Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 17, 2009
By: Hilzoy

Something Is Missing

I'm still digesting the torture memos, and probably won't say anything comprehensive about them tonight. I did, however, want to flag one thing that is missing.

The US Code defines torture as "an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control. "Severe mental pain or suffering", in turn, is defined as: "the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from", among other things, "the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality."

Suppose there were something that these memos said, in passing, was done to detainees (see e.g. here, p. 4), and that we know independently was done to detainees in US custody; that was known to reliably induce terror and pyschosis in fairly short order; that was described as doing so in government documents that are among the obvious antecedents of the interrogation procedures described in these memos; and that was used precisely in order to produce its psychological effects.

You'd expect the memos to consider whether this technique might count as an act intended to produce "severe mental pain or suffering", since it involves a mind-altering procedure "calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality", and might well produce "lasting psychological harm", right?

Wrong. There is no consideration of sensory deprivation as a form of torture in these memos.

Here's an account of early CIA experiments on sensory deprivation:

"Dr Donald O. Hebb at McGill University found that he could induce a state akin to psychosis in a subject within 48 hours. Now, what had the doctor done? Hypnosis, electroshock, LSD, drugs? No. None of the above. All Dr Hebb did was take student volunteers at McGill University where he was head of Psychology, put them in comfortable airconditioned cubicles and put goggles, gloves and ear muffs on them. In 24 hours the hallucinations started. In 48 hours they suffered a complete breakdown. Dr Hebb noted they suffered a disintegration of personality. Just goggles, gloves and ear muffs and this discovered the foundation, or the key technique which has been applied under extreme conditions at Guantanamo. The technique of sensory disorientation. I've tracked down some of the original subjects in Dr Hebb's experiments of 1952 and men now in their 70s still suffer psychological damage from just two days of isolation with goggles, gloves and ear muffs."

Here's the CIA's Kubark Manual:

"Drs. Wexler, Mendelson, Leiderman, and Solomon conducted a somewhat similar experiment on seventeen paid volunteers. These subjects were "... placed in a tank-type respirator with a specially built mattress.... The vents of the respirator were left open, so that the subject breathed for himself. His arms and legs were enclosed in comfortable but rigid cylinders to inhibit movement and tactile contact. The subject lay on his back and was unable to see any part of his body. The motor of the respirator was run constantly, producing a dull, repetitive auditory stimulus. The room admitted no natural light, and artificial light was minimal and constant." (42) Although the established time limit was 36 hours and though all physical needs were taken care of, only 6 of the 17 completed the stint. The other eleven soon asked for release. Four of these terminated the experiment because of anxiety and panic; seven did so because of physical discomfort. The results confirmed earlier findings that (1) the deprivation of sensory stimuli induces stress; (2) the stress becomes unbearable for most subjects; (3) the subject has a growing need for physical and social stimuli; and (4) some subjects progressively lose touch with reality, focus inwardly, and produce delusions, hallucinations, and other pathological effects."

Doesn't that sound like the sort of thing that might constitute a mind-altering procedure "calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality"? It does to me. And guess what? Just sixteen months after this memo was written, the Army published a brand new field manual that said:

"Separation does not constitute sensory deprivation, which is prohibited. For the purposes of this manual, sensory deprivation is defined as an arranged situation causing significant psychological distress due to a prolonged absence, or significant reduction, of the usual external stimuli and perceptual opportunities. Sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, depression, and anti-social behavior. Detainees will not be subjected to sensory deprivation."

So I'm wondering: didn't it occur to anyone to ask the OLC whether sensory deprivation was a form of torture? If so, where's that memo? And if not, why not?

Hilzoy 1:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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Um, because there's documented evidence of it being done to a US citizen on US soil (Padilla) and it's probably best to let bygones be bygones? Just a wild guess..

Posted by: Rosali on April 17, 2009 at 3:51 AM | PERMALINK

I'm glad you addressed this. I, for one, believe that these memos are only a very small percentage of the evidence which has been intentionally destroyed and hidden.

Another point in support of your thesis is that health care professionals are consistently referenced in the released memos as not only being assistant in the application of torture, but voluntary participants who designed, administered, monitored and evaluated the physiological and psychological effectiveness (i.e. how much temporary and permanent harm, suffering and decompensation toward death) was the torture.

Every profession (medicine, nursing, psychology) has a code of ethics which is predicated on first, do no harm. The social contract demands that healthcare professionals always have beneficence as the guiding principle in planning and providing patient care. To act upon people - who are not patients and therefore have no legitimate need to use the services of healthcare professionals - is the grossest form of malpractice. Each and every healthcare provider who is involved must be identified, investigated and should be permanently removed from their respective professions, regardless of criminal prosecutions and truth commissions.

Failure to do that essentially disqualifies the professions en toto, and it will require that they revert to technical occupation status, requiring external third party control, regulation and oversight. In other words, no more physicians' orders or independent professional judgment because society has found that its trust is not warranted.

Posted by: tribulationperiwinkle on April 17, 2009 at 6:26 AM | PERMALINK

They knew what they were about to do; they knew the consequence of their actions could be extradition to the Hague, and they scrubbed the memos as they wrote them.

If I participate in the planning of crimes of war---whether or not I leave a paper trail to document that participation---I am guilty of those crimes. And regardless of who assures those who have actively participated in the commission of those crimes, they are still just as guilty.

When we permit the development of a society whereby the guilty go free from the cage, then we establish a society whereby the innocent are caged---and it thus becomes imperative that the cage be demolished, as a precursor to punishing the guilty....

Posted by: S. Waybright on April 17, 2009 at 7:32 AM | PERMALINK

How do the actions of the CIA operatives differ from the guards at Abu Ghraib except for the assumption that the CIA were operating under a legal opinion allowing them to do what they did? I'm assuming the CIA were 'authorized' to be far more brutal.

I don't understand the fine legal distinction if the prisoners' interrogations at Abu Ghraib were under the control of a separate unit as the commander of the prison contended. Weren't the guards there 'just following orders' from this separate unit? Or were they freelance abusers? I don't see how you can justly punish some and not all.

Posted by: Heather on April 17, 2009 at 7:37 AM | PERMALINK

I forgot to add: if the CIA operatives thought they were home free, then why was Lloyds able to sell them insurance against their being sued by persons unpon whom they plied their trade?

Posted by: Heather on April 17, 2009 at 7:39 AM | PERMALINK

Sensory deprivatiohn did not occur to them because that is not what they were wanting to do. I was an interrogator in Vietnam. At a properly run unit, fortunately. The army said, and my experience confirmed, that torture is not about getting information. It is a truly ineffective way of getting information. Torture is about beating on somebody. Sensory deprivation does not give the right kind of satisfaction to the torturer. I find it credible that the destruction of the torture videos was as much for the purpose of hiding the lousy quality of the results as about covering up the actins.

Posted by: Fredw on April 17, 2009 at 8:22 AM | PERMALINK

Somewhat related, see the recent New Yorker article on the use of solitary confinement in our prisons.

Posted by: Wally on April 17, 2009 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK



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