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New Revelations Suggest DoD Cover-Up Over Detainee Drugging Charges

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout; Adapted: Okko Pyykköelectron)

Two new revelations, and a critical analysis of the recent Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General (IG) report on the drugging of DoD-held detainees, reveals a cover-up of such drugging by the Pentagon and possibly other government agencies.

A recent attorney’s affidavit charges that at least one Guantanamo detainee was involuntarily drugged before his plea hearing at the military commissions. In addition, a declassified Guantanamo medical standard operating procedure (SOP) describes how scopolamine was administered to all detainees rendered to the US Cuban-based prison. Scopolamine has a long history as a supposed “truth drug.”

The IG report held that it could not find evidence that detainees were administered “mind-altering drugs to facilitate interrogation of detainees.” However, as reported in a July 2012 article at Truthout, which obtained the report by the Freedom of Information Act, the IG held that some detainees had been drugged with powerful antipsychotics and other medications that “could impair an individual’s ability to provide accurate information.”

Some of these detainees were interrogated even though they were “diagnosed as having serious mental health conditions, and being treated with psychoactive medications on an ongoing basis,” the IG said.

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The IG also concluded that some detainees had been involuntarily administered drugs as “chemical restraints … used to control behavior or restrict the patient’s freedom of movement.” In addition, at least one prisoner, supposed “dirty bomber” José Padilla, held in isolation at a Navy brig in South Carolina, was tricked into believing he had been given a “truth drug.”

But while the IG report was spurred by a June 2008 Washington Post article reporting a number of former detainees’ complaints of drugging and a subsequent letter to the IG from three US senators, the IG report never interviewed any of the detainees mentioned in the Post story.

The IG interviewed only three detainees, all of whom were still held at Guantanamo. “We did not attempt to interview detainees who had been repatriated,” the IG stated, which would include any of the detainees who had previously made public statements to the press that they had been forcibly drugged.

Drugs Placed in Detainees’ Food

One of the detainees making such accusations was former Australian detainee David Hicks. Hicks detailed those charges in a book published last year, “Guantanamo: My Journey.” The book is not for sale in the United States and the Australian government went to court to seize any profits Hicks could make from book sales in Australia.

In July 2012, the Australian government dropped its case against Hicks. Possibly this was because of revelations that could have come out in court over Hicks’ torture in US custody.

One such document that had been prepared for by Hicks’ defense team has been released. According to an affidavit by New York attorney Josh Dratel, who represented Hicks with military commission authorities, DoD “periodically sedated [Hicks] for non-therapeutic reasons.”

A military prosecutor in Hicks’ case confirmed one example of such drugging to Dratel in July 2007.

“David says the guards forced him to eat a meal which contained a sedative before you read him the charges,” Dratel said he told the government prosecutor. To which the latter replied, “That was done to protect the officers reading the charges from any of the detainees’ reactions.”

Dratel’s affidavit was first reported by Natalie O’Brien at the Sydney Morning Herald. Truthout has obtained a copy of Dratel’s affidavit, which can be downloaded.

Human rights attorney and contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine Scott Horton told Truthout, “The administration of drugs for non-medical purposes on prisoners held in wartime raises very serious issues under the Geneva Conventions – which establish a presumption that such use of drugs is generally unlawful and may rise to the level of a grave breach, or war crime – as well as other international agreements.”

“The disclosure surrounding Hicks appears at first blush to be a criminal violation by US authorities,” Horton said, “but it would be important to ascertain the reasons the US had for doing this before making any final judgment.”

An Australian senator from South Australia has said that the new revelations backing Hicks’ claims of forced drugging mean the government “can no longer put off” a formal inquiry into Australia’s role in Hicks’ incarceration and treatment by US authorities.

Scopolamine Patches for Rendition

While it has been assumed that some sort of medication was given to detainees who were subjected to the Bush-era program of extraordinary rendition, an October 2003 nursing SOP declassified a few years ago documented the use of scopolamine patches on all detainees rendered to Guantanamo.

The SOP describes the sequential steps of medical in-processing on all detainees. Only at step ten are nurses instructed to “remove the scopolamine behind each ear (used to prevent airsickness during transit).”

The stated rationale for the use of scopolamine – that is, for airsickness – is not repeated for other medical instructions in the SOP, including the administration of two other drugs during in-processing, mefloquine and Albendazole, raising questions as to why nurses had to be informed of the use of the scopolamine patches.

A separate SOP for “Out-processing Procedures” for detainees being flown out of Guantanamo Bay prison camp (revised July 2005) states, “A scopolamine patch will be placed on each detainee 4 hours before the flight” out of Cuba. There is no indication that any medical reasons might contravene this procedure.

The IG report on drugging of detainees never mentioned the use of scopolamine.

While DoD has studied scopolamine patches for motion sickness in military personnel, they are not the first-line medication used by DoD for this purpose. As far back as 1956, a military study complained that scopolamine: “gave the most distressing side effects of all the prophylactics used. For continued use, meclizine was the most satisfactory.”

US Army psychiatrist, Brigadier General Stephen Xenakis (retired) confirmed military policy as regards medications for motion sickness.

“Military doctors recommended meclizine for motion sickness during my career & not scopolamine because of the side effects,” Xenakis told Truthout. “I have seen psychotic reactions to the drug,” he said.

At times, the military has noted the effectiveness of scopolamine for some people in treating motion sickness. One NATO study described scopolamine’s “high variability between subjects in both effectiveness and incidence of side effects.” The side effects included lowered heart rate, blurred vision, impaired attention and alertness, and memory problems.

According to US Coast Guard instructions on “Antimotion Sickness Medications,” the scopolamine patch is contraindicated in patients due to variability of effectiveness and associated medical precautions for some users. Scopolamine patches “should be used only after other methods of motion sickness control have proven unsatisfactory,” the Coast Guard directive states.

The Coast Guard instruction, still in effect today, further states, “Uncommon but potentially severe side-effects [of scopolamine] include disorientation, hallucinations, and urinary retention. “

Scopolamine has a very long history of consideration as a potential truth drug, going back over 80 years. Readers of 1960s military thrillers may remember discussion of the drug for interrogations in old Alistair MacLean novels.

According to a CIA account, the drug was ultimately rejected for use as a “truth drug.” The reasons given for such rejection are interesting given the later use of the drug on “war on terror” detainees.

“Because of a number of undesirable side effects, scopolamine was shortly disqualified as a ‘truth’ drug,” the 1961 CIA document states. “Among the most disabling of the side effects are hallucinations, disturbed perception, somnolence, and physiological phenomena such as headache, rapid heart, and blurred vision, which distract the subject from the central purpose of the interview. Furthermore, the physical action is long, far outlasting the psychological effects.”

According to government documents, scopolamine was one of a number of drugs, including mescaline and LSD, which were investigated as part of a US Navy research program called Project Chatter. Chatter ran from 1947 until 1953 and “focused on the identification and testing of such drugs for use in interrogations and in the recruitment of agents.”

Mefloquine as “Pharmacological Waterboarding”

The nursing SOP that mentioned scopolamine was first noted by Army public health physician Remington Nevin in an August 2012 article in a peer-reviewed medical journal examining DoD’s purported medical rationale for another use of another drug, mefloquine.

The “empiric” use of mefloquine – an antimalarial drug that has long been controversial for its serious neurological and psychological side effects – on all incoming detainees at Guantanamo was the subject of a series of Truthout articles by Jason Leopold and this author.

Mefloquine has been connected to a number of serious side effects, including damage to the vestibular system, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, hallucinations, bizarre dreams, nausea, vomiting, sores, and homicidal and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The drug was previously sold under the brand name Lariam.

Nevin told Truthout in December 2010 that the high dosage of mefloquine Guantanamo detainees were forced to take upon arriving at the prison facility was akin to “pharmacologic waterboarding.”

In Nevin’s article for the August 2012 edition of Tropical Medicine and International Health, he wrote, “the troubling possibility that the use of mefloquine at Guantánamo may have been motivated in part by knowledge of the drug’s adverse effects … points to a critical need for further investigation to resolve unanswered questions regarding the drug’s potentially inappropriate use.”

As in the case of scopolamine, the IG report never mentioned the use of mefloquine.

Limiting the Investigation

One reason scopolamine, mefloquine or even the drugs put in David Hicks’ food were never mentioned by the DoD inspector general was that the investigation was carefully limited to the purported use of “mind-altering drugs to facilitate interrogations.”

The IG report states that its report was a response to “a tasking to the Inspector Generals of DoD and the Central Intelligence Agency from Senators Biden, Hagel and Levin.” DoD’s IG does not reproduce the April 24, 2008, letter from the senators, though an online version of the letter still extant at TPM Muckraker clearly describes the tasking precisely.

“We are deeply concerned about the allegations reported in the April 23rd Washington Post article entitled Detainees Allege Being Drugged, Questioned regarding the alleged use of drugs on detainees to facilitate interrogations,” the senators wrote. “They are the most recent in a series of allegations relating to the abuse and mistreatment of detainees in United States custody.”

Pointing out as well that John Yoo, working for the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), had apparently approved of the legality of “the forced administration of mind-altering drugs to facilitate interrogation,” Sens. Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel and Carl Levin wrote, “The allegations reported in the Washington Post article warrant a thorough investigation by the Inspectors General of the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency.”

The letter twice mentions the use of drugs “to facilitate interrogations,” but the 2008 Washington Post article, written by Joby Warrick, did not limit itself to the use of drugs during interrogations. Warrick explained, “Other detainees, in interviews or in statements provided by their attorneys, described pills and injections being forcibly administered for reasons that were not always clear to them.”

But an analysis of government documents shows that the dichotomy between using drugs to facilitate interrogations and using drugs to shape the detention environment are not counterpoised.

In a “Background Paper on the CIA’s Combined Use of Interrogation Techniques,” sent to the OLC in December 2004, the CIA explained that detention conditions “may be a factor in interrogation.”

The CIA document noted, “Detention conditions are not interrogation techniques, but they have an impact on the detainee undergoing interrogation.”

The DoD’s own 2003 Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures describe the detention environment to which incoming prisoners are to be exposed. New prisoners are to adhere to a “Behavioral Management Plan” for at least the first six weeks, whose purpose is to “enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process. It concentrates on isolating the detainee and fostering dependence of the detainee on his interrogator.”

While the 2003 SOP never mentions the use of drugs to “enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization” of detainees, certainly the use of drugs such as scopolamine and mefloquine, among others, could help accomplish this purpose, and do so without technically being used to “facilitate interrogation.” This would be one purpose, for instance, of Yoo’s argument for the use of mind-altering drugs.

The DoD IG never mentions Yoo or his recommendation in their report. Nor do they mention that the current Army Field Manual (AFM) on interrogation allows for the use of drugs for interrogation-related purposes.

The AFM, revised in 2006, states that the only drugs forbidden for use are those “that may induce lasting or permanent mental alteration or damage.” The earlier version of the AFM had prohibited drugs that caused “chemically induced psychosis,” but this language was dropped in the new manual.

Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale told Truthout that no further changes have been made to the AFM since its last rewrite in 2006, meaning the changes in drugging prohibitions still stands.

CIA and Drugging of Detainees

The DoD IG report was clear it was not addressing charges of CIA drugging, which was to be investigated by the CIA Inspector General. Truthout has filed a FOIA request for the CIA IG report.

Claims of the CIA’s use of drugs on detainees rendered to its secret black site prison and “enhanced interrogation” torture program have been the subject of foreign investigations, even as in the United States, the DOJ has closed the book, it claims, on prosecuting CIA crimes.

But the truth about what was done under the CIA’s program has leaked out over the years. In terms of its use of drugs, at Harper’s Horton reported in November 2010 that German prosecutors told him that torture victim Khaled El-Masri, himself a German citizen who was kidnapped and rendered to a CIA prison in Afghanistan, had been given drugs by CIA jailers.

“By studying El-Masri’s hair and skin samples,” Horton wrote, German prosecutors “were able to confirm allegations that he was drugged and subjected to a bizarre starvation regimen.”

The investigation into the illegal CIA kidnapping was shut down after a deputy US ambassador intervened with German Foreign and Justice ministry officials to register Washington’s disapproval of any prosecution of its CIA torturers, according to cables released by WikiLeaks.

“I expect this would have figured in the prosecution that the German prosecutors were preparing before the United States shut down the case through threats and political manipulation,” Horton told Truthout.

Historically, the CIA had approved the use of drugs in interrogations and to influence detention conditions that bear upon interrogation. In a declassified interrogation manual from the early 1960s, the CIA explained that the function of using drugs, “is to cause capitulation, to aid in the shift from resistance to cooperation.”

“Once this shift has been accomplished,” the manual reads, “coercive techniques should be abandoned both for moral reasons and because they are unnecessary and even counter-productive” for interrogation purposes.

Special Operations Command and the IG Report

In an interesting aside to the IG report, a letter to the DoD Inspector General from Col. William Melendez, deputy director for intelligence, US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) noted that USSOCOM “cannot agree or disagree with the report findings” because its forces involved in any interrogations in Iraq and Guantanamo were under authority of Central or Southern military commands (CENTCOM and SOUTHCOM, respectively). The letter was included in an appendix to the IG report itself.

According to Colonel Melendez, SOCOM “did not contribute to the completion” of the IG report, raising questions as to what degree Special Operations forces’ interrogation practices were investigated by DoD’s inspector general.

Speaking of the recent reports concerning the drugging of detainees, Horton told Truthout: “The new evidence points to the use of drugs for nonmedical purposes as a far broader practice, which is troubling. It is hard to imagine this practice being undertaken without high-level authorization, particularly because it is at least arguably illegal, and the medical personnel involved would not likely have risked their professional licenses without getting some formal assurances that they would be protected.”

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