Members of the military are not shorn of their constitutional rights while they remain in the military service. Blackstone said: ‘. . . he puts not off the citizen when he enters the camp; but it is because he is a citizen, and would wish to continue so, that he makes himself for a while a soldier.’[i]

After the Germans were defeated in World War II, it was not long before both an International War Crimes Tribunal was created, and a separate Military Tribunal, to try members of the German High Command and others for their “War Crimes, Crimes Against Peace and Against Humanity.”[ii] These military tribunals were held under the auspices of the four individual Zone Commanders, into which Germany had been divided at the end of the war. The Chief Prosecutor for the military tribunals in the American Zone was General Telford Taylor, U.S. Army. There were twelve separate trials held at Nuremberg by the American Military Governor, promulgated by Military Government Ordinance Number Seven, dated 25 October 1946. This ordinance was passed pursuant to the authority granted by Control Council Law Number 10, which set forth exactly who and what could be prosecuted and how the process was to occur (including that someone sentenced to death would be executed no later than 30 days after the “decision has become final”).[iii] It was in the American occupation zone that the second “series” of trials occurred in 1947 against the doctors who performed medical experiments on Jews, Poles, and other persons who were being held prisoner. These trials came to be known as the “Doctors Trials” or the “Medical Trials”. German scientists, some of them renowned in their fields, were tried as war criminals because of the experiments they had performed on behalf of the German High Command on unwilling victims.

Some of the experiments named in the indictment against the German doctors were startlingly similar to those detailed previously in Chapter 1. For example, Count II of the indictment, entitled War Crimes, [specification] Number 6 alleges that

Between September 1939 and April 1945 all of the defendants herein unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly committed war crimes, as defined by Article II of Control Council Law No. 10, in that they were principals in, accessories to, ordered, abetted, took a consenting part in, and were connected with plans and enterprises involving medical experiments without the subjects’ consent, upon civilians and members of the armed forces of nations then at war with the German Reich and who were in the custody of the German Reich in exercise of belligerent control.[iv]

The indictment goes on to list a number of different experiments, the most similar to American experiments of which were the lost (mustard) gas experiments. These were “[c]onducted at Sachsenhausen, Natzweiler, and other concentration camps for the benefit of the German Armed Forces to investigate the most effective treatment of wounds caused by Lost gas. Lost is a poison gas which is commonly known as mustard gas.”[v] One of the most horrifying aspects of the experiments was simultaneously the scientific precision – and complete disregard for the subjects’ humanity – with which the tests were carried out; as if they were being conducted on lab mice. Many of the experiments had obvious utility for all Armed Forces. The U.S. prosecutor acknowledged as much in his opening statement.

A sort of rough pattern is apparent on the face of the indictment. Experiments concerning high altitude, the effect of cold, and the potability of processed sea water have an obvious relation to aeronautical and naval combat and rescue problems. The mustard gas and phosphorous burn experiments, as well as those relating to the healing value of sulfanilamide for wounds, can be related to air-raid and battlefield medical problems. It is well known that malaria, epidemic jaundice, and typhus were among the principal diseases which had to be combated by the German Armed Forces and by German authorities in occupied territories.

To some degree, the therapeutic pattern outlined above is undoubtedly a valid one, and explains why the Wehrmacht, and especially the German Air Force, participated in these experiments. Fanatically bent upon conquest, utterly ruthless as to the means or instruments to be used in achieving victory, and callous to the sufferings of people whom they regarded as inferior, the German militarists were willing to gather whatever scientific fruit these experiments might yield.[vi]

There were high altitude tests to determine how high pilots would be able to fly, as well as freezing tests on human subjects that examined how cold a person could get before dying, as well as what the best ways were to re-heat a freezing person. This had important implications for the Germans fighting on the brutally cold Russian front. Of more specific import for the anthrax vaccine herein discussed, the Germans conducted a number of tests involving chemical and biological warfare.

The experiments involving mustard gas involved gassing subjects and measuring its effect upon them. The Germans operated with the complete permission and authority of both their government and the society generally; given that the subjects weren’t even German soldiers, but captured enemy civilians or belligerents, they went a step further and wounded some prisoners first to determine the effect the gas would have upon a wound under battlefield conditions. While it is important to state that none of the experiments involving the U.S. Department of Defense (of which we are aware) involved this kind of treatment, the ‘baseline’ experiments conducted by the German doctors were identical to the U.S. Department of Defense’s ‘man break’ tests conducted in the late Forties and Fifties. In fact, the lawyers for several of the Nazi doctors argued at trial that the German experiments were identical to the experiments conducted by the U.S. and Britain using human subjects in the period between World Wars War and Two. Of course, as has already been shown, the U.S. experiments were conducted, in most cases, AFTER the Nuremberg Trials, and in secret, and on U.S. citizens.


During their trial, the Nazi doctors offered several defenses to their actions, chief among these was that they, the doctors, had not known that anything they were doing was wrongful because the experiments (in some cases) were no different than ones which had been carried out by the Americans and Germans prior to the trial. In other words, the argument is essentially a combination of challenging the war crimes tribunal’s charges as ex post facto laws, as well as a challenge to the notion of being on ‘notice’ that one’s actions are prohibited. i.e. The doctors argued that there existed no agreed-upon international common law on the use of human beings as subjects. While the world might say now, after victory, that the German doctors’ actions were wrongful, there was no law in existence prior to their actions to let them know what they were doing was criminal. This is a fundamental tenet of criminal law generally: the necessary existence of some law making the act criminal before it is committed, in order to provide notice to the actor that such acts are forbidden.[1]

Two doctors who worked with the prosecution at Nuremberg, Drs. Andrew Ivy and Leo Alexander, were concerned with the defense arguments about there being no previous international statement or standard regarding the treatment of human subjects and their consent in medical experimentation. In April 1947, Dr. Alexander submitted a memorandum to the American Counsel of six points regarding medical experimentation on human subjects. The verdict against the doctors was returned on August 19, 1947. In the verdict, each of the six points was covered and expanded into ten points under a section entitled “Permissible Medical Experiments”. This came to be known as “The Nuremberg Code”. The Nuremberg Code’s first principle was that “the voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.” The principles of the Nuremberg Code were adopted by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1953 when the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force all adopted a memorandum entitled “Use of Human Volunteers in Experimental Research.” The first principle was verbatim from the Nuremberg Code. In 1964, the World Medical Association in its “Helsinki Declaration” adopted the Nuremberg Code. Eventually, these principles were codified in U.S. law as Title 50, section 1520a, but this did not occur until 1977. One might well ask at what point the CIA and DoD doctors can be charged with conducting illegal experiments, but one may as well wonder when pigs will fly at this point.

There is a seminal case from the Supreme Court called The Paquete Habana, which international law professors will say stands for the proposition that international law, in the form of treaties, executive agreements, and international norms and customs, are an essential part of U.S. domestic law.[vii] If that legal proposition is true, then the DoD’s experiments on its own soldiers without their informed consent was patently illegal. It is clear that in 1977, Congress thought something ‘wrongful’ had happened with the CIA’s MKULTRA program. At the opening of the hearings regarding the program, Senator Inouye, presiding, stated that “[i]t is also the purpose of this hearing to address the issues raised by any additional illegal or improper activities that have emerged from the files and to develop remedies to prevent such improper activities from occurring again.”[viii] Notice, however, what is conspicuously absent from that statement: any mention of holding people accountable for those putative violations of the law.

Admiral Stansfield Turner, director of the CIA, also believed that something illegal happened by noting that (a) he was cooperating with the Attorney General, and  (b) reminding the committee that MKULTRA did not occur on his watch, but was a program of another director and that the events were some 12-24 years past at the time of the hearings. MKULTRA lasted from 1953 to 1964 and was conducted in concert with the Department of the Army.[ix]

Interestingly, no one ever stated exactly what law they believed had been broken and what the penalty was for this crime. There was not then, and is not now, any federal criminal statute prohibiting a person or agency from conducting experiments on military members or ordinary citizens without their informed consent. Some members of the committees invoked a recently passed law in that year (1977) that was the product of a 1975 initial inquiry into these matters, but it wasn’t a criminal statute – it simply mandated informed consent with no actual punishment or remedy listed for violations.[2]

This raises an uncomfortable moral/ethical/legal question: which is worse, the German doctors who operated (they claimed) out of a genuine ignorance that their actions were wrong – and historically speaking they have a fair case for it – or the DoD and its doctors who clearly knew that their actions were wrongful in light of the German doctors’ trials? Someone will undoubtedly want to take me to task for comparing the CIA’s or DoD’s doctors to the Nazi doctors of World War II, however, either the principles of the Nuremberg Code are the standards of the medical profession or they are not – they cannot be called principles if they can be bent to the will of the doctor performing the particular tests, or justified and waived away after-the-fact with vague references to ‘national survival’ because the U.S. has never faced the kind of military pressure against the homeland as Germany did in WW2.[3]

The first principle enunciated in the Nuremberg Code is that “the informed consent of the subject is absolutely essential.” There is nothing equivocal about that statement. It does not say, for example, that “the informed consent of the subject is somewhat or mostly essential.” Nor does it manifest any limitation to only Nazi doctors or doctors of defeated Axis powers. As one author has noted, “[t]here is no exception for soldiers or for wartime.”[x] Which all goes to this simple point: there is no “greater good” exception or argument against the principle, because that is exactly what the Nazi doctors said they were doing.

Sidney Gottleib’s statement that it was considered a matter of ‘national survival’ has two dangerous flaws in it, one obvious, the other insidious. The first, obvious flaw is that it is exactly the same argument that the U.S. and other Allied powers forbade as a defense in Control Council Law Number 10. The Wehrmacht doctors certainly performed a number of experiments whose results had only one possible practical application and that was in the war effort in which they were engaged. In fact, the German doctors, involved as their country was in a losing battle against foreign powers with bombs dropping on them daily, probably had a much better claim to Gottleib’s “national survival” argument than the CIA or DoD had in the continental United States post World War II with the U.S. as one of the world’s only two (nuclear) superpowers.

More insidious, and hidden in Gottleib’s argument, however, is a claim of moral superiority. Gottleib’s argument allows that either he, or someone else on behalf of the state, can take away the subject’s right to decide the most fundamental question of humanity: the right to live. It is an objectification of the person – the person as tool of the State. As was pointed out by Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s dissent in the Stanley case, quoting a law review article,

[Human experimentation authorized by the state] dramatizes the notion that the state is free to treat its nationals in the manner it chooses because it perceives itself as the source of all rights, and therefore as beyond the reach of law, rather than regarding rights as inalienable, that is, not subject to arbitrary cancellation by the State.[xi]

This is more insidious because it sounds academic and benign, perhaps even agreeable, because, after all, doesn’t each of us owe our way of life to the state? This simple, yet bankrupt, logic, and consequent objectification of human beings can easily be turned on particular groups and yields exactly the kind of thinking that helped create the Holocaust in the first instance. I do not want to oversimplify a tragedy on the scale of the Holocaust into one short sentence; it doesn’t do it justice nor does it take into account the myriad other factors in involving anti-Semitism in Europe that help account for what happened in Europe from 1933 to 1945. It is, however, critical to recognize arguments like Gottleib’s “national survival” and follow them to their logical conclusion, otherwise tragedies like the Holocaust get put aside as historical anomalies and when programs like MKULTRA, the Tuskegee experiments, and yes, even the current DoD anthrax program are announced, apologists differentiate them because, clearly, WE are not in any way morally comparable to the (gasp!) Nazi doctors… (even though we’re violating the exact same principle in the same way).

It may be that they do not use the same specific means that the Nazi doctors did, which was brute force. Instead, like the CIA doctors in the MKULTRA program and the DoD doctors in the mustard and lewisite gas tests, or the Atomic Energy Commission in its radiation tests on soldiers, it was deception or trickery vice gunpoint, but backed by the very credible threat of future punishment (court-martial), in order to silence those who might bring their actions to light. In normal criminal trials, attempting to hide conduct is frequently admissible as “consciousness of guilt” – that is, evidence that the actor was aware of the wrongfulness of their actions.

Worse than Gottleib’s justification, however, is that in some cases, government actors consciously change history or the law: destroy documents, close test sites, classify evidence they don’t want to become public, and then offer some higher moral calling as justification – the threat of an invisible enemy, international terrorism, the ticking time bomb. The end result is that these excuses either gain public acceptance, or create a sense of public indifference, to the rights of their fellow citizens.

Lest there be any question about whether this line of reasoning was ever explored by the Army or CIA doctors back then, some internal documents (accidentally discovered because they were mis-filed and did not get destroyed like the rest of the more direct source documents) that became public put a finer point on it. In 1977 hearings in front of the Senate, internal CIA documents revealed that the CIA believed that it must “conceal these activities from the American public in general,” because public knowledge of the “unethical and illicit activities would have serious repercussions in political and diplomatic circles and would be detrimental to the accomplishment of its mission.”[xii]

In a 1959 Staff Study, the United States Army Intelligence Corps (USAINTC) even more candidly explained its justification for abandoning the principles of the Nuremberg Code.

It was always a tenet of Army Intelligence that the basic American principle of dignity and welfare of the individual will not be violated . . . In intelligence, the stakes involved and the interests of national security may permit a more tolerant interpretation of moral-ethical values, but not legal limits, through necessity . . . Any claim against the US Government for alleged injury due to EA 1729 [LSD] must be legally shown to have been due to the material. Proper security and appropriate operational techniques can protect the fact of employment of EA 1729.[xiii]

That is to say, legal liability could be avoided by covering up the LSD experiments. If no one could prove they had been given the drug, no one on the administering side would ever have to pay the consequences for their actions.

Putting aside the moral reprehensibility of this position, the issue of the legality of the DoD’s tests is beyond cavil: the experiments violated a slew of laws. They certainly violated the spirit and letter of the Nuremberg Code,. They violated any number of state criminal battery or assault statutes. An unconsented drug in one’s drink is a battery. In fact, the person administering such a treatment would be criminally liable for whatever happened to the person taking the drug.[4] These batteries would also be actionable in a tort suit for damages were the doctors in private practice. They violated the “common rule” and accepted standards of medical practice. They violated the civil rights of U.S. citizens. Interestingly enough, no one was ever prosecuted for these and other acts and no government agent or agency was ever forced to pay a service member a dime by any court for the harms done to them. The explanation as to why is a complicated bit of legal legerdemain.


[1] Four of the seven defendants charged with this crime (experiments involving lost or “mustard” gas) were acquitted.

[2] Chapter 3 addresses at some length what legal recourse someone has against a government agent or agency conducting such experiments. Technically, an unconsented medical procedure would constitute a battery or an assault consummated by a battery, but there is no federal “battery” statute; criminal law is almost entirely a matter for the states.

[3] This is setting aside for the moment a doctor’s Hippocratic oath to “do no harm”.

[4] “During the Rockefeller Commission and Church Committee investigations in 1975, the cryptonym [MKULTRA] became publicly known when details of the drug-related death of Dr. Frank Olsen were publicized. In 1953 Dr. Olsen, a civilian employee of the Army at Fort Dietrick, leaped to his death from a hotel room window in New York City about a week after having unwittingly consumed LSD administered to him as an experiment at a meeting of LSD researchers called by CIA.”  Prepared statement of Adm. Stansfield Turner, Director of the CIA, before a Senate Committee, August 3, 1977.

[i] U.S. v. Manuel, 43 M.J. 282, 286 (C.A.A.F. 1995)(citations omitted).

[ii] Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10., Nuremberg, October 1946–April 1949. Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O, 1949–1953.

[iii] Control Council Law No. 10, Dec. 20, 1945.

[iv] From the indictment, U.S. v . Brandt, et al. (The Medical Case), 2 Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals Under Control Council Law No. 10, (1949).

[v] Id.

[vi] U.S. v. Brandt, et al. (The Medical Case), 2 Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals Under Control Council Law No. 10, p. 37 (1949).

[vii] The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677 (1900).

[viii] Project MKULTRA:  The CIA’s Program of Research in Behavioral Modification, Hearings Before the Senate Committee on Intelligence and the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Health and Human Resources, p. 2, August 3, 1977.

[ix] Id. at pp. 9-14.

[x] G.J. Annas, Changing the Consent Rules for Desert Storm, 326 New Eng. J. Med. 770 (1992).

[xi] Bassiouni, Baffes, & Evrard, An Appraisal of Human Experimentation in International Law and Practice: The Need for International Regulation of Human Experimentation, 72 J. of Crim. L. & C. 1597, 1607 (1981).

[xii] S. Rep. No. 94-755, Book I, p. 385 (1976)(quoting CIA Inspector General’s Survey of the Technical Services Division, p. 217 (1957)).

[xiii] Id., at 416-417 (emphasis added)(quoting USAINTC Staff Study, Material Testing Program EA 1729, p. 26 (Oct. 15, 1959)).


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