The US military’s routine administration of high doses of a malaria drug, posing severe psychological side effects for Guantanamo Bay detainees, may have been the “psychological equivalent of waterboarding,” according to a published report.
An investigation by the Seton Hall University School of Law, a leading law school in the New York metropolitan area, found that administering 1250mg of the malaria drug mefloquine to Guantanamo Bay detainees was a standard operating procedure, “whether or not any use of the drug was medically appropriate.”
The findings were also carried in a Truthout investigative report by Jason Leopold and Jeffrey Kaye.
“Mefloquine was administered to detainees contrary to medical protocol or purpose,” Professor Mark P. Denbeaux, Director of the Seton Hall Law Center for Policy and Research, said. “The record reveals no medical justification for mefloquine in this manner or at these doses. On this record there appears to be only three possible reasons for drugging these men: gross malpractice, human experimentation or ‘enhanced interrogation.’”
“At best it represents monumental incompetence,” he added. “At worst, it’s torture.”
Mefloquine, even at the standard dose of 250mg, can cause severe side effects such as paranoia, hallucinations, aggression, psychotic behavior, memory impairment, convulsions, suicidal ideation and possibly suicide. The drug produces psychoactive effects because it can cross the blood-brain barrier. In addition, it has a relatively long half-life and is fat-soluble, meaning the drug can remain in the body for a long period of time.
“A massive dose of this drug is not easily corrected and the ‘side effects’ of the medication could last for weeks or months,” Dr. G. Richard Olds, tropical disease specialist and founding Dean of the Medical School of the University of California at Riversidem, noted.
Interviews and court documents reveal that Guantanamo Bay detainees said they were given drugs against their will in order to coerce confessions. The CIA and Department of Defense deny the charge, claiming the Guantanamo Bay detainees merely misinterpreted routine medical treatment.
But a 2003 memo written by Justice Department lawyer John C. Yoo provided legal justification for the use of drugs during interrogations, saying US law “does not preclude any and all use of drugs” as long as the drugs do not inflict permanent or “profound” psychological damage.
In 2002, William Webster, former director of the CIA and FBI, said the US should consider administering drugs such as Sodium Pentothal to Guantanamo Bay detainees.
“We ought to look at what options are out there,” Webster said.
The drug, which is used to treat mild to moderate cases of malaria infection, was administered to the detainees before testing them for malaria, according to Department of Defense documents.
“In my professional opinion there is no medical justification for giving a massive dose of mefloquine to an asymptomatic individual,” Dr. Olds said. “I also do not see the medical benefit of treating a person in Cuba with a prophylactic dose of mefloquine.”
There is no malaria in Cuba, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and US personnel are not prescribed any anti-malarial medication at Guantanamo Bay.
History of abuse
The report notes that the Central Intelligence Agency was experimenting with chemicals similar to mefloquine as early as 1955 as part of Project MKULTRA, a covert behavior modification program. That same program also investigated the possible uses of LSD by giving it to unsuspecting citizens in various social situations. The program was investigated by Congress in 1975 after being made public by the New York Times.
The CIA interrogation manual, known as KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation, which was distributed to numerous foreign governments during the Cold War, details the use of mind altering drugs during interrogation.
“Persons burdened with feelings of shame or guilt are likely to unburden themselves when drugged, especially if these feelings have been reinforced by the interrogator,” the manual says. “And like the placebo, the drug provides an excellent rationalization of helplessness for the interrogatee who wants to yield but has hitherto been unable to violate his own values or loyalties.”
The manual notes that drugs should not be used persistently, because they “may affect the content of what an interrogatee divulges.” Drug should be administered “to cause capitulation, to aid in the shift from resistance to cooperation,” but once this “shift” takes place, “coercive techniques should be abandoned both for moral reasons and because they are unnecessary and even counter-productive.”
The manual was declassified in 1997 and describes a number of medical, chemical and electrical “methods” that can be used during interrogation.
“The government has had long experience with mefloquine and knew about the risks and that the risks greatly increase at the higher treatment dose,” the Seton Hall report states. “Indeed, the fact that the CIA was experimenting with mefloquine’s drug family as part of a program on behavior modification in the 1960s demonstrates that it was well aware of its potential to alter personality.”
If the administration of mefloquine was not the result of medical ignorance, but was being used to coerce, punish, or intimidate detainees, then it would be considered torture under US and international law.
“If mefloquine was not given to detainees for a valid medical purpose, and it was administered with full knowledge of the likelihood of adverse effects and the potential for severe adverse effects, it may be inferred that the side effects were the intended outcome,” the report states. “Under the government’s own legal analysis, this would constitute torture under US law and under the UN Convention Against Torture.”
The United Nations’ anti-torture treaty, which the US Senate ratified in 1993, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person.”
“No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture,” the UN Convention Against Torture states.
With research and editing by Stephen C. Webster. Updated from a prior version.