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CIA Investigation Minimizes Use of Drugs on Rendition & Black Site Detainees

The CIA has released documents regarding a 2008 Inspector General (IG) investigation into the use of “mind-altering” drugs to enhance or facilitate interrogations undertaken as part of their rendition, “black site” detention, and interrogation-torture (RDI) program. Not surprisingly, a brief investigation found, according to a January 29, 2009 newly declassified letter sent from the CIA IG to Senator Dianne Feinstein, then-chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), that CIA had not used any drugs on detainees for the purpose of interrogations.

The documents were released to Jason Leopold at VICE News, who posted a comprehensive article examining them earlier today. Leopold and I have previously written on the subject of drugging prisoners, and examined an earlier Department of Defense IG report on the subject a few years ago, as well as the use of mefloquine at Guantanamo, about which more below.

The CIA Inspector General, John L. Helgerson, referred Feinstein to a statement by the Director of CIA’s Office of Medical Services (OMS), to the effect that “no ‘mind-altering’ drugs were administered to facilitate interrogations and debriefings because no medications of any kind were used for that purpose.”

But as we shall see, there were many claims by prisoners of drugging during CIA renditions, and later by affiliated “liaison” government officials. Other prisoners claimed they were drugged during the time they were held by CIA itself at their black site prisons. None of those charges were addressed by Helgerson in his investigation, unless they were part of a 5-page section of the new CIA document release that was totally whited out by the CIA FOIA officials.

No CIA detainees were evidently ever interviewed as part of the IG investigation.

Helgerson said that he queried IG investigators working on another investigation of abuse claims by 16 high-value detainees then held at Guantanamo. The alleged abuse concerned treatment by CIA before the detainees were transferred to Guantanamo in 2006. Helgerson said the investigators had no knowledge of “the use of ‘mind-altering’ drugs as a part of the interrogation regimen.” Nothing is known about this IG investigation on detainee complaints.

Helgerson, who is now retired, did refer in his letter to Feinstein to the May 2004 CIA IG report that examined “isolated allegations of mistreatment or abuse of detainees, though he never specifically states that there were no claims of drugging in that “comprehensive review.”

Helgerson said that the CIA IG had investigated “a variety of specific unrelated detainee abuse allegations” since the 2004 report.

MKULTRA, KUBARK, and Phoenix

The issue of CIA drugging of prisoners has historical resonance since CIA engaged in a decades-long program of experimentation on the use of “truth serums” and other drugs, including LSD, for use in interrogations. Known under various acronyms, including Bluebird, MKDELTA and MKSEARCH, the program was best known in popular accounts as MKULTRA. The CIA’s KUBARK interrogation manual from the early 1960s drew specifically upon MKULTRA research when it advocated use of “narcosis” or the use of drugs for interrogations.

The latest version of the KUBARK manual (PDF), released to me last year after a Mandatory Declassification Request, showed a much heavier emphasis on the use of foreign “liaison” agencies for detention of CIA prisoners than had been previously revealed.

The CIA’s 1983 Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual also describes such liaison relationships in some depth, in addition to a discussion of using drugs during interrogation. According to National Security Archive, “The manual was used in numerous Latin American countries as an instructional tool by CIA and Green Beret trainers between 1983 and 1987 and became the subject of executive session Senate Intelligence Committee hearings in 1988 because of human rights abuses committed by CIA-trained Honduran military units.”

This aspect of the CIA’s program both before and after 9/11 has probably had the least amount of emphasis in the press, for partly understandable reasons, as the actions of police or intelligence agencies in foreign countries is least penetrable or open to examination by government or human rights agency, not to mention journalists.

An important exception to this was Douglas Valentine’s extensive evaluation of the CIA’s Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War. In his book on the subject, he described Phoenix as both a counter-terror assassination program and a interrogation-torture program which heavily relied on the use of South Vietnamese liaison personnel. Valentine detailed the use of drugs by both CIA Phoenix personnel and South Vietnamese police to both disorient prisoners and to obtain false confessions.

In a newly revealed section of the 1963 KUBARK manual, the CIA discussed use of foreign services for interrogation. It is worth referencing here as it is expresses issues still relevant to CIA rendition activities, and interactions with foreign intelligence services to whom CIA sends “ghost” or black site prisoners.

The legislation which founded KUBARK [CIA] specifically denied it any law-enforcement or police powers. Yet detention in a controlled environment and perhaps for a period is frequently essential to a successful counterintelligence interrogation of a recalcitrant source. Because the necessary powers are vested in the competent liaison service or services, not in KUBARK, it is frequently necessary to conduct such interrogations with or through liaison. This necessity, obviously, should be determined as early as possible. The legality of detaining and questioning a person, and of the methods employed. is determined by the laws of the country in which the act occurs.

The issue of drugging detainees takes on even more relevance when one considers that the SSCI’s report on CIA torture included revelations that James Mitchell worked for the CIA’s Office of Technical Services (OTS) when he was referred to help lead the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, and later to construct the EIT program itself. At least one other OTS official was said to have worked on the EIT protocols along with Mitchell, a fact totally ignored by mainstream press accounts.

OTS is notable in CIA history for being the department in charge of the CIA’s MKULTRA program.

Narcotic drugs, “sedatives,” and antidepressants administered to detainees

Despite the claims no drugs were used for interrogation purposes, like a September 2009 Department of Defense Inspector General report (PDF) on the same issue, released via FOIA in July 2012, CIA admitted other drugs were used on detainees for various health-related purposes.

A full list of such drugs, by name or family of drug, was redacted in the current CIA FOIA release. Hence, the most crucial information that we could obtain from the IG investigation was censored.

But a memo from the Director, OMS to Helgerson (dated May 29, 2008) indicated that drugs given to detainees in the CIA’s RDI program included both narcotic and non-narcotic analgesics for “pain relief.”

In addition, CIA’s OMS administered oral, topical and injectable antibiotics; topical agents for skin conditions; antacids, laxatives and antidiarrheals; as well as non-prescription medications for sleep. The letter drily noted that medications “to assist with sleep on request” were not administered during interrogations. (The CIA’s torture program is known for its heavy reliance upon sleep deprivation.)

The CIA’s medical services director also indicated that antidepressant medications were given to “several detainees.” In addition, “sedatives” were also give in “two instances” to detainees “with their knowledge and consent” for “agitation or anxiety.”

CIA documents maintain that what drugs were administered to detainees were done with the informed consent of the prisoners. This contrasts with DoD’s admission that drugs were forcibly administered to some detainees for purposes of “chemical restraint.”

The only drug actually named by CIA officials in the FOIA release was Ambien, and that was said to have been administered to CIA officers for use in travel to and from CIA black sites.

The Director, OMS, also told Helgerson that he knew of no other use of drugs for purposes of interrogation “in any other program or site.” Helgerson himself later told Feinstein and other U.S. senators who had asked for the information, that he was told there no “information that any CIA officer or contractor… has procured and/or administered such drugs to detainees since September 2001.”

Helgerson never mentioned the possibility that such drugs were administered by foreign nationals at liaison officials in other countries where CIA had sent detainees via rendition. In fact, there has been a great deal of evidence of such drugging.

“Drugged repeatedly”

The CIA documents focus on claims of drugging by US agents of Adel al-Nusairi, as described in an influential April 2008 Washington Post article by Joby Warrick. Yet, the Post story was the latest in a number of articles accusing the CIA and DoD of drugging detainees. Another such article in 2007 at NBC News included charges that the CIA’s interrogation program included use of “psychotropic drugs.”

The CIA was dismissive of Warrick’s claims, noting in one memo, most likely from CTC to CIA IG, that al-Nusairi was never a CIA prisoner, “not did we render him,” and therefore they knew little about him or his treatment.

But certainly a search of open source documentation would have found many other instances of charges of drugging by CIA prisoners.

For one thing, as documented in the recent release by the SSCI of their study on the CIA’s interrogation program, high-value detainee Abd al Rahim al Nashiri made repeated charges that we was drugged while in CIA custody. “Over a period of years,” the report states, “al-Nashiri accused the CIA staff of drugging or poisoning his food, and complained of bodily pain and insomnia.”

In February 2007, a Washington Post article by Dafna Linzer and Julie Tate related the story of Marwan Jabour, “an accused al-Qaeda paymaster,” who claimed he was drugged in June 2006 on his very last day in CIA custody.

Jabour “was stripped naked, seated in a chair and videotaped by agency officers. Afterward, he was shackled and blindfolded, headphones were put over his ears, and he was given an injection that made him groggy,” Linzer and Tate wrote.

A number of detainees accused the CIA of forcibly administering suppositories, presumably containing some drug. In December 2009, the European Court of Human Rights found that CIA had in fact “forcibly administered” a suppository during the CIA rendition of Khalid el-Masri.

A 2007 ICRC report, based on interviews with high-value prisoners held at one time by the CIA, stated, “A body cavity check (rectal examination) would be carried out and some detainees alleged that a suppository (the type and the effect of such suppositories was unknown by the detainees), was also administered at that moment.” (p. 6) One of these detainees was accused 9/11 plotter, Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

The ICRC report was released in 2010 by the New York Review of Books, over a year after the CIA IG investigation, but certainly Helgerson had access to the report if he so wanted.

In fact, Helgerson and CIA appear to have done very little in the way of investigating the charges. Like DoD, who also did a poor job of investigating the drugging, interviewing only three detainees, CIA construed the charge to investigate drugging as narrowly as possible. Hence charges of being drugged by foreign governments after CIA had rendered prisoners to countries like Egypt and Morocco were ignored by Helgerson, even though CIA and other allied government agents were present at these interrogation sites, if not directing the interrogations themselves.

Charges of drugging by detainees rendered by CIA to “liaison” services have been detailed in open source documents. Egyptian-born Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib accused Egyptian jailers of drugging him after CIA rendered him to that country.

As a 2005 article on Habib in the Los Angeles Times reported: “‘They outsource torture,’ said Stephen Hopper, Habib’s Australian lawyer. ‘You get your friends and allies to do your dirty work for you.'”

British resident Binyam Mohamed, rendered by CIA to Morocco, and later to Guantanamo, said he was “drugged repeatedly” by Moroccan authorities, subsequent to CIA rendition.

In addition, there is the related issue of withholding of drugs as part of an overall manipulation of medical care. The SSCI report refers to this in the case of high-value detainee Abu Zubaydah. While it quotes CIA director Hayden has denying drugs were withheld from detainees, the report quotes a CIA cable from the time of Zubaydah’s interrogation that mentions “the removal of formal obvious medical care to further isolate” AZ, which could refer to withholding of medical drugs. (p. 491)

Another example of deleterious withholding of drugs concerns high-value detainee Ramzi bin al-Shibh. According to CIA documents quoted in the SSCI report, al-Shibh been in “‘social isolation” for as long as two and half years and the isolation was having a ‘clear and escalating effect on his psychological functioning.” By April 2005, his psychological deterioration was considered “alarming.” A CIA psychologist is quoted as saying, “significant alterations to RBS'[s] detention environment must occur soon to prevent further and more serious psychological disturbance.”

The SSCI report notes that al-Shibh was placed on antipsychotic medication once he was transferred to Guantanamo on September 5, 2006. Evidently, al-Shibh was not placed on such medication prior to that, despite his desperate psychiatric condition.

While the CIA’s Director of Medical Services told the Agency Inspector General that there were psychiatric problems and that antidepressants and “sedatives” were administered, nothing in the extant documents mentions antipsychotic medications. Conversely, the DoD IG report on drugging detainees mentions use of the antipsychotic drug haldol, and not just for antipsychotic use, but as a chemical restraint.

Blood Thinners and Antimalarials

The CIA IG investigation is disingenous in the way it approaches the question of drugs and their effects on prisoners, or the way in which drugs were used in the torture program.

The executive summary of the SSCI report released last December tells the story of Abu Ja’far al-Iraqi. According to CIA records, al-Iraqi “was subjected to nudity, dietary manipulation, insult slaps, abdominal slaps, attention grasps, facial holds, walling, stress positions,and water dousing with 44 degree Fahrenheit water for 18 minutes. He was shackled in the standing position for 54 hours as part of sleep deprivation, and experienced swelling in his lower legs requiring blood thinner and spiral ace bandages…. After the swelling subsided, he was provided with more blood thinner and was returned to the standing position” (p. 149, bold emphasis added).

Typical blood thinners that could have been used likely included heparin or warfarin, both drugs that can produce significant side effects, including headache, confusion, nausea, weakness, and fatigue, all conditions that would adversely affect a prisoner undergoing interrogation, not to mention torture.

The Helgerson investigation is also mum on the use of either scopolamine or mefloquine, both drugs that were administered to detainees rendered to Guantanamo. This presumably also included CIA prisoners transferred to Guantanamo from black sites. The use of scopolamine and mefloquine were standard operating procedures for prisoners entering Guantanamo. Nothing in the new documents speaks to whether such drugs were used on CIA prisoners at the DoD facility.

Former Guantanamo guard Joe Hickman has stated in his widely discussed new book, Murder at Camp Delta, that the CIA ran a secret access program at Guantanamo that included a black site at the Cuba-based facility. It is Hickman’s contention that three detainees who died at Guantanamo in June 2006, which DoD officials called a case of concurrent suicide, were in fact victims of interrogations or experiments at the camp’s CIA black site, known variously as “Camp No” and “Strawberry Fields.”

Notably, one of the deceased detainees had needle marks on his arms. The suicides were also tested for the presence of the antimalarial drug chloroquine, and one of the deceased was tested for the presence of mefloquine. This was quite odd as, one, there is no malaria in Cuba, and two, the SOP that called for administration of mefloquine would have only been relevant to newly arrived prisoners. The three dead detainees had been at Guantanamo for approximately four years at that point.

What mefloquine, scopolamine, chloroquine, and blood thinners have in common are disagreeable, even potentially severe side effects, including psychiatric side effects, even as none of these drugs (with the possible exception of scopolamine) are considered psychotropic or “mind-altering” drugs. Their use by CIA or any government agency holding detainees or prisoners should be very carefully examined for their potential for abuse, as the drugs may not be considered primarily psychoactive, and yet affect mood, perception, consciousness or behavior.

It is worth recalling that the MKULTRA experiments on drugs were not solely about drugs like cannabis, mescaline or LSD. MKULTRA experiments included examination of antimalarials, and also drugs like curare and cancer medications. Indeed, according to an SOP for Physician Assistants at Guantanamo, the Detainee Hospital formulary stocked a number of older chemotherapy drugs. It also stocked heparin and the curare-based drug tubocurarine choloride.

In addition, the detainee hospital also had supplies of a very old malaria drug, quinacrine, as well as the fertility drug Clomid. Why detainees would need a drug that affected hormone levels of estrogen or testosterone is unknown. However, while the hospital stocked these drugs, the SOP indicated that physician assistants were prohibited from prescribing them.

Drugs in interrogations okay if no “lasting or permanent alteration or damage”

Leopold’s article does a good job at detailing the history of the CIA’s investigation, and the strange preoccupation of CIA officials in proving that they had never referred the drug issue to the Office of Legal Counsel for approval in use in the interrogation program. And yet, as Leopold points out, John Yoo, the primary author of the first three torture memos made a special point of giving legal cover to the use of drugs in interrogation.

It it worth noting that the use of drugs in interrogation also became a part of the Army Field Manual, which was revised in September 2006. While previously the military could not use drugs that that could cause a “chemically induced psychosis,” the current Army Field Manual prohibits only the use of “drugs that may induce lasting or permanent mental alteration or damage.”

In other words, any drugs can be used for interrogation that do not cause permanent damage or alteration in a prisoner, a very loose criterion that would allow for the use of many pernicious and harmful, not to say psychoactive or “mind-altering” medications. Today, per executive order by President Obama, the Army Field Manual is the official government guideline for interrogation for both the military and the CIA.

Creative Commons Licensed Photo from Flickr by Jared Rodriguez / Truthout

Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.


  1. kgosztola
    May 12, 2015 at 9:02 am

    Thanks, Jeff, for this contribution. Excellent work.

  2. anonymous
    May 13, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    I’m thoroughly sickened and disgusted by what you’re reporting. Thank you, Jeffrey Kaye, and Kevin Gosztola, too. I thank you both for all your good work.