Pentagon, spy agencies divulge details of U.S. government’s experiments on humans
U.S. national security officials say they have made significant changes to their experiments on human subjects since a botched research project in 1953 led to the death of an LSD-drugged CIA scientist who fell from a 13th-floor hotel window.
As American innovators race to win an advantage in artificial intelligence, biotechnology and other emerging technologies, U.S. officials said they have established rules to keep government-funded research from going haywire.
Army scientist Kimberly L. Odam told The Washington Times that the Defense Department’s experiments involving human subjects are moral and lawful.
Ms. Odam directs the office of human and animal research oversight from Fort Detrick, Maryland, and she said her team ensures rigorous regulations are enforced on taxpayer-funded research.
The U.S. rules, officials say, prevent the types of experiments performed in countries such as China, which in 2021 blended human and monkey genetic material.
“There are additional oversight that the public can feel confident that the activities are not only required by the DOD and necessary but that they are ethically acceptable and legally appropriate,” Ms. Odam said on the sidelines of the Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research conference.
The conference in Washington attracted thousands of researchers and scientists engaged in various cutting-edge studies, including experiments on human subjects. In a presentation on the Defense Department’s human research protections, Ms. Odam touted a study involving an app to help people with mild traumatic brain injuries overcome dizziness.
Other examples of research on humans involve genetics, interrogation science and tests of facial recognition and algorithms, according to an FBI presentation at the conference.
National security officials are aware of the fear that government programs resemble something closer to the Jason Bourne film franchise, which features a fictional government operative transformed by reckless bureaucrats into a ruthless assassin.
The popular imagination has run wild since revelations of the government’s role in the 1953 death of scientist Frank Olson.
Mr. Olson was working at Fort Detrick and was unwittingly drugged with LSD in a CIA mind control experiment that ended with his fall to his death from a New York hotel window. The tragedy was dramatized in the 2017 Netflix miniseries “Wormwood.”
After word spread of the government’s role in the scientist’s death, President Clinton signed an executive order in 1997 applying special rules to certain human subjects research, said FBI policy adviser Thomas Motta.
Mr. Motta’s presentation for the research conference identified the emergence of details on the CIA senior scientist’s death as an animating moment for the government to change.
In 1998, the FBI established an institutional review board scrutinizing human research, which Mr. Motta has helped lead since 2012.
The board meets monthly and examines the FBI’s work on human subjects. The bureau’s longest-running human subject research project is focused on serial killers, Mr. Motta said.
The U.S. government now appears eager to prevent unknowing participants in its research.
Mr. Motta’s presentation makes clear that the FBI wants to prevent government experiments on vulnerable people.
“FBI does NOT have authority to study “vulnerable populations” — pregnant women, children, prisoners, mentally incapacitated persons,” Mr. Motta’s presentation said.
The National Security Agency observes similar restrictions and prohibits research involving prisoners and detainees, minors and pregnant women, according to presentation slides for a panel featuring intelligence officials on Wednesday.
Some U.S. adversaries and competitors don’t care for such rules. Chinese authorities promised free health checks but instead collected genetic material to better track Muslim-minority Uyghurs, according to a 2019 report in The New York Times. The Chinese authorities reportedly relied on American academics for assistance.
In 2021, a China-led research team injected human stem cells into monkey embryos. The researchers allowed the resulting creature to grow for 19 days before terminating it. The experiment sparked fears of potential real-world Frankenstein monsters.
The U.S. government has rules and processes to protect humans from such research, the Pentagon said.
Stephanie Bruce, who oversees the Defense Department’s office of human research protections, said participants in government studies provide informed consent and her department ensures people do not feel forced to take part by superiors in their chain of command.
“DOD regulations strive to minimize command influence by not allowing those in the chain to participate in recruitment of those in their chain,” Ms. Bruce told conference attendees. “An ombudsperson is required for recruitment greater than minimum studies.”