(CN) — Seven years ago, the CIA’s brutal interrogation program remained too shrouded in secrecy for human-rights physicians to confirm that the torture inside black sites involved human experimentation.
After warning of the possibility in 2010, the New York-based advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights upgraded their judgment to a matter of certainty in their scathing June report: “Nuremberg Betrayed.”
Sarah Dougherty, the paper’s lead author, explained over the phone how recent revelations from Senate investigations and federal litigation have convinced her that the CIA violated bedrock medical principles established 70 years ago.
“The relevance of the Nuremberg Code here — in the way that I use it — is that it created an an ethical bright line that you don’t try new things on prisoners,” Dougherty said. A senior fellow for the U.S. Anti-Torture Program at Physicians for Human Rights, Dougherty is a lawyer with a master’s degree in public health.
“You do not experiment on prisoners,” she added. “They are vulnerable people in captivity. They are not there to be exploited.”
Scott Allen, a physician who helped found Brown University’s Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, co-wrote the report as the group’s medical adviser.
Guiding medical ethics since May 1947, the Nuremberg Code owes its genesis to the “Doctors’ Trial” of Nazi war criminals following World War II.
Three judges from those trials — which featured Adolf Hitler’s personal physician, Karl Brandt, on the dock — culminated in the adoption of 10 points laying the foundation of well-known principles like informed consent and absence of coercion.
The point, Dougherty said, was not to invite overblown comparisons to Nazi atrocities, but to emphasize that the violations of that code do not always come on the scale and scope encountered during the Nuremberg trials.
“It can look like this, and it can happen in secret,” she added, referring to the CIA interrogation program.
Though her group’s research has been ongoing, Dougherty noted that its pace picked up after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released what became known as the torture report in December 2014.
The CIA’s inspector general appeared quoted in the report as bluntly acknowledging the treatment of detainees as “guinea pigs.”
“I fear there was a misunderstanding,” the inspector general said. “OIG [Office of Inspector General] did not have in mind doing additional, guinea pig research on human beings.”
For Physicians for Human Rights, that remark contained a glaring admission.
“The reference to ‘additional, guinea pig research on human beings’ implies that previous research had taken place, and was not limited to data collected for clinical purposes but rather primary data collection,” the advocacy group’s report states (emphasis in original).
The Senate report also exposes the names of the psychologists believed to have designed the CIA’s torture program: James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who each received more than $1 million individually and $81 million for their consulting company.
Representing two survivors of CIA torture — and the family of a detainee who froze to death at a black site — the American Civil Liberties Union brought a federal complaint against Mitchell and Jessen roughly a year later in the Eastern District of Washington.
With that case now set for a jury trial on Sept. 5, Dougherty’s report largely concentrates upon how Mitchell and Jessen’s appropriated another psychologist’s theory of “learned helplessness” to shape the CIA’s program.
Observing that dogs and humans could be conditioned into helplessness even when they have the power to change their circumstances, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman theorized how to overcome this despair.
“Mitchell and Jessen proposed doing the reverse – using torture to produce ‘fear and panic’ — and, ultimately, learned helplessness – and adapting this process for use on detainees,” the 78-page report states.
Declaring himself a torture opponent, Seligman later disavowed the CIA’s adoption of his theory to justify so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He met with Mitchell and Jessen twice shortly after the 9/11 attacks, but denied discussing the CIA program with them.
It is the conclusion of Physicians for Human Rights that any doctors who took part in the system violated U.S. and international law.
“In the course of facilitating the crime of torture, U.S. health professionals committed a second and related crime: human subjects research and experimentation on detainees being tortured, in violation of medical ethics and U.S. and international law,” the 78-page report states.
Though details about the CIA’s program were coming to light after the 2008 election, President Barack Obama refused to prosecute torture, saying he preferred to “look forward as opposed to looking backward.”
President Donald Trump meanwhile has spoken publicly about possibly reviving the program. Dougherty said that the lack of accountability makes the lessons of torture more crucial.
“We feel that under the current political climate that we’re in that there’s a very real risk of us not taking into account the lessons of the past,” she said.
Mitchell and Jessen’s attorney did not respond to an email request for comment.
Hours after this interview, the Associated Press reported that U.S. military forces looked the other way as interrogators from the United Arab Emirates tortured suspected al-Qaida members in a network of secret prisons in Yemen.
One of the torture techniques, known as the “grill,” involved tying a victim to a spit like a roast and spinning him in a circle of fire, according to the report.
Congress held a confirmation hearing Wednesday on Steven Bradbury — the attorney known as the “torture memo” author for writing legal justifications for the CIA interrogation program — for his nomination to the Department of Transportation.
Bradbury’s name appears dozens of times in the Physicians for Human Rights report.