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  Echoes of Mengele: Medical Experiments, Torture and Continuity in the American Gulag

COMMENTARY:

Echoes of Mengele: Medical Experiments, Torture and Continuity in the American Gulag

by Chris Floyd
First published on Empire Burlesque Monday, 7 May 2010

Mengele's doggie
The perpetrators of this system were well aware they were breaking the United States' clear and ironclad laws prohibiting torture.

This is the language of power – unfiltered, unadorned, dispassionate, professional – discussing how best to inflict tortures on helpless captives without causing "long-term" damage that might be visible later:

But as we understand the experience involving the combination of various techniques, the OMS medical and psychological personnel have not observed any such increase in susceptibility. Other than the waterboard, the specific techniques under consideration in this memorandum— including sleep deprivation—have been applied to more than 25 detainees.... 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... would not operate in a different manner from the way they do individually, so as to cause severe pain.

This is taken from a memo written in 2005 by Justice Department lawyer Steven Bradbury to a legal officer at the CIA. It comes from a new report from Physicians for Human Rights, outlining the mass of evidence that the Bush Administration used its Terror War captives for medical experiments. Mother Jones has the story:

The watchdog group claims that in an attempt to establish that brutal interrogation tactics did not constitute torture, the administration ended up effectively experimenting on terrorism detainees. This research, PHR alleges, violated an array of regulations and treaties, including international guidelines on human testing put in place after the Holocaust.

According to the report, which draws on numerous declassified government documents, "medical professionals working for and on behalf of the CIA" frequently monitored detainee interrogations, gathering data on the effectiveness of various interrogation techniques and the pain threshholds of detainees. This information was then used to "enhance" future interrogations, PHR contends.

...Physicians for Human Rights makes the case that since human subject research is defined as the "systematic collection of data and/or identifiable personal information for the purpose of drawing generalizable inferences," what the Bush administration was doing amounted to human experimentation:

...Ironically, one goal of the "experimentation" seems to have been to immunize Bush administration officials and CIA interrogators from potential prosecution for torture. ... In a memo drafted on March 14, 2003, John Yoo, a primary author of the torture memos, defined that boundary [that could trigger prosecution] as treatment leading to "long-term" mental harm or pain and suffering equal to or greater than that caused by organ failure or death. So one purpose of the medical monitoring project was to insure that the techniques interrogators were using did not breach that bright line.

One document cited in the PHR report highlights this practice especially well. On May 10, 2005, then-OLC head Steven Bradbury wrote to then-CIA acting general counsel John Rizzo about the legality of using multiple interrogation techniques simultaneously, as opposed to one by one. Referring directly to data gathered by the CIA's Office of Medical Services, Bradbury decided that both methods were okay.

Sure, why not? So if you tie someone up in a "stress position," force them to their knees and slap them around while dousing them with cold water, it's not torture. Especially if you have some modern Mengeles there with you, monitoring and measuring the degree of despair so they can use the data to "enhance" future interrogations.

And as always, the perpetrators of this system were well aware they were breaking the United States' clear and ironclad laws prohibiting torture. That's why they went to Congress to get some additional cover – with an extraordinary legal provision that essentially authorizes medical experiments on captives:

There is some evidence to suggest that someone in the Bush administration may have realized they could be vulnerable to charges of illegal experimentation. The Military Commissions Act, passed by Congress in 2006, amended the 1996 War Crimes Act, a law that imposes criminal penalties for "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions. Specifically, the language on illegal "biological experiments" was weakened. The new law no longer requires that an experiment be carried out in the interest of the subject in order to be legal. (Research on how to make torture more effective is clearly not in the interest of the person who is going to be tortured.) In addition, it allows experiments that do not "endanger" the subject—rather than simply prohibiting all experiments that "are not justified by the medical, dental, or hospital treatment of the prisoner concerned and carried out in his interest," as the previous version did.

The infamous Military Commissions Act was one of the more heinous legislative actions in last 25 years or more. When it passed, with the help of a dozen Democrats, one senator rose to make an impassioned protest against the measure. He railed against the draconian nature of the bill, which he said eliminated the ancient right of habeas corpus. He denounced the bill for "allowing this President - or any President - to decide what does and does not constitute torture." He lamented "the innocent people we may have accidentally rounded up and mistaken for terrorists - people who may stay in prison for the rest of their lives." He pointed to "a report authored by sixteen of our own government's intelligence agencies, a previous draft of which described, and I quote, "...actions by the United States government that were determined to have stoked the jihad movement, like the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay..."  He summed up with a damning appraisal: "This is NOT how a serious Administration would approach the problem of terrorism."

Yes, as you've already guessed, that passionate dissenter was Senator Barack Obama. Yet you will notice that the Military Commissions Act is still in force; it received a few cosmetic changes in 2009, but it remains essentially intact, including the authoritarian powers of the president decried by the senator. Multitudes of captives remain locked up in the ever-swelling American gulag, which, although it has shifted its focus to Afghanistan, continues to include the still-unclosed, jihadi-stoking prison at Guantanamo Bay. The indefinite detention of prisoners has been eagerly championed by the senator turned president, who is seeking to entrench the practice deeply into American law. And once the young denouncer of the Bush approach to terrorism took power for himself, he quickly embraced that same approach almost in its entirety, defending its most egregious depredations – indefinite detention, illegal wiretapping, etc. – against all legal challenges, and even making personal assurances that no one from the previous administration would ever be prosecuted for instituting a vast apparatus of torture.

Indeed, aside from waterboarding – which had already been abandoned by the Bush Administration – it is unclear if any of the Bush torture techniques have been discontinued. As Andy Worthington notes, for example:

For eight and a half years, the US prison at Bagram airbase has been the site of a disturbing number of experiments in detention and interrogation, where murders have taken place, the Geneva Conventions have been shredded and the encroachment of the US courts — unlike at Guantánamo — has been thoroughly resisted.

In the last few months, there have been a few improvements — hearings, releases, even the promise of imminent trials — but behind this veneer of respectability, the US government’s unilateral reworking of the Geneva Conventions continues unabated, and evidence has recently surfaced of a secret prison within Bagram, where a torture program that could have been lifted straight from the Bush administration’s rule book is still underway.

And as Jason Leopold notes – in an excellent story which gives extensive background and context for the PHR report – the use of captives as guinea pigs for "enhancing interrogation techniques" is still going on under Obama:

Meanwhile, Obama's presence in the White House has not resulted in an abandonment of the research side of the interrogation program. Last March, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, who recently resigned, disclosed that the Obama administration's High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), planned on conducting "scientific research" to determine "if there are better way to get information from people that are consistent with our values."

"It is going to do scientific research on that long-neglected area," Blair said during testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. He did not provide additional details as to what the "scientific research" entailed.

This would be the same Dennis Blair who also announced Obama's embrace – and entrenchment – of the universal murder principle claimed by Bush, whereby the American president can kill any person on earth by the simple expedient of dubbing his victim a "terrorist" or even a "suspected terrorist." As Leopold notes, Blair has now been ash-canned – apparently for insufficient sycophancy, or perhaps he was simply ousted in one of the grim power struggles that forever rage among the factions at the imperial court.

His replacement is yet another dim apparatchik from the bowels of the military-security complex, ex-general, ex-spy-eye-in-the-sky guy James Clapper. This "intelligence expert's" chief claim to fame is his earnest insistence that Saddam Hussein had transferred his bristling arsenal of non-existent weapons of mass destruction to Syria right before the American war of aggression in 2003 – a fairy story long touted by the defenders of that mass slaughter, even after Bush's own investigators confirmed the truth of what the Anglo-American intelligence agencies had known for many years (because Saddam's own son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, head of the WMD programs, had told them back in 1995): that Iraq's WMD programs had been dismantled just after the Gulf War – 12 years before the 2003 attack. Still, Clapper persisted in his propagation of this myth, as the Washington Times reports.

Of course, the Times, being the Times – the creation of a maniacal Korean arms peddler who pretends to be divine -- also says that the Syria-WMD story still "remains a matter of dispute." Well, yes it does – to the same degree that the spheroidicity of the earth remains "a matter of dispute" for handful of cranks. In any case, a crank of this order will shortly be guiding the nation's intelligence apparatus, thanks to the abiding progressive wisdom of the president.

And so on and on it goes. The horrors of the past keep belching up from the sulfurous deeps, only to be subsumed in the noxious "continuity" that engulfs the present.


Chris Floyd at his deskChris Floyd has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years, working in the United States, Great Britain and Russia for various newspapers, magazines, the U.S. government and Oxford University. Floyd co-founded the blog Empire Burlesque, and is also chief editor of Atlantic Free Press. He can be reached at cfloyd72@gmail.com.

This column is republished here with the permission of the author.



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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on June 8, 2010.

 

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