Illegal Human Experimentation?


Physicians for Human Rights has just released a new report on the American way of torture. It sees real signs of illegal experimentation on imprisoned human suspects to refine torture techniques - a war crime. This is not exactly a surprise: Part of any torture regime is research into how torture techniques work, in order to refine them and to avoid accidentally killing victims (always embarrassing). The Nazis did this, as did the Khmer Rouge - and the Bush-Cheney administration followed this inevitable pattern, as every torture regime must. Somehow, however, documents help us see what is in front of our noses. In water-boarding, for example, the CIA mandated physicians to note

how long each application (and the entire procedure) lasted, how much water was applied (realizing that much splashes off), how exactly the water was applied, if a seal was achieved, if the naso- or oropharynx was filled, what sort of volume was expelled, how long was the break between applications, and how the subject looked between each treatment.

And you believed Dick Cheney when he said it was just splashing some water on someone's face. Some of this was to avoid accidental deaths:

According to the Bradbury memoranda, OMS teams, based on their observation of detainee responses to waterboarding, replaced water in the waterboarding procedure with saline solution ostensibly to reduce the detainees’ risk of contracting pneumonia and/or hyponatremia, a condition of low sodium levels in the blood caused by free water intoxication, which can lead to brain edema and herniation, coma, and death.

This, of course, is very different from the waterboarding in the SERE program - one session only, that ends the moment the victim asks, to prepare soldiers to resist torture imposed by countries that do not adhere to Geneva (like the US under Bush). The reason for the difference seems pretty obvious: waterboarding someone 183 times is different in degree and kind in the severe mental and physical suffering it inflicts from the one-off few seconds that training requires.

Then there was medical research on combining various torture methods. The CIA concluded - surprise! - that combining them did not increase the suffering:

No apparent increase in susceptibility to severe pain has been observed either when techniques are used sequentially or when they are used simultaneously – for example, when an insult slap is simultaneously combined with water dousing or a kneeling stress position, or when wall standing is simultaneously combined with an abdominal slap and water dousing. Nor does experience show that, even apart from changes in susceptibility to pain, combinations of these techniques cause the techniques to operate differently so as to cause severe pain. OMS doctors and psychologists, moreover, confirm that they expect that the techniques, when combined as described in the Background Paper and in the April 22 [redacted] Fax, would not operate in a different manner from the way they do individually, so as to cause severe pain.

And so the torture was intensified, with individuals tortured by combinations of sleep deprivation, repeated near-drowning, slamming against plywood walls by the neck, forced to stand in a stress position by shackles, etc. Was this sadism? No. It was bureaucracy. You have to monitor what is being done to prisoners, especially to avoid future prosecutions for doing what every legal authority had previously understood to be war crimes. Michael Chertoff told John Yoo in 2002 that

... the more investigation into the physical and mental consequences of the techniques they did, the more likely it would be that an interrogator could successfully assert that he acted in good faith and did not intend to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.

So human experimentation was a form of legal exactitude and compassion! They were experimenting on prisoners to make sure they didn't cross over a line or, even, kill someone accidentally. Remember the classic gaffe: "If someone dies, you're doing it wrong."

I have one lingering question about all this. Since it appears that these refinements of torture were not ad hoc but part of a systemic effort, where was the experimentation taking place? How many doctors and psychologists were involved? Was there a separate facility, as at Bagram, for experimenting with torture? Did these experiments ever go wrong?

Could prisoners, for example, accidentally suffocate during experimentation? And what would the US government do if such a thing occurred? One thing is clear: we will never find out from the Obama administration. They have been as diligent in protecting the government's record of torture as Bush and Cheney were. That kind of accountability and transparency is not change Obama ever believed in.