NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 6/7/2010 12:47:36 AM ET 2010-06-07T04:47:36

A prominent physicians group is charging that medical personnel were used to test and refine the effectiveness of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques for terror detainees in U.S. custody under the guise of safeguarding their health.

Saying the practice amounts to illegal and unethical experimentation on human subjects, Physicians for Human Rights outlined the allegations stemming from a Bush-era interrogation program and called on the White House to investigate.

Its report was based on a re-examination and new interpretation of records that had been previously released.

U.S. government officials denounced the report, saying the government did not conduct human research on detainees. The officials said that such charges and documents have already been made public and were examined by multiple government investigations.

The author of the report, Nathaniel Raymond, said the declassified documents had never been examined with an eye on laws including the Nuremberg Code, established to ban Nazi Germany medical experimentation.

"We're not writing the indictment here," Raymond said before the report's release at midnight Sunday. "We're seeing there needs to be a search warrant. If the White House does not act on this, it's turning its back on something that could be perceived as a war crime."

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano flatly rejected the claims. "The CIA did not, as part of its past detention program, conduct human subject research on any detainee or group of detainees," Gimigliano said.

The group focused on three elements of the interrogation program:

"1. Medical personnel were required to monitor all waterboarding practices and collect detailed medical information that was used to design, develop, and deploy subsequent waterboarding procedures.

"2. Information on the effects of simultaneous versus sequential application of the interrogation techniques on detainees was collected and used to establish the policy for using tactics in combination. These data were gathered through an assessment of the presumed 'susceptibility' of the subjects to severe pain.

"3. Information collected by health professionals on the effects of sleep deprivation on detainees was used to establish EIP sleep deprivation policy."

Add salt, was one recommendation
As an example of the first element, the report said doctors had recommended adding salt to the water used for waterboarding, so the patient wouldn't experience hyponatremia, "a condition of low sodium levels in the blood caused by free water intoxication."

The report interpreted that doctor-recommended practice of using saline solution as "Waterboarding 2.0."

The report also said information was gathered on the pain inflicted when various techniques were used in combination. Raymond said the purpose was to see if the pain caused violated Bush administration definitions of torture, rather than as a safeguard of the detainees' health.

Medical personnel, the report said, also monitored sleep deprivation, with sleepless stints from 48 hours to 180 hours — again to make sure it did not cause prolonged physical and mental suffering, as per those Bush administration definitions, rather than to watch out for harm to the detainee.

Obama policy questioned
The report also raised questions about the Obama administration's new high-value detainee investigation group, known as the HIG. Part of its role is to research new methods of interrogation. The physicians group demanded clarification, asking whether this meant learning by doing.

Wendy Morigi, spokeswoman for the national intelligence director, said this part of the HIG would look at "scientific research that would allow for a refinement of current best practices" and was "in no way was suggesting research on the detainees themselves."

Physicians for Human Rights, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization, says its mission is, in part, to investigate human rights abuses.

The Associated Press and NBC's Pete Williams contributed to this report.

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