Guatemalan Research Horrors and US Hypocrisy: CIA Unethical Research Ignored

According to top US officials, abusing people in the name of research without their permission is awful, truly awful. In fact, it is so awful that it takes two Cabinet officials to apologize. That is, if the abuses were committed a long time ago, by researchers who are not around to be held accountable and if there is a friendly foreign government likely to be outraged about the abuse. However, US officials have so far been totally silent about horrific, unethical research conducted by US government researchers within the last decade.

Recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius profusely apologized for a study conducted by the US Public Health Service in which nearly 700 incarcerated people and soldiers in Guatemala were, without their knowledge, deliberately infected with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases in order to test if penicillin could prevent infection. In a statement the two Cabinet secretaries expressed their outrage at “such reprehensible research.” In fact, so disturbed is the US government at this research that President Obama reportedly will call the Guatemalan president to apologize again.

This research violated the basic ethical principles that were supposed to guide research done on people — “human subjects research” in the professional lingo — since World War II. These principles were codified in the Nuremberg Code internationally and in the Common Rule guiding most research on people conducted or funded by US government agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services of which the Public Health Service is a part as well as the Defense Department and the CIA. Fundamental to these and all other recent codes of research ethics are two basic principles: informed consent and minimization of harm. Thus, the Nuremberg Code, containing principles developed for the trials of German doctors who conducted horrific experiments in the Nazi concentration camps, begins with the principle of informed consent:

The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, over-reaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision. This latter element requires that before the acceptance of an affirmative decision by the experimental subject there should be made known to him the nature, duration, and purpose of the experiment; the method and means by which it is to be conducted; all inconveniences and hazards reasonable to be expected; and the effects upon his health or person which may possibly come from his participation in the experiment.

A little later the Nuremberg Code states the obligation of medical researchers to minimize harm resulting from experimental procedures:

The experiment should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.

No experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur; except, perhaps, in those experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects.

The Guatemalan study egregiously violated both these principles and deserves opprobrium. Rather than informed consent, the purpose of the study was deliberately hidden from those infected. These individuals were infected with dangerous, often deadly, illnesses. This research was awful, reprehensible, even horrific, and should never have been contemplated, let alone, conducted. I am glad that it only took a short time since historian Susan M. Reverby of Wellesley College revealed the abuses in a soon-to-be-published paper — available in preprint form on Reverby’s website — until US government officials vociferously condemned it.

But the US government does not need to look back nearly 65 years to find horrific research conducted by US government researchers. In June 2010, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) issued a report, Experiments in Torture: Human Subject Research and Experimentation in the “Enhanced” Interrogation Program, that documented research and experimentation conducted in this century by CIA physicians and psychologists related to the abusive techniques used as part of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” torture program.

These researchers observed the torture of CIA prisoners in the so-called “black sites” and recorded the tortured prisoners’ responses. They paid special attention to the possibility that the torture would kill the prisoners. At times they recommended changes in torture techniques, such as the addition of salt to the water used for the partial drowning techniques that have come to be known as “waterboarding” so as to prevent possible death from induced electrolyte imbalance. This change in procedure allowed the prisoners to be waterboarded many dozens of times while preventing their escape into death. As PHR argued, the main reason for this apparent safety-related research was not the protection of prisoners, but to provide legal cover for the torturers and torture policy-makers by allowing them to claim that medical professionals were assuring the prisoners’ safety.

These abuses were reported by PHR in its peer-review report back in June. (I am one of the authors of that report.) Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was notified by letter of these abuses, abuses that violate the same research ethics principles — informed consent and minimization of harm — that were violated by the Guatemalan STD research. But, rather than express her outrage at this “reprehensible research,” Secretary Sebelius maintained her silence, as did every government official, other than a CIA press spokesman who denied our claims without presenting the slightest bit of evidence. Secretary Sebelius’ department referred an official complaint regarding unethical CIA research to the very same CIA that had already publicly denied the charges. So far, no government agency has committed to investigating these CIA abuses, which occurred far more recently than the Guatemalan horrors.

In response to the over 60 year old Guatemalan abuses, the Secretaries of HHS and State announced the creation of a commission that will undertake to assure that all human subjects research conducted by US researchers meets the highest ethical standards. As NBC News reported:

In addition to the apology, the U.S. is setting up commissions to ensure that human medical research conducted around the globe meets ‘rigorous ethical standards.’ U.S. officials are also launching investigations to uncover exactly what happened during the experiments.

If the purpose of the commission is really “to ensure that human medical research conducted around the globe meets ‘rigorous ethical standards,'” there cannot be a double standard. The same rules must apply to all researchers, everywhere, and to all research subjects, whoever they are. Ethics are there to protect the despised and powerless, not just those deemed deserving. Those researchers aiding CIA or other classified activities cannot get a free pass. We are at an important juncture, either unethical CIA research is investigated and those responsible are held accountable or the whole regime preventing unethical research that has been developed since the world became aware of Nazi horrors will collapse in hypocrisy. We cannot afford to let that happen.

Stephen Soldz is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He maintains the Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice web page and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. He is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations leading the struggle to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. He is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and a consultant to Physicians for Human Rights. Read other articles by Stephen.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. mary said on October 7th, 2010 at 12:58pm #

    At Tuskeegee also.

  2. A Victim said on October 9th, 2010 at 3:12pm #

    There are more victims out there. I come from what appears to be a family of victims of non consensual experiments and it began before we ever immigrated to the US.

    My internet is constantly hacked, I have phone interferences at times and problems with the US Mail system so I can’t always get the word out. Meanwhile, long-term victims like myself have their “overt psychological harassment” phase to shuffle them off to groups claiming that the technologies used are one thing or another or that the agency/ies involved are certain ones. We don’t know who is generating this, and it may not even be the CIA. All these ongoing programs of non consensual experimentation need to be revealed. How many more lives, careers, friendships, families will be destroyed before someone has the courage to come forward and say this is *wrong* and represents the most vile and hypocritical aspects of American life?

    In my overt phase it appears that interrogation was part of the ploy. I might even know which manual they were using for that – but what were they interrogating? I’m obviously not a terrorist. It is my belief that they are interrogating to find out what we know, what evidence we might have, etc. to find ways to cover up all the horrible things that have been done.

    I don’t know what the program I was unvoluntarily shuffled into is, but it involves trauma conditioning, social engineering (and perhaps human engineering), use of something electromagnetic, constant harassment and threats including death threats (for which I have evidence and no justice yet), and at one point battering on certain parts of my head (occipital lobes for instance – I saw stars) with who knows what (DEWs?), false accusations, crimes committed using decoys, etc. Meanwhile the harassers have used the most vile of “cult mind control tactics” in the harassment program – down to the neuro linguistic programmer cyberpaths making references to forced choice, etc. The whole thing is generated from manuals. On top of that, since I am pretty much permanently hacked, I can only assume that even when I try to write about this, it is still part of what they are collecting for the experiment.

    I have some symptoms (I don’t hear voices or anything like that) that lead me to believe they are using electromagnetic stimulation of some kind. But what is even sadder is that my young child has also described symptoms I never reported to her. Bizarrely, my cognitive skills seem improved (I didn’t have a baseline for comparison), instead of the opposite, indicating what the goals of some of this harassment might be. That this includes brain studies is quite clear – my cognition is up and my energy, ability to carry out plans and organization is at an extremely low level. I am woken up 2-3 times a night only to get more of whatever is making the “hissing” noise (and no it’s not PTSD) so I am consistently fatigued. I believe that constitutes torture under the Geneva Convention.

    One of the problems is that victims are led by other victims and moles to believe that this is generated from various exotic things when the truth is we really don’t know how they are doing it.

    We have been financially destroyed with the last attack, my career is halfway in tatters and all this took place after my own father was diagnosed with chronic monocytic leukemia (which may or may not be related to experimentation). I’ve lost so many years to this. Govenments aren’t perfect, but people deserve better than being victims of cowardly, unethical experimentation. I made the most out of my life when I didn’t know but was experiencing strange symptoms – got an advanced degree, was working on another one, made it through all the lies, harassment, false accusations and injustices that this program entails… but now knowing what it is makes me unable to hold back my disgust.

    Will we have to wait for 50-70 years for a simple “profuse apology?” Will it be up to my daughter to get justice for us? Or can we have the justice we deserve? I can’t even call myself a dissident – but I certainly would like to call myself “in permanent exile” one day if I even get that far. My child deserves better than this.

    Where are the other real victims? Are any of them left standing? Everyone is in desperate need of justice here.