Saturday, December 4, 2010

"Psychological waterboarding"?

It turns out that post-9/11 prisoners at Guantanamo were routinely given a controversial malaria drug (mefloquine) known to carry a serious risk of side effects including paranoia and ideas of suicide. Seton Hall's law school has published a report discussing the case (press release here). Mark Denbeaux, director of the Seton Hall Law Center for Policy and Research, comments: "At best it represents monumental incompetence. At worst, it’s torture."

If the administration of the drug did not arise from incompetence, the report suggests that not only would this policy "likely satisfy the legal definition of torture" (p. 4), but also, if used as part of a program of enhanced interrogation, "would be the psychological equivalent of waterboarding." has a parallel article on the issue, which quotes Remington Nevin, a Major in the U.S. Army Medical Corps as calling the policy "pharmacological waterboarding." Nevin has been doing a lot of research on the adverse effects of mefloquine, so he knows of what he speaks.

I buy the argument that, if deliberately administered for non-medical reasons, the policy can be characterized as torture. But there are many types of torture, and I am not convinced that waterboarding is the physical "instrument" whose effects are most similar to this medical "instrument". One sort of suspects that both Nevin and Seton Hall latched onto the comparison because of the resonance of the term waterboarding in the public discourse.

Either way, this is rather disturbing news, and it is important to get some answers about the motivations for the administration of mefloquine. Of course, given the Obama administration's reluctance to pursue such answers in other torture-related areas, there is little reason for optimism.

P.S. Interesting discussion of the Army dispensing mefloquine to its own soldiers in the Army Times here. Given the available evidence at this point, I'd put the odds of incompetence vs. torture at about 50-50.

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