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DOJ Advice on Sleep Deprivation Varied Widely


Among the many revelations in the CIA inspector general’s report released last week is this curious fact: the CIA did not have a coherent or consistent policy about the use and legality of sleep deprivation as an interrogation tactic. And it was that technique – more than any of the other highly controversial “enhanced interrogation techniques,” as the CIA euphemistically called them — that raised red flags for the Justice Department’s lawyers.

Still, according to the recently released July 2007 memo from the Office of Legal Counsel, the technique was determined not to cause “serious physical pain or suffering” and not to violate the War Crimes Act. The War Crimes Act prohibits torture and “cruel and inhuman treatment.”


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

A comparison of the inspector general report with legal memos released from the Office of Legal Counsel within the Justice Department, however, reveals that lawyers were so uncertain about how and whether sleep deprivation could be used legally that their advice to the CIA ranged from restricting its use to 48 continuous hours, to allowing it for 180 hours or more. And although the 2007 legal memo specifically mentions that the CIA said it might use the technique for 180 hours, the lawyers restricted their analysis, in footnote 7, to only the legality of its use for up to 96 hours. Meanwhile, the inspector general report discusses the contemplated use of sleep deprivation on Abu Zubaydah for up to 11 days at a time — or 264 hours straight.

None of the former interrogators, physicians, lawyers or government officials could explain to TWI exactly why the CIA and Justice Department lawyers changed the rules so sharply and frequently. A call to Jack Goldsmith, the Harvard Law Professor and director of the Office of Legal Counsel from 2003 to 2004 was not returned.

“How they go from 48 to 100 plus hours is anybody’s guess,” said Jack Cloonan, a former FBI special agent who worked in the Osama Bin Laden unit from 1996 to 2002. “I think that they were making the rules up as they went along,” he said, adding that “they outsourced a lot of this,” referring to the role, recently revealed by The New York Times, of Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, two businessmen-psychologists who developed the interrogation procedures for the CIA but had no interrogation experience themselves.

But the experts on sleep deprivation all appear to agree – and the literature on the subject is remarkably consistent – that sleep deprivation is physically and mentally harmful, and largely ineffective at producing useful information. Still, it’s tempting for government officials desperate to get detainees to talk.

“It will elicit information, that’s true,” said Cloonan. “People will talk. But in point of fact the substance is what separates what works and what doesn’t. Did they provide actionable intelligence, and could you verify what was being told?” asks Cloonan. “There’s a big diff between compliance — giving information to stop what they’re being subjected to — and real cooperation, where they’re giving useful information.”

Scientists, physicians and interrogators all say that because sleep deprivation causes extreme confusion and even psychosis, it’s impossible to know if what the detainee is telling interrogators is true or not.

“Sleep deprivation has been extensively studied,” said Dr. Steven Miles, professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School and faculty member of its Center for Bioethics, as well as the author of the book, “Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors.” “It will cause people to speak. It does not produce reliable intelligence. It impairs the ability to concentrate in a way that allows the interrogatee to assemble coherent narratives. So it’s counterproductive in terms of information solicitation.”

A December 2006 report from the Intelligence Science Board of the National Defense Intelligence College says that sleep deprivation is associated with, among other things, “increased suggestibility,” adding: “On this last point it is worth noting that suggestibility increases specifically under conditions simulating an interrogation. At least one study has found that “the effect on suggestibility of one or two night’s sleep loss is comparable to the difference in suggestibility between true and false confessors.”

That’s such a basic fact for interrogators that in the book, “Introduction to Forensic Psychology,” by Curt and Anne Bartol, the glossary lists “Coerced-compliant false confessions” as “Admissions of guilt most likely to occur after prolonged and intense interrogation experiences, especially in situations where sleep deprivation is a feature. The suspect, in desperation to avoid further discomfort, admits to the crime even knowing that he or she is innocent.”

As Tom Parker, a former British Intelligence agent, now Amnesty International’s Policy Director for Terrorism, Counterterrorism and Human Rights explained: “Sleep deprivation was never designed as an interview tool. It was used by the KGB and its precursors as a way to break people down to give false confessions. These techniques are not about getting people to tell the truth, they’re about breaking people down to kill their spirit.”

The justification for the technique originated with the idea of learned helplessness, based on studies conducted decades ago on dogs.

“They took dogs, tied them in a cage and shocked them,” explained Miles. “They showed that the dogs would act to resist or escape, unless the dogs learned there was nothing they could do to resist. Then they would just lie there and take it.”

The theory, explained Miles, is that “when used with other techniques it will induce dependence on the interrogator, which will cause the person to comply.” But all the research done on this from around the world reveals that “this technique simply does not gather intelligence.”

Sleep deprivation is always part of a package: as described in CIA inspector general report, prisoners were shackled, semi-starved, put in diapers and forced to stand that way. Their hands were cuffed along the wall close to their chins, according to Department of Justice memos. If they nodded off and stopped standing, the chains would pull at their wrists, waking them up.

Andrea Northwood, director of client services at the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, recently told The Associated Press that her organization considers 96 hours of sleep deprivation to be torture.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was tortured in Vietnam, has also said that prolonged sleep deprivation is torture, and recently denied the claim in the CIA inspector general report that he was among several members of Congress who approved its use.

Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister from 1977-83, tortured by the KGB as a young man, famously described sleep deprivation in his book, White Nights:

“In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep… Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it,” he wrote. “I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what the interrogator promised them” — time to sleep.

Although the technique was prohibited by President Obama, some worry it could be revived in the future because it at least gets people to talk, and it’s generally perceived as less offensive than waterboarding, head-slamming or forced nudity. “Sleep deprivation may be seen as a tempting technique to restore,” wrote reporter Greg Miller in the Los Angeles Times recently.

In justifying the use of sleep deprivation in a 2005 memo, Justice Department lawyers argued that it was okay for CIA interrogators to keep terror suspects awake for seven and a half days straight — because “even very extended sleep deprivation does not cause physical pain.” They relied for that claim on the work of university researchers who found that people who were deprived of sleep for just one night had an increased sensitivity to certain types of pain. Justice Department memos dated May 10, 2005 cited this study to support the conclusion that severe sleep deprivation of up to 180 consecutive hours might cause some increased pain but not “severe physical pain” — even when used together with slaps, stress positions, water dousing and “walling” — slamming a detainee’s head repeatedly against a flexible wall.

“Because sleep deprivation appears to cause at most only relatively moderate decreases in pain tolerance, the use of these techniques in combination with extended sleep deprivation would not be expected to cause severe physical pain,” wrote Steven Bradbury, a principal deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel, who signed the memos. (Bradbury has since left the department and works at a private law firm in Washington. He did not return calls for comment.)

But those same academic researchers have since called the Justice Department’s use of their work “nonsense.” “To claim that 180 hours [of sleep deprivation] is safe in these respects, is nonsense.” Dr. James Horne, with the Loughborough University Sleep Research Centre, told the blog Obsidian Wings. “Prolonged stress with sleep deprivation will lead to a physiological exhaustion of the body’s defense mechanisms, physical collapse, and with the potential for various ensuing illnesses.”

In their studies, the doctors explained, the subjects were well-fed and could play video games and watch television. Detainees under interrogation, on the other hand, were often semi-starved and chained into place, not even allowed to go to the bathroom.

“In a manner, it’s like giving a drug to a patient: if you administer it in small doses for therapeutic reasons, it helps them. If you give it in huge volumes, it becomes toxic — and can even kill them,” another of the researchers cited, Dr. S. Hakki Onen, sleep specialist and geriatrician, told Time Magazine.

Although the Justice Department lawyers wrote that “extended sleep deprivation cannot be expected to cause ‘severe mental pain or suffering,’” the doctors vigorously disagree.

After several days, “the mental pain would be all too evident, and arguably worse than physical pain,” Dr. Horne said to Obsidian Wings.

Notably, a combination of techniques similar to those used by the CIA has been ruled unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights. In the case Ireland v. U.K., the court held that a combination of sleep deprivation, hooding, wall-standing, continuous white noise, sleep deprivation and “the bread and water diet” violated international humanitarian law.

What’s odd, say former interrogators, is that the military knew this and for the most part, resisted using these techniques. The CIA, however, relying on inexperienced contractors who developed its interrogation strategies based on the military’s Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) training, seems to have completely ignored common knowledge.

“The point is you realize when you’re going through that [SERE] training, they tell you this isn’t about trying to get useful intelligence out of you, it’s about getting propoganda,” said Matthew Alexander, a 14-year veteran of the air force and leader of an elite interrogations team in Iraq and author of “How to Break a Terrorist.” (Matthew Alexander, seen here on The Daily Show, uses a pseudonym.) Sleep deprivation may be used for no longer than 48 hours in SERE training, according to the inspector general report. “They’re just trying to break down your will.”

“I think people misinterpreted that,” Alexander added. “Mitchell and Jessen, the psychologists, they took that learned helplessness theory, but they’d never done an interrogation. They were so off base.”

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