After the Central Intelligence Agency was given authority to begin torturing suspected terrorists in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, newly published documents show that another of that program's transgressions, according to experts, was a gross violation of medical ethics that allowed the agency to conduct what amounted to "human experimentation" on people who became test subjects without consent.
"Crime one was torture. The second crime was research without consent in order to say it wasn’t torture."
—Nathaniel Raymond, Harvard University
Reported exclusively by the Guardian on Monday, sections of a previously classified CIA document—first obtained by the ACLU—reveal that a long-standing policy against allowing people to become unwitting medical or research subjects remained in place and under the purview of the director of the CIA even as the agency began slamming people into walls, beating them intensely, exposing them to prolonged periods of sleep deprivation, performing repeated sessions of waterboarding, and conducting other heinous forms of psychological and physical abuse.
The document details agency guidelines—first established in 1987 during the presidency of Ronald Reagan but subsequently updated—in which the CIA director and an advisory board are directly empowered to make decisions about programs considered "human subject research" by the agency.
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As journalist Spencer Ackerman reports:
The relevant section of the CIA document, “Law and Policy Governing the Conduct of Intelligence Agencies”, instructs that the agency “shall not sponsor, contract for, or conduct research on human subjects” outside of instructions on responsible and humane medical practices set for the entire US government by its Department of Health and Human Services.
A keystone of those instructions, the document notes, is the “subject’s informed consent”.
That language echoes the public, if obscure, language of Executive Order 12333 – the seminal, Reagan-era document spelling out the powers and limitations of the intelligence agencies, including rules governing surveillance by the National Security Agency. But the discretion given to the CIA director to “approve, modify, or disapprove all proposals pertaining to human subject research” has not previously been public.
The entire 41-page CIA document exists to instruct the agency on what Executive Order 12333 permits and prohibits, after legislative action in the 1970s curbed intelligence powers in response to perceived abuses – including the CIA’s old practice of experimenting on human beings through programs like the infamous MK-Ultra project, which, among other things, dosed unwitting participants with LSD as an experiment.
The previously unknown section of the guidelines empower the CIA director and an advisory board on “human subject research” to “evaluate all documentation and certifications pertaining to human research sponsored by, contracted for, or conducted by the CIA”.
Critics have long blasted any members of the medical community who participated in the torture program as traitors to their ethical and professional duties, but as the Guardian notes, "The CIA, which does not formally concede that it tortured people, insists that the presence of medical personnel ensured its torture techniques were conducted according to medical rigor."
But Steven Aftergood, a scholar of the intelligence agencies with the Federation of American Scientists, told the Guardian that these men who were tortured by the agency were, in fact, being studied by medical professionals to see how they would respond to such treatment. In addition to the inherent crime of that abuse, they were also unwitting subjects who never gave their informed consent to be studied in this way. "There is a disconnect between the requirement of this regulation [contained in the document] and the conduct of the interrogation program," Aftergood explained. "They do not represent consistent policy."
And Nathaniel Raymond, a former war-crimes investigator with Physicians for Human Rights and now a researcher with Harvard University’s Humanitarian Initiative, put it this way: "Crime one was torture. The second crime was research without consent in order to say it wasn’t torture."