Torture is no longer a pressing concern for the American public, if it ever was. The country’s attention has understandably turned to lost jobs, costly health care and spilled oil. Most Americans probably agree with President Obama that rather than dwell on the secret abuses of the Bush-Cheney regime, we ought to be looking forward.

Looking forward is one of those clichés that always sound positive and sensible, and it certainly serves the president’s political interests. But the years of detainee abuse and constitutional violations cannot be dismissed so easily, because the past is still with us — and so are the dangers that drew America’s leaders toward the dark side.

That is why Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the retired commander of U.S. and allied forces in Iraq, repeated his call for a “truth commission” in a New York University auditorium on the evening of June 7. He joined a group of prominent writers, lawyers and actors in staging an extraordinary event titled “Blueprint for Accountability,” which sought to revive pressure on the Obama administration to fulfill its early promises to restore the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions and the rule of law. The house was packed, and there was a sense that the president’s supporters are deeply disappointed — and determined to demand that he live up to his word.

What sharply underscored their concern was a disturbing report issued the same day by Physicians for Human Rights, charging that doctors who observed “enhanced interrogation” sessions for the CIA may have participated in illegal medical experimentation on detainees.

By gathering data to assess the effects of waterboarding, painful stress positions, sleep deprivation, humiliating nudity, extreme temperatures and other abusive techniques, those doctors and other medical personnel risked violating both U.S. and international laws that prohibit such research on any human beings without their informed consent.

The CIA immediately and predictably denied the report, insisting that the officers who oversaw its “past detention program” conducted no such experimentation “on any detainee or group of detainees.” An agency spokesman assured reporters that its practices have passed careful scrutiny in multiple reviews by the government, including one by the Justice Department.

But the Physicians for Human Rights report is based on information found by the group’s researchers in thousands of pages of partially redacted documents released by the government in response to Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. Those documents suggest that doctors helped to enable “the routine practice of torture” by closely monitoring the physical state of prisoners undergoing interrogation — supposedly to protect them from the severe damage that would, in the opinion of Bush administration lawyers, skirt the edge of legality. Most legal experts believe that the practices condoned by those lawyers were indeed grossly illegal under both U.S. and international law.

The same documents also indicate that CIA medical personnel recorded every aspect of each simulated drowning session and collected detailed medical information that was then used to “design, develop and deploy subsequent waterboarding procedures,” according to the PHR report. The doctors prescribed the addition of salt to the water because they believed that higher salinity solutions would reduce the risk of illness, coma or death. They also sought to determine whether simultaneous or sequential application of various torments worked best, and analyzed other evidence of the “susceptibility” of prisoners to pain and suffering such as that caused by sleep deprivation.

“Such acts may be seen as the conduct of research and experimentation by health professionals on prisoners, which could violate accepted standards of medical ethics, as well as domestic and international law,” the report says. “These practices could, in some cases, constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Should the PHR report’s accusations prove true, then the United States took yet another step toward the criminality that our government once prosecuted at Nuremberg. That is a truth we must face forthrightly, as a nation, if we want to hold our heads up and look forward again.

Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.

© 2010


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