CIA Director Approved Startling Breaches Of Medical Ethics, Documents Reveal

U.S. Navy medical personnel displays an enteral feeding tube, used for force-feeding detainees, during a tour of the detainee hospital at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. CREDIT: AP
U.S. Navy medical personnel displays an enteral feeding tube, used for force-feeding detainees, during a tour of the detainee hospital at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba. CREDIT: AP

According to recently declassified documents, the head of the CIA maintained the power to “approve, modify, or disprove proposals pertaining to human subject research,” even though the U.S. government requires informed consent and medical oversight of the program. Many analysts and advocates believe that the “research” was used to develop new interrogation techniques, many of which have subsequently been decried as torture and deemed illegal.

“The world has long known that the CIA’s torture program violated U.S. and international law,” said Dror Ladin, an attorney for the ACLU which obtained documents on the CIA’s so-called “research” through a Freedom of Information Act Request. “We now know that the CIA violated its own bar on non-consensual human experimentation when the agency and its contractors secretly tried out and evaluated the effects of torture techniques on prisoners.”

According to the document which was made public by the Guardian on Monday, former CIA director George Tenet approved what his agency dubbed “enhanced interrogation techniques” including waterboarding, and instructed the agency’s health personnel to oversee interrogations.

The techniques often violated medical ethics not only due to a lack of informed consent from the “human subjects” who the techniques were tried out on, but also because they often ran counter instructions on the responsible and humane medical practices set by the Department of Health and Human Services.


The medical personnel who carried out the research — and also those who followed orders to use so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” and other harsh treatment on detainees in places like Guantanamo Bay may also have violated oaths they took to become certified medical practitioners.

That issue came to a head last July when a Navy nurse refused to continue force-feeding Guantanamo Bay detainees engaged in a prolonged hunger strike. The Navy originally considered handing down a dishonorable discharge to the nurse for refusing to carry out orders, but decided against doing so in May.

He faced censure even though a declassified document obtained by VICE News earlier this year deemed force feeding to be unacceptable by U.S. Southern Command in 2013.

“While enteral feeding is solidly supported under US federal law and policy, international law and certain medical ethical standards holds that the ‘forced feeding’ of a mentally competent person capable of making an informed decision is never acceptable,” the document read.

Independent health advisors recently recommended that medical personnel be excused from duties that violate their professional ethics, which some advocacy organizations see as a positive step toward stopping such harmful practices under the pretense of healthcare.


“This endorsement to uphold medical ethics in all circumstances helps empower military doctors and nurses to reject unethical or inhumane practices without fearing reprisal,” Dr. Vincent Iacopino of Physicians for Human Rights said in a statement. “The U.S. military should swiftly adopt the Defense Health Board’s recommendations and improve structures to support the ethical obligations of its health professionals. If current structures were adequate, the Navy nurse would not be facing possible discharge for refusing to force-feed on ethical grounds. In fact, there would be no force-feeding at Guantánamo at all.”

According to some, brutal tactics deployed against detainees by interrogators and medical professionals persisted simply because they were initially labelled “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT). If they had been referred through throughout as “human subject research,” they may have ceased to be employed sooner, since such “research” ensures greater protections by U.S. policies.

“Crime one was torture,” Nathaniel Raymond, a former war-crimes investigator with Physicians for Human Rights now based at Harvard University said. “The second crime was research without consent in order to say it wasn’t torture.”

President Barack Obama brought an end to the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” with an executive order soon after he took office in 2009, but that measure could potentially be reversed by coming administrations. Last week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation to formally bring in an end to the use of such techniques by the U.S. military. Their bill is expected to be voted on and pass this week.


On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate passed legislation to prohibit the use of so called “enhanced interrogation techniques” including waterboarding and sleep deprivation. The measure passed with a 78–21 vote.


This article has been updated to reflect the current status of the case against the Navy nurse who defied orders by refusing to force-feed Guantanamo Bay detainees.