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Guantanamo Medical Chief Was “Advised Not to Talk About” Drug Decision

A new story at Truthout, which I co-authored with Jason Leopold, takes up the investigation of the story into the mass drugging of Guantanamo detainees with the controversial drug mefloquine, aka Lariam, which we originally reported earlier this month. When I wrote about the issue here at Firedoglake, I noted that DoD had scrubbed one the key documents we used. I thought it had resurfaced, but looking today, it’s gone again.

The issue of documents is not so key for this latest look into DoD actions at Guantanamo, as we interviewed or had email exchanges with key individuals involved. The most important was Captain Albert Shimkus, Jr. (ret.), who from 2002 to summer 2003 was former commanding officer and chief surgeon for both the Naval Hospital at Guantanamo Bay and Joint Task Force 160, which administered health care to the detainees. A copy of a January 23, 2002 SOP obtained by Truthout showed that it was Shimkus who signed off on the mefloquine policy.

As the article at Truthout explains:

Capt. Albert J. Shimkus… defended the unprecedented practice, first reported by Truthout earlier this month, to administer 1250 mg of the drug mefloquine to all “war on terror” prisoners transferred to Guantanamo within the first 24 hours after their arrival, regardless of whether they had malaria or not. The 1250 mg dosage is what is used to treat individuals who have malaria and is five times higher than the prophylactic dose given to individuals to prevent the disease. One tropical disease expert said there is no “medical justification” for the practice….

Although there were two media reports in 2002 that quoted Shimkus saying “war on terror” detainees were given antimalarial medication, neither he nor any other military or Pentagon official ever disclosed to lawmakers or military personnel who raised questions about the efficacy of mefloquine, that mass presumptive treatment was the policy in place at Guantanamo.

“There were certain issues we were advised not to talk about,” Shimkus told Truthout in an interview, explaining the reason the policy was never publicly disclosed.

In the interview with Truthout, Shimkus goes on to describe what agencies and personnel he relied on to make the decision, as he readily admitted that he was no public health or malaria expert himself. Nevertheless, he persistently defended the mass administration of mefloquine, even if it did possibly lead to serious side effects in some of the detainees. He maintained the “benefits outweighed the risks.”

The Truthout article explains how unusual this kind of antimalaria approach is. In fact, in regards to the use of mefloquine, or of any population transfer from Central or South Asia to a non-malarial endemic area, the procedure was unprecedented, and if you believe the many links provided from the CDC, and elsewhere, was dangerous.

With the original Truthout investigation drawing upon a parallel study by Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Policy and Research, and suppositions by both investigations that mefloquine, whose drug family was linked to studies done by the CIA’s MKULTRA (see section on quinolines), was used experimentally to soften up the detainees, Captain Shimkus specifically denied any knowledge of any experiment done on the detainees in regards to mefloquine, or anything else. “I don’t remember in my 18 months [at Guantanamo] a word spoken in regards to research.”

But there was some reason he had been told not to talk about the procedure, and other matters. If the medical treatment at Guantanamo was so world-class, why are they hiding information about what was done there? Why can’t redacted medical records be released? Why do even detainee’s attorneys find it next to impossible to obtain these records? Why is a DoD Inspector General report on drugs and detainees kept totally classified?

The only way such thing can be kept secret is because the American people are not clamoring for the truth to be revealed. That is a sad and sombre reflection upon the state of this society as it goes into the second decade of the 21st century.

Jason and I have brought the country the first clear indication of what kind of drugging shenanigans were happening at Guantanamo. I’ll be honest, I’m unhappy with the response from the human rights community and key political bloggers, not to mention the mainstream press. Has the decision of the Obama administration to leave Guantanamo open, and to follow Bush in the policy of indefinite detention and abusive interrogation (Appendix M), so paralyzed the country that very serious charges of drugging of prisoners can pass by unremarked?

I thank Firedoglake and Truthout for supporting the work that furthers these kinds of investigations. But much more needs to be done. The blowback from non-accountability over torture is creeping into the society at an ever-expanding rate. We see this in the seeming acceptability in which accused prisoners, like Bradley Manning, are kept in onerous conditions akin to a Supermax prison… or Camp Echo at Guantanamo.

For readers, the question of what next lies before you with a moral imperative this holiday season. We bring you the news. You can hide your heads, or you can choose to act, raise your voice, make known the unacceptability of such treatment by the state on prisoners held without charge, without trial, victims of a “war on terror”, itself the blowback from a decades-long policy of supporting dictators and torturers abroad.

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco, where he works with adults and couples in psychotherapy. He worked over 10 years professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus. He has published previously at Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record.