The CIA’s Bad Science

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One of the most striking things about the interrogation memos released last week is the way that the Justice Department purported to use academic science to excuse procedures that would clearly cause significant pain for detainees. In one memo, Steven Bradbury, a deputy assistant attorney general, credulously cites CIA medical experts who argued that “even very extended sleep deprivation does not cause physical pain.” To defend this proposition, they cited published studies of people who volunteered to undergo sleep deprivation under very different, controlled conditions, including a book summarizing this work by Dr. James Horne, at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom.

Hilary Bok, author of the Obsidian Wings blog, asked Horne to comment on the CIA’s use of his research to justify its treatment of prisoners. His response should be read in full here. But I will reproduce the central point below: The conditions of a controlled experiment have almost nothing in common with the conditions of a coercive interrogation, and it is “nonsense” to use one to justify the other. Horne writes:

Apart from the sleep deprivation, volunteers [in sleep studies] typically lead a tranquil existence, are fed very well and, except for having periodically to undergo various harmless tests, have plenty of time for relaxation, reading and watching TV. There have been many of these experiments with human volunteers, with the longest lasting 8-11 days.  Volunteers can pull out any time and there is full medical cover. The purpose of these studies has been to explore what sleep does for the body and brain, by removing sleep and see what happens. Under these circumstances, the ‘body’ copes well, whereas the brain and behaviour are obviously affected – not only by sleepiness but by more subtle changes whereby individuals can no longer think for themselves and become more like automatons.

With additional stresses as in ‘coercive techniques’, the situation for the sleep deprived victim becomes deplorable, as the mind and brain under these circumstances trigger the body’s defences to create a physiological ‘alarm reaction’ whereby, for example, various stress coping hormones are mobilised and prepare the body for possible trauma, even blood loss. I emphasise that this alarm reaction is not present under ‘pure sleep loss’ as I have just described.  Prolonged stress with sleep deprivation will lead to a physiological exhaustion of the body’s defence mechanisms, physical collapse, and with the potential for various ensuing illnesses.  We don’t know at what point this latter phase would be reached with ‘coercive techniques’, but to claim that 180 hours is safe in these respects, is nonsense.  Moreover, whereas physical pain may not be particularly apparent even at this stage, the mental pain would be all too evident, and arguably worse than physical pain.

Even under the most controlled settings, without the obvious element of fear, it must be said, the CIA/Justice Department argument is difficult to handle on its face. I wonder if there was any person in the Bush Administration or at the CIA who would have entertained the possibility of voluntarily undergoing shackled sleep deprivation (via uncomfortable standing, sitting or reclining positions) for as long as 7.5 days on a liquid diet of about 1,000 calories per day. By their own sober reasoning, such a course of treatment is not expected to cause “physical pain” or “severe mental pain or suffering.” So no big deal, right? Is there a jury anywhere in the world who would buy this argument?