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A Guantanamo Connection? Documents Show CIA Stockpiled Antimalaria Drugs as “Incapacitating Agents“

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

A Truthout analysis of historical records concerning government research and nonmedical use of antimalarial medications has revealed that such drugs were the objects of experimental research under the CIA’s MKULTRA program. Even more, one of these drugs, cinchonine, was illegally stockpiled by the CIA as an “incapacitating agent.”

Antimalarial drugs were studied as part of the CIA’s mind control program MKULTRA. Cinchonine, an antimalarial drug derived from chichona bark, was one of the drugs used by the operational components of MKULTRA, code-named MKNAOMI and MKDELTA. The CIA worked with researchers for the Army’s Special Operations Division, a secret component of the US Army Chemical Corps based at Fort Detrick, to develop delivery systems for the drugs.

Revelations concerning CIA interest in use of antimalarial drugs would be of historical interest, as it has never been written about before. But such interest gains contemporary significance in the light of actions taken by the Department of Defense (DoD) in the “war on terror,” and the fact that a key DoD expert on antimalarial drugs was a psychiatrist involved in training personnel for Guantanamo interrogations.

In January 2002, the DoD deliberately decided that all incoming detainees at Guantanamo would be given a full treatment dose of the controversial antimalarial drug mefloquine, also known as Lariam. The purpose was supposedly to control for a possible malaria outbreak, in deference to concerns from Cuban officials.

But specialists in malaria prevention have said they have never heard of such presumptive treatment for malaria by mefloquine in this type of situation. Furthermore, a summary of antimalarial measures at Guantanamo given to Army and Center for Disease Control (CDC) medical officials at a February 19, 2002, meeting of the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board failed to describe the mefloquine procedure approved a month earlier.

Was mefloquine used at Guantanamo to help produce a state of “learned helplessness” in detainees? Were experiments conducted on adverse side effects of mefloquine on the prisoners held there?

Listen to Jeffrey Kaye discuss this report on the Peter B. Collins Show

Some years ago, this might have been considered a crazy scenario to even consider. While there is no smoking gun that can prove mefloquine was used for nefarious purposes, a strong case can be made that use of the drug at Guantanamo was not related to malaria control.

Antimalaria Drugs and MKULTRA

The revelation concerning cinchonine came from hearings the Senate’s Church Committee held in September 1975 on CIA “Unauthorized Storage of Toxic Agents.” The agency’s illegal stockpile of chemicals and drugs, which included the antimalarial drug cinchonine, was supposed to have been destroyed by order of President Nixon in December 1969.

At the time of the president’s order, the US had also signed an international agreement that such chemical and biological weapons would be destroyed, so the revelation of the CIA’s stockpiling of such substances was highly embarrassing to the US government at the time.

At the behest of Congressional investigators, the CIA provided an inventory of all “lethal” and “incapacitating agents” they had kept contrary to presidential order. On this list, the CIA indicated it held two grams of cinchonine, stored as an incapacitating agent, that is, a substance meant to temporarily disable an individual. Temporary incapacitant or not, the CIA inventory listing for cinchonine states, “Overdose leads to severe cardiac convulsions, nausea and vomiting.”

In separate testimony from another Senate investigation, a CIA-linked researcher, Dr. Charles F. Geschickter, told Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1977 hearings that the CIA was interested in antimalarial drugs that “had some, shall I say, disturbing effects on the nervous system of the patients.” Geschickter’s CIA researchers became interested in these antimalarial drugs as part of the work they were doing in the CIA’s MKULTRA program. Dr. Geschickter ran the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research, and the Kennedy hearings also revealed how the fund laundered money for MKULTRA projects.

According to MKULTRA documents released as part of a related Senate investigation in 1977, research into quinolines, the class of drugs that include cinchonine, quinine and the modern antimalarial drug mefloquine (Lariam), was part of MKULTRA subprojects 43 and 45.

The CIA prior to the Congressional investigations destroyed most records concerning MKULTRA and chemical, biological and bacteriological research. Moreover, according to Senate testimony by former CIA Director William Colby, many of the organizational directions concerning both research and operationalization of such weapons were never written down.

An Antimalarial “Incapacitant”

Cinchonine is a quinine-derived drug and similar in some ways to the artificial quinine derivative antimalarial drug mefloequine, also known as Lariam. Mefloquine, a product of Army research, has been the subject of numerous controversies over its side-effect profile, and as recently as 2009, the DoD significantly cut back on its use for the military.

The stockpiling of cinchonine as an “incapacitating” agent was directly contrary to Nixon’s order that all such toxic and bacteriological stockpiles held by the DoD and the CIA be destroyed. Other incapacitating agents held by the CIA for years after the disposal order included the powerful hallucinogen BZ; the anticholinergic drug Cogentin; digitoxin; and Phencyclidine HCL, commonly known as “Angel Dust”; among other drugs.

The CIA’s stockpile of dangerous substances also included numerous “lethal agents,” including shellfish toxin; cobra venom; fish toxin; and numerous substances only known by their code names (“E-4640,” “F-270” etc.). It is not known if any of the lethal or incapacitating agents were ever used, or if so, by whom or where. (The one exception the CIA admitted to was the use of an arsenic suicide pill provided to Francis Gary Powers, a U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. Powers did not use the pill.)

According to Senate testimony, the stockpile was discovered after a review of secret programs ordered by Colby. Originally, the various drugs and weaponized biological substances were kept at the Army’s Fort Detrick compound and were apparently moved later to a CIA storage facility.

The neurological side-effects of mefloquine are similar to the side effects of cinchonine. Cinchonism (or quinism) includes such side-effects as blurred vision, tinnitus, skin rashes, vertigo, nausea, headaches and other even life-threatening serious health problems. Mefloquine has been cited for neurological, but also psychological side-effects, including depression, anxiety, panic attacks, confusion, hallucinations, bizarre dreams and suicidal and homicidal behavior. The effects can be long or short-term.

But even the “short-term” effects can be debilitating, as one military doctor, Captain Monica Parise, told a group of other physicians at a government meeting in May 2003. Parise told the meeting of the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board (AFEB) that “there are a host of other more acute less severe neuropsychiatric issues that occur short-term [with mefloquine], such as insomnia, strange dreams, fatigue, lack of energy, inability to concentrate and some people have reported that those effects have lasted a very long time.”

Parise noted that it takes “three, four, or five months to really wash the drug out of your system,” and that she’d “heard that there might be some data in DoD … that might shed light” on how the drug had “ruined people’s lives.” As we shall see, a psychiatrist present at this same meeting was also involved in training other psychiatrists to assist Guantanamo interrogators.

Administering Mefloquine to All the Guantanamo Detainees

In December 2010, Truthout and Seton Hall School of Law’s Center for Policy and Research revealed that it was medical standard operating procedure (SOP) to give all arriving detainees full treatment doses of the antimalarial drug mefloquine upon arrival at the US prison camp. The military’s own newspaper, Stars and Stripes, followed up with their own story a few weeks later.

[Update, 6/9/2012: Both the Truthout and Seton Hall investigations also noted the CIA’s MKULTRA research into the quinoline family of drugs. The Seton Hall report described how “potential use of these drugs in an interrogation setting was a stated purpose for the [CIA] study.”]

A treatment dose of mefloquine is five times the amount taken weekly by those who use the drug for prophylactic purposes. Larger doses are associated with a higher percentage of side effects.

The Truthout investigation showed that at the time the SOP was put in place, internal discussions within the DoD and an Interagency Malaria Working Group were expressing strong doubts about the serious neuropsychiatric side effects of the drug. Despite this, the surgeon general of the JTF-160 Task Force at Guantanamo signed off on the unprecedented mefloquine protocol.

The chief surgeon, who also served as commander of the Navy Hospital at the base, was Capt. Albert Shimkus. Shimkus told Truthout in late 2010 that he had first sought consult regarding the use of malaria drugs from an assortment of agencies, including officials from the CDC, the Navy Environmental Health Center (NEHC) and the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center at Fort Detrick, Maryland. All three agencies have told Truthout they were not involved in this decision or had no documents related to such consultation.

Shimkus told Truthout in a phone interview last October that the US State Department “would have been involved” in discussions about malaria concerns at Guantanamo, though he maintained no State Department officials were directly involved in the “clinical decision making.”

In June 2004, the CDC announced, “‘presumptive treatment’ without the benefit of laboratory confirmation should be reserved for extreme circumstances (strong clinical suspicion, severe disease, impossibility of obtaining prompt laboratory confirmation).” Hence, “presumptive treatment” – the mass administration of a drug without knowing whether or not it is actually necessary – is reserved for situations when there is no possibility of laboratory confirmation of malaria, but that was not the case at Guantanamo.

Yet, even a year later, the mefloquine SOP was renewed at Guantanamo.

DoD spokeswoman Maj. Tanya Bradsher told Truthout, “A decision was made to presumptively treat each arriving Guantanamo detainee for malaria to prevent the possibility of having mosquito-borne [sic] spread from an infected individual to uninfected individuals in the Guantanamo population, the guard force, the population at the Naval base, or the broader Cuban population.”

According to Bradsher, “The mefloquine dosage was entirely for public health purposes to prevent the introduction of malaria to the Guantanamo area and not for any other purpose.” Nevertheless, when hundreds of contract workers from malaria-endemic countries such as India and the Philippines were brought by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) to build the new Guantanamo Delta Block in 2002, there was no DoD scrutiny of any exposure by these workers to malaria.

According to Bradsher, KBR alone was responsible for its own workers, belying a concern over possible reintroduction of malaria to Cuba, which, according to Captain Shimkus, had produced State Department concerns when it came to the arriving detainees.

In his October 2011 interview, Shimkus also said he sent “pretty detailed reports” regarding the mefloquine decision to JTF-160’s Commanding Officer, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert. He had nothing further to say about a statement made to Truthout a year earlier in which he stated that he had been told not to talk about the mefloquine decision.

When Shimkus was asked if he was aware of any detainees who had suffered psychiatric problems because of drugs administered to them, he said, “Maybe. That’s confidential,” adding a moment later, “No for that.”

He also rejected the opinions of two medical researchers who wrote in PLoS Medicine in April 2011 that “medical doctors and mental health personnel assigned to the DoD neglected and/or concealed medical evidence of intentional harm” to detainees. “They have an opinion and it should be out there,” Shimkus said.

Army Mefloquine “Specialist” Trained Psychiatrists for Interrogations

A top psychiatrist working for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs (OASD-HA), Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, traveled to Guantanamo in October 2002, purportedly to investigate a spurt of suicide attempts among the detainees. Within weeks, according to the AFEB minutes cited earlier, she attended an “experts” meeting on “Malaria Chemoprophylaxis” at the CDC in January 2003 that considered problems with the “neuropsychiatric adverse drug reactions” of mefloquine. Indeed, according to the AFEB speaker, Captain Parise, they specifically included a psychiatrist – presumably Ritchie – in their discussions.

Did Colonel Ritchie bring knowledge of the effects of mass mefloquine administration at Guantanamo to this meeting? We don’t know and Colonel Ritchie, now retired from the military and chief clinical officer for the District of Columbia’s Department of Mental Health, would not return a request for comment. A public spokesperson for OASD-HA told Truthout it had no connection with any decision to use mefloquine at Guantanamo.

It would be strange, if not highly unlikely that, given the widespread interest in mefloquine adverse reactions at the DoD and contemporaneous statements that the DoD was conducting research on this, that the effects of the Guantanamo mefloquine SOP were never examined.

Ritchie’s involvement in mefloquine issues can also be ascertained by the fact that, in 2004, Ritchie, by then “Psychiatry Consultant” to Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley, gave a presentation to the DoD’s Deployment Health Clinical Center on the “Neuropsychiatric Side-Effects of Mefloquine.”

Of convergent interest is the fact that, according to Dr. Ritchie, she taught psychiatrists slotted for assignment to the military’s Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs) working at Guantanamo and possibly elsewhere. She is, at this point, the only known person potentially linking military activities surrounding both mefloquine and interrogations or torture.

According to an Army surgeon general description of BSCT training during the period Colonel Ritchie was involved, such training included instruction in methods of inducing “learned helplessness.”

“Learned helplessness” is a condition of near-total psychological breakdown produced by inability to escape an extreme set of stressors. Its study is associated with the work of psychologist Martin Seligman, who did research on the subject as far back as the 1960s. In the 1990s, all the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape schools except the Navy school discontinued the use of the waterboard in their training program precisely because it tended to produce “learned helplessness” in its students, the opposite of the kind of effect they were seeking.

A Guantanamo Autopsy Tests for Mefloquine

The months-long period of time it takes for mefloquine to leave the system may have been involved with a decision to test a detainee at Guantanamo who had committed suicide for the presence of mefloquine in his bloodstream. But the detainee, whose autopsy report included toxicology results that show he was tested specially for mefloquine, had been at Guantanamo for five years at the time of his death.

Abdul Rahman Al Amri entered Guantanamo in February 2002 and would have been given a treatment dose of mefloquine at that time. We do not know why he would have been tested for its presence over five years later. All but one of the other detainees for whom we have autopsy reports due to purported suicides were not tested for mefloquine, showing such testing was not standard procedure.

Al Amri was also found dead with his hands bound behind his back, and his death as well as that of 2009 suicide Mohamed Salih Al Hanashi are under investigation by the UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Executions, primarily because of Truthout’s coverage of these events.

A Plausible Hypothesis

The discovery that the CIA researched antimalarial drugs as part of its mind control program and, moreover, operationalized at least one of these drugs as an “incapacitating agent” means that the hypothesis that mefloquine was used for similar purposes at Guantanamo is not inconsistent with a known pattern of governmental behavior.

There are many reasons to question the supposed use of mefloquine at Guantanamo for purely public health purposes. Consider the following:

  • The mass use of treatment levels of mefloquine at Guantanamo was unprecedented.
  • The drug was limited to only one group of potential malaria carriers.
  • Use of mefloquine for presumptive treatment continued for years past the point when the DoD was already manifestly aware of the drug’s dangers.
  • The mefloquine SOP was hidden from medical authorities at the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board.
  • Finally, there is the fact no government agency will admit to advising use of the drug, even when a Guantanamo medical officer states they were involved.

As a result of all the above, it appears highly possible that the motive for the drug’s use was to psychologically disorient and physically debilitate all or some portion of incoming prisoners.

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