The CIA subjected "war on terror" detainees it held captive at black site prisons to sleep deprivation, rectal feeding, waterboarding, ice-water baths, painful stress positions, beatings, mock executions, mock burials, and threats of sexual abuse.
So says the Senate Intelligence Committee's executive summary about the efficacy of the CIA's detention and interrogation program. According to the summary, which was released last December, detainees were tortured so they would give up intelligence CIA officials believed they were withholding about al Qaeda's operations — and about any planned attacks.
But among the many allegations leveled against the CIA, the agency has vociferously denied one in particular: that it plied any of the 119 captives it held with "mind-altering" substances to facilitate interrogations. After detainees complained to lawyers that they had been forcibly drugged for interrogations, the CIA's internal watchdog determined in 2008 that this wasn't the case, according to 39 pages of redacted documents that were just declassified and obtained exclusively by VICE News in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Related: Senate Torture Report Finds the CIA Was Less Effective and More Brutal Than Anyone Knew
Before now, it had never been clear that the CIA truly investigated the issue. The documents provide new insight into the agency's operations and the medical treatment of detainees, and offer details about previously undisclosed investigations into allegations of detainee abuse that the CIA had undertaken long before the Senate launched its probe.
For years, dozens of current and former detainees held in US custody have alleged to their lawyers that they were forced to ingest pills or were injected with unknown substances that had "mind-altering" effects during or immediately prior to marathon interrogation sessions, which led them to make false confessions to their captors.
Decades ago, the CIA experimented on human subjects using psychotropic drugs and truth serums as part of a secret CIA mind-control program named MKULTRA, whose existence was first disclosed in the 1970s by the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, a precursor to today's Senate Intelligence Committee. One of the goals of MKULTRA was to use drugs to extract information from resistant subjects during interrogations.
Some evidence has surfaced since 9/11 that shows the CIA seriously considered using drugs on its captives for interrogation purposes. At a July 2003 conference sponsored by the CIA, one session focused on the question, "What pharmacological agents are known to affect apparent truth-telling behavior?"
But the Senate Intelligence Committee's declassified executive summary made reference to drugs only in the context of one detainee: accused USS Cole bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who accused his CIA captors of "drugging or poisoning his food." According to a person familiar with the Senate's investigation, the intelligence committee also looked into allegations that mind-altering drugs were used for interrogation purposes, but found no evidence in the millions of pages of CIA documents it reviewed to support the detainees' claims.
The CIA's investigation into the use of mind-altering drugs on post-9/11 captives still leaves many questions unanswered, said Leonard Rubenstein, a medical ethicist at Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights who reviewed the declassified records obtained by VICE News. Rubenstein says they suggest the CIA inspector general never conducted a proper investigation, apparently failing to review protocols, medical charts, or interviewed doctors.
"I don't think it is possible to accept the representations of CIA to the senators that an investigation was conducted at face value," Rubenstein said about the CIA's probe. "You don't find if you don't look. Needless to say, the categorical denial that drugs were not used in interrogation is a relevant piece of evidence, and the redactions in the documents prevent us from knowing certain facts. But it doesn't seem like an investigation was conducted."
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Inspector General John Helgerson conducted the CIA's internal review at the request of then senators Joseph Biden, Chuck Hagel, and Carl Levin. In April 2008, the lawmakers read an explosive report in the Washington Post that said current and former detainees who were imprisoned at Guantanamo "and elsewhere" were forcibly drugged — sometimes orally and in other instances via injections — immediately prior to being interrogated. The news report quoted an attorney for Adel al-Nusairi, a former Guantanamo detainee, who said that his client was subjected to mind-altering drugs during his interrogations.
In one of the documents obtained by VICE News, a CIA official whose name is redacted said al-Nusairi "was never in the CIA's program, nor did we render him. Thus, there is little CIA information" on him.
The Washington Post report was published shortly after the Bush administration declassified one of the legal memos John Yoo drafted for the Department of Defense governing interrogations conducted by the US military, which said detainees could, in fact, be drugged.
Yoo is the Justice Department lawyer who also wrote the infamous August 2002 legal opinions widely referred to as the "torture memos," which authorized the CIA to waterboard and use nearly a dozen so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" against a high-value detainee to obtain intelligence.
Yoo's memo for the Defense Department rejected a longstanding ban on the use of "mind-altering substances" on prisoners, and argued that such drugs could be administered to detainees as long as it did not produce "an extreme effect" that would cause a "profound disruption of the senses." Yoo wrote that US law "does not preclude any and all use of drugs." It prohibits only drugs that "disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality."
'The failure to discuss the relationship between psychoactive medications and interrogations even if not administered for that purpose… induces skepticism about the investigation.'
Biden, Levin, and Hagel wrote to the inspectors general of the CIA and Department of Defense stating that they were "deeply concerned" about the use of drugs on detainees, and demanding that the watchdogs conduct a "thorough" investigation into the matter.
Three years ago, psychologist Jeffrey Kaye (with whom I have co-authored stories on the treatment of detainees in custody of the US military and CIA) obtained through a FOIA request a copy of the Defense Department's official inspector general report concerning allegations that detainees were given mind-altering drugs to facilitate their interrogations.
The report concluded that, as a matter of government policy, there was no evidence to support the claims that mind-altering drugs were expressly used for interrogation purposes. But the yearlong probe did make some disturbing findings — including that detainees were interrogated while they were drugged with the type of antipsychotic medications that could have mind-altering affects and "could impair an individual's ability to provide accurate information." But, according to the probe, drugs were not administered specifically for interrogations.
The only drug mentioned in the Defense Department's report that was administered to detainees is Haldol, a powerful antipsychotic medication that can cause side effects including lethargy, tremors, anxiety, mood changes, and "an inability to remain motionless," according to the Defense Department inspector general's report.
The Defense Department investigation also revealed that at least one detainee — convicted terrorism supporter Jose Padilla, who claimed his interrogators dosed him with LSD — was the subject of a "deliberate ruse" in which his interrogator led him to believe he was given an injection of "truth serum."
It turned out to be a flu shot. The Defense Department inspector general's investigation determined that although Padilla was not administered mind-altering drugs, "the incorporation of a routine flu shot into an interrogation session… was intended to convince [redacted] he had been administered a mind-altering drug." It apparently worked, as Padilla turned lethargic during his interrogation sessions.
Unlike the Defense Department, the CIA did not produce a formal report into the alleged use of mind-altering substances. And instead of addressing the specific allegations of forced drugging, the CIA inspector general's probe was narrowly focused, for the most part, on whether the agency had obtained a separate legal opinion governing the use of mind altering drugs for interrogation purposes. Helgerson sought assurances from a CIA official whose name was redacted that the agency "did not request an opinion on the legality of the use of mind altering drugs to enhance interrogations."
"Are you able to assert, based on the records you have seen, that the Agency did not make a request for such an OLC opinion and did not receive an opinion that related to such an issue," a person in the inspector general's office wrote to the CIA official on June 20, 2008 under the subject line: "Allegation of the Use of Drugs to Facilitate Interrogations."
"According to records I have seen, and information I have been told, CIA did not request an opinion on the legality of the use of mind altering drugs to enhance interrogations — and correspondingly — did not receive an opinion on the issue from OLC (whether from John Yoo or anyone else)," the official, who works in the Counterterrorism Center (CTC), the division that operated the detention and interrogation program, responded a day later.
Why this was such a significant issue for the inspector general to probe remains unclear. The letter Helgerson was sent by the senators in April 2008 and the Washington Post story that prompted it noted that Yoo's legal opinion for the Defense Department did not rule out the use of mind-altering drugs. Neither did the torture memo, which was still classified when the Post published its report. Helgerson's internal communications to CIA officials suggests he either overlooked that point or had other concerns. Now retired, he did not respond to VICE News' requests for comment.
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The unredacted CIA documents provided to VICE News did not cite any part of Yoo's memo for the Defense Department pertaining to the use of mind-altering substances. Nor do the documents cite the same arguments Yoo made in one of the torture memos about the use of mind-altering substances, said Katherine Hawkins, an attorney and the former lead investigator for the Constitution Project's Detainee Task Force, which examined the treatment of detainees in custody of the CIA and the military.
"Yoo's [CIA] memo served as an additional shield, and that memo could provide plenty of ammunition to someone who wanted to argue that their administration of mind altering drugs was not illegal torture," said Hawkins, who is now a national security fellow with transparency organization OpenTheGovernment.
Even if Yoo's memos were cited it would be a moot point, because the watchdog found that the use of mind-altering drugs was not part of the CIA's overall detention and interrogation program. To reach that conclusion, the inspector general interviewed agency personnel to "determine if they possess knowledge of the use of 'mind-altering' drugs as part of the interrogation regimen."
"To date, the responses have been consistently negative to that issue," Helgerson wrote in a newly declassified January 29, 2009 letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein, who at the time was the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The letter was sent to Feinstein two months before her committee formally launched its review of the agency's detention and interrogation program.
Helgerson's letter to Feinstein says his office interviewed officials in the CIA's Office of Medical Services (OMS) and obtained written statements from the director of medical services. In a statement, the director said, "No 'mind-altering' drugs were administered as a part of the Agency's detention program to facilitate interrogations."
"The [director of medical services]… has no knowledge or information that any CIA officer or contractor outside of his office has procured and/or administered such drugs to detainees since September 2001," Helgerson told Feinstein.
A spokesman for Feinstein did not respond to requests for comment.
The CIA inspector general sought from the director of medical services a description of all of the drugs that the office's practitioners administered to detainees along with a detailed explanation about the reason the drugs were prescribed and whether any were mind-altering and used in connection with interrogations. In a May 29, 2008 memo, the director of medical services wrote:
In the course of medical care of detainees during their rendition, interrogation, and detention, many detainees received medications to treat conditions arising either prior to or during their detention, when medically indicated. Health care providers prescribed from many classes of medications, to ensure the wellbeing of those in CIA custody. Analgesics, both narcotic and non-narcotic, were administered for pain relief, with the type and amount of medication used determined strictly by the clinical circumstance. Oral, topical, and injectable antibiotics were prescribed for treatment of infections. Antacids, laxatives, and antidiarrheals were administered for a variety of gastrointestinal complaints. Topical products were provided for treatment of skin conditions. All detainees were provided with vitamins, and in some cases, other nutritional supplements on request. Over time, detainees were allowed to request and receive nonprescription analgesics, cold and cough preparations, antacid, and non-medicinal skin moisturizers without prior medical consultation.
Medical treatment of detainees during the course of CIA custody also included psychiatric problems. In consultation with a mental health provider and with the detainee's consent, several detainees received treatment with antidepressant medication during their detention by CIA. Similarly, with medical consultation and informed consent, detainees received nonprescription medication to assist with sleep on request. No such administrations occurred during interrogations. No detainee received a course of treatment with a psychoactive medication with prior consultation and the detainee's ongoing knowledge and consent.
The director of medical services added that upon request, CIA officers were given Ambien — "a sleep inducing medication" whose long list of side effects are sometimes described as "mind altering" — to use "during travel to and from the [black] sites." The implication being that CIA interrogators had at least one type of drug in their possession that could be mind-altering.
Helgerson noted that the director of medical services said the term "mind-altering" drugs is "a term of law, treaty, and popular usage, but not a medical term, inasmuch as it does not appear in any of the standard medical dictionaries."
"Notwithstanding the absence of clinical acceptance of that term, the [director of medical services] cites that no 'mind-altering' drugs were administered to facilitate interrogations and debriefings, because no medications of any kind were used for that purpose," Helgerson added.
Rubenstein, the Johns Hopkins ethicist, said the failure by the director of medical services to discuss "the relationship between psychoactive medications and interrogations even if not administered for that purpose… induces skepticism about the thoroughness of the investigation and the forthrightness of the director."
The director of medical services' memo contains some discussion about the use of psychoactive medications, but the information was withheld from the documents turned over to VICE News on national security grounds.
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When Helgerson wrote to Feinstein in 2009, he noted that his office was conducting a previously unknown separate investigation into allegations of abuse by "a number of the 16 high-value detainees" formerly held in the agency's custody. The questions posed to agency personnel about the use of drugs were asked during interviews pertaining to the "Guantanamo 16 investigation." Yet Helgerson's investigators did not interview any of the detainees who claimed they were drugged. The Defense Department investigation included interviews with three detainees.
The CIA probe wrapped up in September 2008, but a response to the senators who requested the probe was not sent until after Barack Obama was sworn in as president in January 2009. It took longer because the CIA coordinated its response with its Office of Medical Services, Office of General Counsel, and National Clandestine Service.
"In the period since 9/11, the CIA Office of Inspector General has reviewed comprehensively the Agency's handling of the detainees," Helgerson wrote in letters sent to Hagel, Levin, and then-Senator John Kerry — he became the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden became vice president — on January 29, 2009. At that time, Helgerson also announced he had closed his investigation. "In all of these efforts, we have found no evidence or reason to believe that the Agency at any time has employed the use of drugs to facilitate interrogations."
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Attorneys who represent current and former CIA captives told VICE News they are unable to discuss whether their clients have told them they were drugged during or prior to being interrogated because the information is classified, and they are bound by a protective order that prohibits them from revealing anything the detainees say to them about their treatment.
Brent Mickum, an attorney who represents Abu Zubaydah, a detainee mentioned more than 1,000 times in the Senate's executive summary and the only high-value captive subjected to all 10 of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques, said he doesn't doubt that Abu Zubaydah was drugged during interrogations. But he will never know for sure because the government has refused to turn over Abu Zubaydah's medical records.
Related: Psychologist James Mitchell Admits He Waterboarded al Qaeda Suspects
In his 2003 book, Why America Slept, investigative journalist Gerald Posner, citing unnamed intelligence sources, wrote that Abu Zubaydah's interrogators used drugs — both an unnamed "quick-on, quick-off" painkiller and the so-called truth serum Sodium Pentothal — as a form of reward and punishment to get Zubaydah to talk.
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold
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