When the Office of Legal Counsel torture memos recently became public, I was confused for a while. The ICRC accounts of detainees tortured by the CIA had included being shackled to the ceiling , clad only in diapers, for days on end. The detainees told of excruciating suffereing, leading to scarred wrists. One detainee told of how an artificial leg was sometimes removed, causing him to have to stand on one leg. Both detainees and the torture memos inform us that doctors monitored the swelling of detainees legs to keep it within acceptable limits, swithcing to other unbearable positions to keep the prisoners awake when the swelling went beyond those limits.
Yet, when I looked in the memos under "stress positions," no such shackling was mentioned. It was only upon close reading that I realized that this exquisite torture was categorized, not as a stress position, but solely as "sleep deprivation," constituting yet another of those distortions of language that so characterized the Bush administration. It, along with semi-starvation, was part of the baseline treatment administered to soften prisoners before they were slapped around, slammed into walls, or waterboarded.
The suffering of sleep deprivation alone is intense. Perhaps the best description comes from former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin when he described his experience being tortured by the KGB:
"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.
"I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what the interrogator promised them.
"He did not promise them their liberty; he did not promise them food to sate themselves. He promised them - if they signed - uninterrupted sleep! And, having signed, there was nothing in the world that could move them to risk again such nights and such days."
Former Iraq interrogator Eric Fair had no doubt that even sleep deprivation far less severe than that meted out to Begin's comrades or CIA prisoners was torture. Fair administered the technique to a prisoner in his custody and has yet to recover:
A man with no face stares at me from the corner of a room. He pleads for help, but I'm afraid to move. He begins to cry. It is a pitiful sound, and it sickens me. He screams, but as I awaken, I realize the screams are mine.
That dream, along with a host of other nightmares, has plagued me since my return from Iraq in the summer of 2004. Though the man in this particular nightmare has no face, I know who he is. I assisted in his interrogation at a detention facility in Fallujah. I was one of two civilian interrogators assigned to the division interrogation facility (DIF) of the 82nd Airborne Division. The man, whose name I've long since forgotten, was a suspected associate of Khamis Sirhan al-Muhammad, the Baath Party leader in Anbar province who had been captured two months earlier.
The lead interrogator at the DIF had given me specific instructions: I was to deprive the detainee of sleep during my 12-hour shift by opening his cell every hour, forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes. Three years later the tables have turned. It is rare that I sleep through the night without a visit from this man. His memory harasses me as I once harassed him.
One may also wonder to what end sleep deprivation and the other torture techniques were administered. Begin's description should lead one to question the quality of intelligence obtained from techniques such as this. A prisoner who will sign what he is ordered to sign is not giving high-quality intelligence. Rather, he will agree to any garbage desired by his interrogators, solely to be relieved of his suffering.It isn't only that a sleep deprived psrisoner will say anything to sleep, it is that his cognition is so impaired that he no longer knows what is and isn't true.
The KGB did not use such tortures primarily for intelligence-gathering, but for punishment and elucidation of false confessions. Corrupt police departments have also been known to use sleep deprivation to obtain [often false] confessions. Apparently it often only takes 48 hours or less of deprived sleep to get a confession. Now add in the excruciating experience of having one's feet shackled to the floor and one's wrists to the ceiling for days. One can only wonder, to what purpose did the CIA use such techniques?
The Los Angeles Times, in a new article, suggests that the US may be tempted to return to this form of torture in the future. We must be clear that sleep deprivation, combined with prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation, is the essence of psychological torture, taught by the CIA to torturers around the world. Any government endorsing its use is a torturing government. We also should be suspicious that such a government is much more interested in obtaining confessions than truth, in butressing its faltering ideology than in protecting its people.