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How the U.S. Army's Field Manual Codified Torture -- and Still Does

Buried in Appendix M of the Army Field Manual, the Guantanamo virus is spreading, and eradicating it will require all of us to spread the word.

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Classically, isolation has been used as a means of "making a man talk," simply because it is so often associated with a deterioration of thinking and behavior and is accompanied by an intense need for companionship and for talk. From the interrogator's viewpoint it has seemed to be the ideal way of "breaking down" a prisoner, because, to the unsophisticated, it seems to create precisely the state that the interrogator desires … However, the effect of isolation upon the brain function of the prisoner is much like that which occurs if he is beaten, starved or deprived of sleep.

Those prisoners who cannot be secured in sufficient isolation, presumably at a forward interrogation site, will be secured via "Field Expedient Separation," during which a both blindfold and earmuffs are put on a detainee for up to 12 hours. Again this is expandable upon official approval. The AFM warns that care must be taken to protect the blindfolded, earmuffed prisoner from self-injury, and the prisoner must be medically monitored. The AFM doesn't explain why this is necessary, but the reason is that such sensory deprivation is intolerable for some people and can lead to hallucinations and self-injurious behavior. The inclusion of a procedure that so obviously needs medical monitoring should be a red flag that it violates basic humane treatment.

The other main use of torture is Appendix M's provision for prolonged sleep deprivation, holding a prisoner to no more than four hours of sleep per night for 30 days. As with isolation and perceptual deprivation, this procedure can be prolonged with official approval. Sleep deprivation is used to break an individual down both physically and mentally. The literature on the corrosive effects of sleep deprivation is not difficult to find. Four hours of sleep per day for a month will decrease thyrotropin secretion and increase levels of cortisol, causing stress and high blood pressure. It impairs verbal processing and complex problem solving. Chronic sleep deprivation is "associated with irritability, depression and a reduced sense of well-being."

The AFM's Appendix M makes a lot of noise about forbidding sensory deprivation, then provides a definition of same that would describe none but the most extreme examples of sensory deprivation, all the while allowing its practice upon prisoners. Similarly, the document claims it is consistent with the Geneva Conventions and other human rights documents. It denies that prisoners held under separation will be treated to "excessive noise," "excessive dampness" or "excessive or inadequate heat, light or ventilation." But rather than appear convincing, these caveats seem to direct the interrogation team to just those kinds of procedures that should be used, as long as it is not judged "excessive." At the September 2006 briefing, Kimmons assured reporters that Appendix M had been legally vetted by "senior DOD figures at the secretarial level, by the Joint Staff, by each of the combatant commanders and their legal advisers, by each of the service secretaries and service chiefs and their legal advisers, in addition to the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the director of National Intelligence, who coordinated laterally with the CIA." It was also "favorably reviewed" by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' Justice Department. This is not a legal vetting that inspires much confidence.

The total effect of combining all the procedures enumerated above, particularly in an atmosphere of fear and futility or hopelessness, is to produce a state not dissimilar to that described by Albert Biderman in his famous Chart of Coercion, as described elsewhere by this author and by Scott Shane of the New York Times. Social psychologist Biderman had studied the techniques of Soviet, Chinese and Korean interrogators and constructed a model of coercive interrogation that was later used by SERE interrogators at Guantanamo (as described above). Biderman's Chart of Coercion enumerates the key abusive techniques as isolation, monopolization of perception, induced debilitation and exhaustion, threats, occasional indulgences, demonstrating "omnipotence" and "omniscience" (i.e., complete control over a prisoner's fate), degradation and enforcement of trivial demands. What we have here, in sum, is what has come to be known in the 21st century as the Guantanamo model.