The CIA’s Torture Research Program

Stephen Soldz

In the aftermath of World War II the Nuremberg Code and other standards established that all research on people should be based upon two fundamental principles: voluntary informed consent and minimization of harm. “The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential,” begins that Code. The principles of the Nuremberg Code were widely incorporated, including in the United States, into professional ethical rules and laws governing human research. New evidence suggests that, not only did the CIA torture the detainees in their custody, but they also conducted illegal and unethical research on them.

Experiments in Torture

A new report of which I am a coauthor, Experiments in Torture: Evidence of Human Subject Research and Experimentation in the “Enhanced” Interrogation Program, just released by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) provides the first strong evidence that the CIA was indeed engaged in research on detainees in its custody. The report, the result of six months of detailed work, analyzes now-public documents, including the “torture memos” from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) and the CIA’s Inspector General Report and the accompanying CIA Office of Medical Services (OMS) guidelines for monitoring of detainees.

The report points to several instances where medical personnel -– physicians and psychologists –- monitored the detailed administration of torture techniques and the effects upon those being abused. The resultant knowledge was then used both as a legal rationale for the use of the techniques and to refine these abusive techniques.

For example, the OMS guidelines emphasize how important it is “that every application of the waterboard be thoroughly documented” by medical personnel, and clarifying the nature of this documentation:

“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.”

The OMS made clear that this documentation was being done

“[i]n order to best inform future medical judgments and recommendations” [regarding how to torture people.]

The purpose of this systematic monitoring was to modify how these techniques were implemented, that is, to develop generalizable knowledge to be utilized in the future.

Other examples in the PHR report describe instances in which OMS staff investigated the degree to which severe pain that may meet the legal definition of torture arose from the applications of a specific technique (sleep deprivation) or from combinations of individual techniques. The OLC drew upon this research in its torture memos to argue that these techniques did not cause pain sufficient or long-lasting enough to count as “torture.”

Reason for CIA Torture Research

The language of the documents might be interpreted as suggesting that the CIA engaged in this research to avoid harming the detainees, to keep the interrogations “safe and ethical.” This was far from the truth. Rather, the Justice Department torture memos argued that torturers could be protected from prosecution for their acts of torture if they demonstrated a “good faith” effort to avoid causing the “severe pain” involved in legal definitions of torture irrespective of how much suffering and harm the torturers actually caused.

One way they could demonstrate such a good faith effort was to consult with health professionals, the researchers, who could assure them that their actions would not cause harm. Another way to demonstrate good faith was to collect and analyze evidence of prior interrogations demonstrating, allegedly, that they did not cause severe harm. Thus, the quality of the research did not matter. Its very existence would provide the CIA torturers and responsible officials with a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Call for Investigation

This PHR report provides evidence that the CIA likely violated federal ethics rules as well as a prohibition in the War Crimes Act on biological experiments on prisoners “without a legitimate medical or dental purpose.” Thus PHR calls for both a criminal investigation of this research and these experiments, which may well constitute a war crime, and an investigation by the U.S. Office of Human Research Protections (OHRP) of research ethics violations. A few days after the report was released, PHR, along with a number of other health, religious, and human rights organizations, including the IRCT, filed a complaint with OHRP and additional complainants are being sought. As of this writing, no response from OHRP has been received.

American Psychological Association

In addition to criminal and federal penalties, another necessary response to these reported torture experiments is professional sanctioning of any health professionals found to have participated in the research. Physician organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have adopted clear ethical rules prohibiting their members’ participation in the “enhanced interrogation”. The exception among major health professional organizations is the American Psychological Association (APA).

In 2002, the APA weakened its ethics code to permit psychologists to dispense with informed consent when following laws or governmental regulations, no matter how harmful the effect on the people being studied.[1]

This modification apparently allowed psychologists to follow CIA (or military) directives authorizing exemption from the informed consent requirement. This lowered standard does not change psychologists’ legal or ethical obligations in terms of causing harm, but it does unacceptably weaken research standards. This modification should be removed. While the APA has removed from its ethics code another problematic standard also introduced in 2002 [2], it has so far resisted calls to remove this section.[3] In the wake of the PHR report, psychologists and others should demand that the APA immediately remove this ethics code section.


[1] American Psychological Association. Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychological Association; 2002 [cited 2010 January 10]; Available from:

[2] Soldz S., American Psychological Association removes infamous “Nuremberg Defense” from ethics code, leaves other ethics loopholes. ZNet; 2010 [updated March 1; cited 2010 March 1]; Available from:

[3] Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, Physicians for Human Rights, Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Amnesty International USA, Center for Constitutional Rights, National Lawyers Guild, et al. Open Letter in Response to the American Psychological Association Board. Psyche, Science, and Society; 2009 (updated June 29; cited 2009 June 29); Available from:

PsySR president Stephen Soldz is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He edits the Psyche, Science, and Society blog and is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations working to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. Stephen can be reached at This essay first appeared in the July 2010 Newsletter of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: