict the other signing party.

      Treaties (land, peace, or otherwise) are only paper and do not prevent America from claiming further territory or acting in aggression (while calling it defence).

      International law has not yet touched America and perhaps never will while she is on top. A global power-shift might see US officials investigated for crimes against humanity that they oversaw.

      America has had a “Defence Department” for decades but has never fought a defencive war with it. America’s defence has always been a matter for other countries’ soil, usually without any preceding aggression.

      I fear we will never see justice in this matter because justice does not touch those charged with its administration.

      1. Anybody who thinks that torture “is in America’s interests” is simply wrong. Tragically so.
        Americans have had the “do we ban torture or not” debate.
        This is a question of enforcement: not of values.
        Or more precisely, of the selective enforcement of the Laws, which has apparently come to depend upon whether or not the US Justice Department “likes you” or not. Both as to victims, and as to perpetrators.
        It comes as no surprise to me that Americans are unhappy with their Government.

      2. And you are simply wrong: Americans DO keep to their obligations under Treaties signed and adopted: to do otherwise is so attended by negative consequences over time that they almost always swamp whatever puny advantage may have been gained by the violation of faith.
        Usually, A State simply withdraws from all or part of a Treaty. That is different than simply violating the Treaty, which often leads to War.
        But if yer pulls yerself out, what can you be said to be violating?
        It would be odd to see a State claim that it shall no longer be bound, but that it expects all others to remain bound!

        Anyhow, torture is banned by the US Constitution, period. For everybody.
        No “Treaties” with hated “foreigners”, “giving up American Rights” are required, for the US Government has not now, nor has it ever had, the right to torture anybody, for any reason whatsoever.

        I find the arguments of those who argue the contrary to be more revealing of themselves and their character, than of the Law, or of justice, or of the “Rights of States”.

  2. As far as the whole pain threshold thing goes, and whether or not it’s objective or subjective-

    I know there have been studies done looking at how perception of pain changes in different situations e.g. pain is felt more strongly when you’re in a situation where you could be doing something to stop it. Also, just twenty minutes ago I was studying up on PTSD, and guess what? PTSD tends to be more severe when the trauma was “of human design” (That’s the DSM I’m quoting)
    I think the psychological characteristics of an interrogation situation are pretty well set up to maximize pain and trauma- another person is intentionally causing you pain, and they’re telling you that it’s up to you to stop it by telling them what they want.

    1. I’d say you’re pretty well right with your PTSD and pain statements Anon. The scary thing to me is that there are probably psychologists who helped design these scenarios. I find this even more repulsive than doctors assisting. Psychologists (at least clinical ones) have the kind of knowledge to manipulate people that few other professionals have. At least in the country I live, any registered psychologist working in this capacity would be in serious breach of the psychologists code of ethics and would be de-registered. I wonder what the US policy is on health professionals assisting with the development and implementation of torture.

  3. US government actions risk to legalize terrorism while fighting against it… history tell us that this path never get to a positive “Hollywood ending”…

  4. This, as far as I can tell, is a smokescreen for reiterating the charge of war crimes against the Bush Administration.

    To call it “experimentation” when in fact doctors were being asked to determine what was too far so that detainees could be tortured within some kind of magical legal limit…

    …kinda boggles the mind. The central issue here is whether it’s ok to torture detainees for information. That’s obvious. Semantic what you may, saying I want to hurt someone until they give me something they don’t want to give me…that’s torture.

    But just because Bush administration lawyers wanted some mumbo jumbo to defend themselves with doesn’t mean these medical doctors were experimenting on detainees.

    Shame on these physicians for implying that this is something on the scale of Japanese or German medical experiments. Not only were those far more brutal, they were conducted by and under the direction of doctors.

    That’s a far cry from pain monitoring on detainees.

    I’m not trying to defend torture. But say what you are going to say, and say it clearly. Choosing another tack when your initial thrust fails makes you duplicitous.

    (Again, I think the position on torture, and doctor participation in it, is clear. Instead of commenting on that I’m choosing to comment on what seems to be a straw man propped up in hopes of succeeding where other noble endeavors have failed.)

    1. JSMILL: “doesn’t mean these medical doctors were experimenting on detainees.”

      What would you like to call it?

      JSMILL: “pain monitoring on detainees.”

      As in “pain monitoring on detainees” in order to figure out how to inflict the maximum amount of pain without killing them or rendering them useless.
      So conducting tests to determine effective levels of pain during torture sessions is not “experimental”? If they weren’t experimenting, if they knew the correct pain levels to, ahem, “monitor”, then what caused “at least 4, maybe as many as 8 detainee deaths”? If they weren’t experimenting, exactly whose pedagogy were they following?

      JSMILL:”Shame on these physicians for implying that this is something on the scale of Japanese or German medical experiments. ”

      Actually, you implied it, not them, so shame on you. Read the article, they directly compare the Japanese experimentation to the Nazis, not the US. They are referring the creation of the Nuremberg principles. At no point do they imply an equivalency in scale between our actions and those that happened during WWII, only that the same laws apply.

      1: Are you denying that experimenting with torture methods on humans without their consent is “human experimentation”?

      2: Are you denying that the Nuremberg principles apply?

      JSMILL: “I’m not defending torture”

    2. My grandfather was an civilian who worked for the Navy most of his life, including during WW2. He also had immediate family lost in the military in WW2 and the holocaust. Back when the Mai Lai massacre happened, he kept saying “this is worse than the holocaust”. His reasoning was that, after the holocaust, we (humanity, especially Americans) should all know better, that there should never be a time when we can treat people as disposable and engage in their systematic dehumanization. Godwin’s law is there for a reason, and while the Nazi legacy is often invoked too easily (ie: trying to get health care to the uninsured is not Nazism), when you’re talking about medical doctors/scientists/military officers engaging in/authorizing/legitimizing/apologizing for torture, it’s legit to talk about the Nazis. The cooperation of the doctors likely reassured both some of the interogators, and whoever was commanding them. This may have allowed torture to continue.

      Simple way to phrase this: In the “good cop/bad cop” scenario, the good cop, who knows the bad cops action, is working along side the bad cop and not working to stop bad cop is complicit in the actions of bad cop. Even if good cop really does care, and gets the suspect coffee, bandaids and aspirin.

      It is unlikely that Bush or Bush cronies will be touched by this. I am partisan, and wouldn’t mind him and Cheney doing an orange jumpsuit perp walk. Not going to happen, and that’s not what this is about. This is focused on who it says it’s focused on, the medical personnel doing this work. It should have been clear to all medical personnel that this was not legit. Documenting this can better delineate what went wrong, so we don’t continue to do the same damn thing wrong.

    3. Shame on these physicians for implying that this is something on the scale of Japanese or German medical experiments. Not only were those far more brutal, they were conducted by and under the direction of doctors.

      The convenient thing America likes to forget is that the US protected the Japanese doctors involved with Unit 731 in exchange for getting their research. Shame on you for making the assertion that “Those guys did worse” when, in fact, the US benefited from the deplorable actions of, and protected “Those guys”.


      In the wise words of Ronald Lee Ermey: It looks to me like the best part of Bush slid down the crack of his momma’s ass and ended up as a brown stain on the mattress!

      Make him responsible for his crimes…
      Or just shoot him, I don’t care.

  5. This, as far as I can tell, is a smokescreen for reiterating the charge of war crimes against the Bush Administration.

    Gathering and interpreting evidence is a smokescreen?

    Shame on these physicians for implying that this is something on the scale of Japanese or German medical experiments.

    And as long as there are apologists to defend the Dr. Mengeles of the world and the regimes that create them, there’s nothing to stop them from escalating their crimes.

    I’m choosing to comment on what seems to be a straw man propped up in hopes of succeeding where other noble endeavors have failed.

    People are being tortured and you’re complaining that we’re being mean to those who participate in the process. Where’s that straw man again?

    1. The way I’m interpreting Jsmill’s comments is like this:

      If what the US has done is compared to Dr. Mengele…
      and then someone demonstrates we did something less sinister…
      We run the risk of the US getting a pass because the conclusion will be: “see we’re not the Nazis”, when the goal was never to prove that we were like the Nazis, but that we were engaged in torture.

      The hyperbolic comparison risks deviating the argument away from the principle point, because people will focus on the analogy, and not the facts.

      1. Yo, read the goddamn article.
        There is NO comparison to the scale of our experimentation and the Japanese or Nazi experimentation from WWII.
        Only that the same laws apply.
        JSMILL started that straw-man and it just won’t die.

  6. Antinous, I’m not defending torture. Neither am I defending the doctors who participated in the work. What I am saying is that the simile running through the whole narrative is hyperbolic.

    And I think the reason is being emphasized so strongly is to sensationalize it in hopes of achieving justice.

    I am in favor of justice. But not all means are lawful. And even a little bit of deception– even a little exaggerated comparison common to journalism– is not okay for people who hold themselves as moral exemplars and whistleblowers.

    1. And I’m saying that it’s a bad idea to wait for war crimes to be an everyday occurrence before you start nailing the perpetrators.

    2. Nonsense- it is your reply, minimizing the monstrosity of your elected officials’ actions, which by minimizing the issue apparently seeks to legitimize torture, and to give it a “scientific, rational” basis.
      The “lessons” of El Salvador, “applied” in Iraq?
      “Well we’re not even going to investigate because you did not ask us nicely enough.”

    3. Of course we treat animals different, they are animals, just as we treat chairs differently because the are furniture. Do we call treating furniture differently “Chairism” are we being a “Tableist”? What do you want? Rights or the acknowledgment of all living things on par with humans? Shouldn’t a work of art that took a year to complete,(longer than a human’s gestation), be given the same rights as vermin?
      Humans given their penchant for creation from new breeds of dogs, to rockets, to the glorious 9th tend find themselves superior to other life forms here on Earth. As such we set down rules for those we ,(whether warranted or not), find beneath our station. That is “Human” nature at work. To each their station,each their rules “Dogs on leashes”, yes “dogs with a drivers license” no. Raise a chicken and eat it yes, give it citizenship, no.
      Unfortunately there are those like the aforementioned “Toruture Doctors” who overstep their rules as set out by our communities Ethos, and as such should face punishment. But just as liquids have their own specific gravity so does everything else in this world, their own strata whether or not we wish it.
      A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

  7. also, I’m afraid I’m a little backward when it comes to the tech behind this forum. how do we quote each other? is it a tag like “<q>” and “<q>” ?

    1. <blockquote> </blockquote>

      If you preview, it will strip out the formatting unless you go back and submit.

  8. Bush said,
    “The US does not torture.”
    Do you believe him?

    Obama said the exact same thing,
    “The US does not torture.”
    Do you believe him?

    1. When you define torture as meaning what you want it to, saying you don’t torture is meaningless.

      Experiments like these were not part of an effort to avoid torture, but to redefine (or refine) the boundaries so that the CIA had evidence against accusations of torture.


      Your point sounds fair, but consider what Dr. Allen said about the very limited instances that testing is allowed on prisoners (the HIV example), and the fact these experiments didn’t go before an ethics board. It seems like not only a legitimate angle of attack, but maybe the most important one because it’s based on medical ethics rather than military training.

  9. This discussion is academic.

    Ever since your President gave that speech in which he praised the brave efforts of those men and women of the CIA in keeping America safe from terrorism, the whole world knows that whole nasty ‘so-called’ torture thingy is a considered a closed chapter in american history, and you’re considered a party pooper when you try to drag it out of the closet.

    THIS America would never torture. So shut up.

    Because you’re the good guys. Always have been. Even back then. You might have been wrong, but never bad.
    Yes, you made some honest mistakes. Errors in judgement. But your intention was always good. To make the world a safer place.

    So shut up.

    And in a sense, you’re better for it now. You know the pitfalls now.
    In a sense, by having strayed from the path, by being aware of the temptations, but having risen beyond those, now, you are truely in that righteous place where you can be a shining example of morality to the world. Where your position as a world leader, as the one the world looks up to, is truely justified.

    So shut up.

    1. Or else we’ll torture your family to death…and we know from our experiments how to maximize your suffering, too.

  10. When a legal and legitimate government matches and surpasses the tools used by its “enemies”, what is that government fighting for?
    As the US government mirrors the actions of those it claims to be outside the law, such government becomes the criminal.

  11. Regarding this not being on the scale of Japanese/Nazi experimentation: is that our threshold? Really?

    In the end, though, I’ll take anyone’s bet for whatever amount you care to wager that this report will amount to nothing of consequence to the people ultimately responsible.

    1. “….that this report will amount to nothing of consequence to the people ultimately responsible.”

      Say that often enough, and your wish will come true.

      It worked for Chenyey & Bush….

    2. Why not cut to the chase, and simply ban all reporting or discussion of these “State Secrets (S.S)”, with a penalty of….”enhanced interrogation (E.I)” for “violators”.

    3. “This won’t result in anything anyway, so why even discuss it?”
      Because if we don’t discuss it , the unlikelihood of punishment, immediately and without more, becomes the certainty of escaping punishment.

      And yet is the lack of certainty that leads the US to torture, yes?
      Certainly the unlikelihood of punishment would encourage torturers…how much more the CERTAINTY of impunity?
      For that is what now obtains in the USA….
      or ought to, judging from some of the comments here.

  12. Torture — with research, Mengele becomes Scooter Libby aka the fall guy.

    The only discussion that needs to exist is whether or not torture produces additional useful data.

    Regardless the torturee, the answer seems to be negative — any additional information is usually false.

    So if you want to chase false data to the detriment of real investigation, go ahead, but don’t be surprised at the results.

    If you want to protect your citizenry, torture doesn’t help you at all.

  13. When I hear “human experimentation”, my mind jumps to surgeries, drug trials, and other types of medical procedures. Even going so far as to cause illness/harm in order to test some drug/process to cure the ill.
    Yes, I am sure medically speaking this was “experimentation” – but get real. This was an administration that wanted 2 things:
    Live detainees (can’t get answers from dead people), and butt coverage, trying to tell people they were so humane in how they inflicted pain (anyone hear just a *little* contraction?).
    Bottom line for me: The good ol; US of A tortured. Period. whatever medical monitoring you want to add to the wrong, seems fairly inconsequential.

  14. Bah.
    The lack of certainty leads the US to torture, in an profoundly misguided attempt to achieve “certainty” – as to threats and plans for attacks, apparently both of the past and for the future. (They tortured the details of 9-11 ops & planning out of their captives, inter alia).

    Only cruel cowards torture.
    It is vile and unjustifiable, in all cases.

  15. I got the same vibe as did jsmill. Just wanted to let you know you’re not the only one whose scepticism detector registered a reading.


    And I’m saying that it’s a bad idea to wait for war crimes to be an everyday occurrence before you start nailing the perpetrators.

    Um, war crimes are an everyday occurrence and have been for a long time. We just sort of ignore them because that’s more convenient than attempting to do (necessarily bloody) justice.

    1. Funny how “war crimes” cease to exist if one can easily prosecute those responsible.

    2. This topic has blossomed a lot since I was here last.

      I think bja sniffed out what I was trying to say earlier. Some people disagree about the utility of torture– well, perhaps not in a place like BB– but everyone can agree that it is a great evil and that doctors should really have no place in it.

      (I would say that doctors being used to keep the process more humane– as opposed to more effective– doesn’t make it right but it is a step in the right direction. Perhaps I’m naive in assuming that it was the push to keep it limited that got these doctors involved.)

      But I still fundamentally disagree with this article, and for two reasons:

      1. The implication that this is on the scale of Nazi/Japanese medical atrocities is untrue and more worthy of Glenn Beck than BoingBoing. If you wanted to point out medical ethics violations, all well and good. But the article reads like an indictment of US torture policy while implying that it’s about medical ethics violations. This is misleading, and people who are holding themselves out as moral exemplars and whistle blowers have no reason to be misleading.

      2. The reason I object to the liberal use of hyperbole, beyond its deceptiveness, is that it loses its effect with repeated use. It inures the listener to timely journalism.

      When every thing becomes compared to Nazism, the true horror of the Holocaust is cheapened and citizens themselves become numb to the repeated attempts to rouse them to action.

      Then one day, because every intermediate step to a real Holocaust has been called a Holocaust from day one, the prophets will have lost their voices.

      Fear that your audience is too apathetic to listen to you is no reason to use deceptive hyperbole.

      1. When every thing becomes compared to Nazism, the true horror of the Holocaust is cheapened and citizens themselves become numb to the repeated attempts to rouse them to action.

        I can’t see how not attempting to rouse people to action is an improvement. If you put as much effort into protesting torture as you do into picking apart the metaphors of people who are doing something about it, you might actually contribute to reducing human suffering.

        The implication that this is on the scale of Nazi/Japanese medical atrocities is untrue

        There’s not much point in closing the barn door after the cow has already been dragged out and tortured in a secret prison. Nobody is saying that this is on the scale of the Holocaust, although you seem obsessed with raising that imaginary objection. Did you want to wait until it gets to that point before trying to stop it?

      2. “I would say that doctors being used to keep the process more humane– as opposed to more effective– doesn’t make it right but it is a step in the right direction.”

        I argue that the doctors’ involvement was one of providing cover and endorsement of the torture. Hey if the doc says it’s ok it’s therapeutic! Because it is so easily justified, so cleverly reordered in their minds into a simple case of monitoring vitals and responses, then strong terms are needed to wake these deniers up from their dream. Do you think Mengele knew/believed he was an evil bastard?

      3. Appeals to emotion may feel cheap… but they’re powerful and sometimes necessary tools of rhetoric.

        It feels dirty sometimes, but it can be better to be hyperbolic than to be ignored. Some people just don’t listen to dry facts. Some people are wired to need an emotional reason to pay attention. To varying degrees I think that “some people” is a majority in the population. A person can’t just ignore the best way to win their attention and support if they want to rally support for a good cause.

        If people with good intentions don’t use emotive rhetoric that won’t stop people with ill intentions from using them to great effect. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s an arms race and you have to use that gun.

  16. Count RUGEN-

    As you know, the concept of the suction pump is centuries old. Well, really, that’s all this is. Except that instead of sucking water, I’m sucking life. I’ve just sucked one year of your life away. I might one day go as high as five, but I really don’t know what that would do to you. So, let’s just start with what we have. What did this do to you? Tell me. And remember, this is for posterity, so be honest — how do you feel?

  17. @jsmill, bja009:

    Was prosecuting Al Capone for tax-evasion a good thing or was “[c]hoosing another tack when [the] initial thrust fail[ed] … duplicitous”?

    1. “Adj. 1. Duplicitous – marked by deliberate deceptiveness especially by pretending one set of feelings and acting under the influence of another.”
      Yes, I think the prosecution of Capone for tax fraud was duplicitous. I think it was also just and necessary, and I think it was a clever idea, but I don’t pretend that he was so prosecuted because the investigators/prosecutor/judge/public were angry that he had defrauded the IRS.
      If Dr. Allen’s aim is first and foremost to get to the bottom of what he thinks was illegal/unethical medical experimentation, then he is not duplicitous. But it seems to me that that merely serves as the avenue by which he wishes to achieve a different goal, namely finally finding an effective way to prosecute at least some of the people responsible for invading Iraq under false pretenses, and then occupying it despite international protest. But unlike the removal of Al Capone from Chicago, the prosecution of people no longer in power would achieve little in the way of actual benefit to anyone or anything other than to provide some sense of vindication to those who have consistently called for Bush Co. to be taken to task. And it would come at the cost of massive and lasting political division and social upheaval.
      But if I’m wrong and he primarily wants to hold these doctors accountable, then hopefully somebody pays attention to his evidence and determines if it’s credible enough to go forward with further investigation and possible prosecution.

      1. From a true Conservative (not the “Nationalism is primary” school of Conservatism, the “follow and worship the fascis” school):

        Let Justice be done, even although Heaven may fall.

        Note: what’s “fascis”? See here:


        Jeez, even with all the tech, there is nothing new under the sun.

        Worship of the State or Nation: all other Values and Virtues MUST bend the knee in homage.

      2. Prosecution – even if the convicted are pardoned by the Power which Ordered the torture – would serve to underscore the respect for the simple human dignity of the victims.The denial of which is the first item on the torturers’ lists, ALWAYS.

        I have no doubt that Pardons would be given, as the crimes here ( assuming that they would be found to be such) were done under Orders of the highest power in the land. For how indeed could that Power fail to do so, and yet maintain its Honor? This inhuman Power, the Office of the Presidency, CANNOT simply “fall on its sword”, unlike its loyal Soldiers. To be sure, the latter [ the case of the soldiers falling on swords] cannot happen as a result of an acknowledged and explicit request, and yet maintain its efficacy in assuaging the private, or supporting the public, Honor of that Highest Office .

        One goal of prosecutions at least remains, as in all criminal cases involving the violation of the bodily integrity of the victim: the DIGNITY of the victims would be, by the very undertaking of a prosecution, thereby AFFIRMED. Regardless of the ultimate result of the trial.
        This counts for A LOT, where the offense was in large part the very DENIAL of that DIGNITY.

        Or should there be no trials or credible investigations, because some have already concluded that the victims are incapable or unworthy of simple human dignity?

        Does not the advancing of such argument tell you all that you need to know about the people who want no trials, no investigations, just sweet oblivion for these occurrences, these expenditures of the public monies, and the memory thereof?

        I’m sure they won’t in future let the “research” they have done go to waste….and they will make the same arguments subsequent to its use in order to avoid prosecution, that are PROVEN to be successful at this, this time around.

        Americans need trials in these cases to protect THEMSELVES, not others.

    2. The feds changed the rules in the middle of the game. I refer to “Mr. Capone” by Robert J. Schoenberg.

  18. Any doctor that participates in torture, including “monitoring”, should lose his licence.

    1. “This above all: do no harm.”

      Anybody participating in this NEVER WAS a “Doctor”: by the fact of her participation, alone.

      “Accomplice to crime” fits better.

  19. The only question that should be asked is “Is it acceptable for another country to do this to our own citizens?”
    By saying everything that was done is legitimate, it allows for any other country to:
    (a) Capture any American, military or otherwise, and declare them “Enemy combatant” (no specific criteria exists to confirm this status, it is sufficient only for some other person to point out “an enemy” to warrant detention)
    (b) Detain the “combatant” indefinitely with no access to legal counsel
    (c) Conduct water-boarding and any or all of the other methods mentioned in the article
    (d) Detainee may be released at some point in the future without any form of compensation should there be no guilty verdict in some sort of court.

    If a gov’t wants to call this legitimate, then they will have no justifiable course of action if the shoe is on the other foot… not comforting news for any of their own citizens traveling abroad…

    1. professor, this is one of the (many) things that drive me completely bonkers over this: I feel like if another country were torturing U.S. citizens or soldiers pretty much out in the open and giving lame justifications for it, all of the people in the U.S. who are O.K. with it when it’s done to someone else would be screaming bloody murder and calling for nuclear carpet bombing of said country.

  20. I’m not going to assume that PHR conducted their analysis without bias, and anyone who wants to take these findings with a grain of salt is welcome to. That being said, these are people who are experts in the violation of human rights and ethical codes by medical doctors. You can’t say that this wasn’t unethical human experimentation because you don’t feel like it was. There are rules that apply to human experimentation, and this was either in violation of those rules or it was not.

    I’m not saying there is no room for grey areas and interpretations, my point is that they are claiming that what was done violated rules that are in place. Bringing people up for charges on the Nuremburg Code is not a matter of personal opinion.

    If you don’t think that their conclusion warrants any further investigation then you are entitled to your [incorrect] opinion on the internet. If they ignored evidence that went against their conclusion or invented evidence in favour of it then please say, “Shame on them,” all you want. If you are an international lawyer with an expertise in the Nuremburg Code and this is well below the standard then please enlighten us. But your opinion on what *should* count as human experimentation is nothing more than that, an opinion on how things *should* be. It has nothing to do with whether or not this was, by the definitions given in relevant rules, human experimentation.

  21. Always remember: before the torture begins, one has made the victim one’s prisoner, and she is at your mercy.

  22. But some above would have us save our sympathy for “those poor torturers”. Or to give any hope of Justice, because the Torturers are Powerful and Honored men, with the full support of their Party, and who have shown themselves willing to throw their GUNS onto any balance which would weigh their conduct.
    F***ing disgusting.

  23. Bah. “give up” any hope of Justice, in the above.
    “give up hope” = “despair”

    Jeez, that must be how the torture victims feel while it’s going on.

  24. perhaps some counsel us to “give up hope” of Justice, to goad others to “desparate acts”….now whom would that help?

  25. Go after the torturers with the same heartless cold-eyed steely determination, which the torturers brought to their torture chambers.

    Passion is an enemy to effective action.
    Except perhaps the cold passion to see Justice done, and done well.

  26. Why do we American citizens leave the CIA alone when it is common knowledge that they are continuously committing serious crimes around the world? I think it’s about time we got rid of them.

    1. Might be that many Americans still hold a somewhat romanticized view of the CIA left over from the Cold War. Either that or they just aren’t aware of the ‘common knowledge,’ which wouldn’t be surprising. (At a dinner party last night, I made mention of some news tidbit or other, and got blank stares. When I jokingly asked if anybody read the news, four said ‘no’ with straight faces and the fifth said ‘I read the sports section.’)
      Either way, you’re right – the CIA should be pared back to intelligence work or absorbed by some other agency – lord knows we have enough of them.

      On a completely unrelated note, one of my ReCaptcha ‘verify-you’re-human’ words is Velveeta. Pretty sure the internet wants me to have macaroni and cheese for breakfast.

  27. Of course, rolling back the ‘Justice clock’ to a time over 500 years ago is right in line with bringing back Official Torture, as State Policy.

  28. It appears there were two kinds of “science” going on.

    Interrogator science – Gee, that didn’t work, so how about if I try this?

    Medical science – Gee, the interrogator didn’t adversely affect the subject that time, will he adversely affect the subject this time?

    I wrote that carefully because there can be good or bad interrogation science. For example, befriending the detainee to gain his trust is pretty clever, doesn’t hurt, and might qualify as good.

    Contrast that with interrogation that causes pain. An interrogator causing pain is clearly in the wrong. The medical science guy is harder to pin down. Is he there as an observer with the power to stop things if they go too far? Or is he there to help the interrogator get as close to the edge as possible?

    If it’s to help the interrogator, uh, that’s wrong again. If it’s to act as a circuit breaker, it’s a terrible way to make a living. But better than the alternative of not having any circuit breaker. And paradoxically, if those with the job self select out because of morals, the more likely things will be worse, maybe to the point of helping interrogation. And if he’s not there at all, the interrogator acts as the circuit breaker. Not good at all!

  29. What the fvck is wrong with these Mengeles? Do the intelligence agencies specify that they are seeking sociopaths or psychopaths when recruiting these doctors? How do they rationalize this to themselves? Will they ever acknowledge that they have committed war crimes?

  30. People are right that this is unlikely to lead to a trial, let alone convictions.

    However, to me, the value of this work is that it gives doctors the ammunition to say “no”.

    It lets them say “we cannot do this, it is criminal, and this is why. I will not be involved in this, and will report your request to your superiors.”

    If every doctor said this, could this humanitarian and political disaster have been averted?

  31. Someday in the future we Americans will look back at theses years the way Germans look back at World War II. We will look back and wonder, “What happened to us?”

    I don’t know when, perhaps 20 years, perhaps 40 years, but one day the time will come. We will look back at a time when we collectively lost our minds, blackened our souls, and behaved in ways we knew were morally and legally wrong.

    Often we hear “it’s a different world now,” or “everything changed on 9/11.” I disagree. The world today is essentially the same as it was on September 10th, 2001. Terrorism existed on that day, as did turmoil in the Middle East. As did the existence of violent radicals around the world.

    The only real change I see in the world as we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is the sudden increase in the number of people who hate, and hope for pain and destruction to befall, the United States. Any objective analysis of this phenomenon, must conclude that the overwhelming majority of these people who previously held benign opinions of the U.S. have changed their minds because of the wars we chose to wage and the treatment of people, primarily Muslims, we have imprisoned and tortured. If indeed there exists a different world we have, in large part, created it.

    However, the most fundamental change I see post-9/11 is not in the world, but rather, in ourselves. I live in Manhattan and I remember how frightening it was in 1993 to realize that a terrorist could attack the WTC. No one called for war in response to that attack, and I believe that had any one suggested we torture people to gather information they would have been called immoral and un-American, and rightly so.

    And yet here we are in 2010 discussing, almost matter of factly, the relative merits of torture and whether the efficacy of torture should change our opinion of it. After it’s revealed that not only did we torture people, but we did so under the watchful eyes of doctors who were ordered to take notes on the torture, we also can be heard discussing whether or not this was illegal or immoral.

    The world did not fundamentally change after 9/11, but we did. We have changed, and not for the better.

  32. The group says such illegal activity would violate the Nuremburg Code, and could open the door to prosecutions.

    I’d like to see justice here, but if the activities of the Bush administration which have already been well-documented aren’t prosecutable then nothing is prosecutable.

  33. Ha ha ha..”and could open the door to prosecutions” as if that could ever happen. Law is for the victors. We were hanging Nazi’s and nothing was said about allied firebombing of civilians.

  34. Boing Boing: What are the odds that this will result in an investigation?

    Answer: Zero

    The Obama administration’s so-called national security apparatus continues to detain prisoners in secret sites and submit them to torture while denying access to the ICRC, a war crime in and of itself. JSOC operates a secret detention center at Bagram Air Base called Camp Nama where they have been allegedly torturing prisoners including children.

    Source: The Black Hole of Bagram, Scott Horton

  35. I’m not entirely sure, but generally the U.S. only signs off on “International Codes” if it can exempt itself from prosecution. This was the condition we added when we signed the genocide convention.

  36. This research is to set legal limits of water-boarding and other torture. Now police can use these techniques and they will be legal under a court of law.

  37. I don’t think we’re going to do any more complete a job in owning up to this as we did for herding Japanese citizens into concentration camps.

    No amount of sincere regret and apology can undo what has been done, and there is no sincere regret or apology forthcoming. Everyone is too busy rationalizing or trying to find reasons why someone else was more responsible for this than they were. Everyone is too busy caring about how this affects them to care how they have affected others.

    This country has deliberately violated every principle it claims to cherish, and too many people are too arrogant to admit how much went wrong. This kind of denial precludes the ability to repair those wrongs, or even to prevent them from reoccurring.

    Nothing is going to happen until more people come to grips with one of the most fundamental elements of adulthood: “you are responsible for your own actions”.

  38. No one will ever be prosecuted for these war crimes. You all know it to be true. Depressing but true. Now it’s just a fight over whether this will end up in history textbooks or not.

  39. Pretty much every “normal” person finds torture revolting and wrong. It also apparently does not work.

    I’m still seeing a lot of hyperbole here though. I think a key question is whether or not it is possible to have a perfect society where everyone enjoys every right always all the time and no one breaks any “laws”. I’m pretty sure the answer is no. So if we look hard enough we will always find something and we should strive to a better world. That’s good.

    How about incarceration, is it right to put someone in prison? Captial punishment? Police interrogation techniques?

    What are we doing about those countries where torture is happening on a wide and daily basis, not only to extract information but also as a retribution or punishment?

    The US is screwed up in many ways and seems to always find creative ways to screw other places up. That said, if most of the world held the same moral standards as the US we’d be ahead. Way ahead in my opinion. If anything this study and the discussion is proof of that.

    It just seems we’re letting too many people get away with too many things and essentially looking for the coin underneath the lamppost.

  40. When are we going to be next.

    I always imagine Yugoslavia before the civil wars there. I bet it looked like our homes more or less to the people living there. Safe, maintained and regular. No way a war would erupt.

    So, the real question is how to end our current system of giving up all our power to people who could easily turn into our enemies. That was the whole point of the check and balances of the US gov’t system. Fragile, too fragile to keep us safe. Time to move to the next step, where you are part the decision making beyond just a blind vote.

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