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Systematized sleep deprivation at Guantanamo persisted far longer than previously admitted

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Today's Washington Post brings further information on the Pentagon's duplicity at Guantanamo. After Guantanamo officials claimed that the "frequent flyer" psychological torture program was shut down, they continued using it for many months, at least. The "frequent flyer" program involves frequent moves from cell to cell for days or weeks on end, profoundly disrupting sleep and increasing a sense of distress and disorientation. Apparently it was often, though not always, used to faciliate certain Guantanamo interrogations.

The basis for this program was established in a crucial October 2002 meeting -- the infamous meeting where the CIA lawyer said "If the detainee dies you're doing it wrong" -- to plan the Guantanamo abusive techniques. According to the minutes, at that meeting the Behavioral Science Consultation Team [BSCT] consisting of a psychologist and psychiatrist recommended techniques such as "sleep deprivation, withholding food, isolation, loss of time" in order to increase "psychological stress" and "to create an environment of 'controlled chaos.' " This meeting also described what might have been the initial form of the "frequent flyer" program: "Let detainee rest just long enough to fall asleep and wake him up about every thirty minutes and tell him it's time to pray again."

One lesson here is that one should never believe official statements on the treatment of detainees. One should assume these statements are false until there is independent evidence otherwise. In the case of the "frequent flyer" program, they simply claimed it had ended in early 2004 and continued on with no change. In fact, they were torturing Mohammad Jawad at the very time that Vice Admiral Church was conducting one of the never-ending "investigations" that concluded that US abuses were isolated incidents due to the proverbial "few bad apples" and not evidence of a systematic program. Jawad's attorney, Maj. David Frakt described the extreme contrast between official statements and the reality of abuse in his June 19, 2008 closing argument on a motion to dismiss charges due to subjection to the "frequent flyer" program:

"Incredibly, the very day that Admiral Church was investigating conditions at Guantanamo and finding the treatment of detainees to be so wonderful, detention officials at Guantanamo ordered the initiation of the frequent flyer program on Mohammad Jawad. Before the wheels of Admiral Church’s plane were even off the Guantanamo runway, Mohammad Jawad’s arms and legs were being shackled in preparation for the first of 112 moves up and down the hall of L Block, every 3 hours for the next 14 days. While Jawad was being shackled for the first of these moves, back on Capitol Hill, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was testifying before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, reassuring the nation that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was isolated to a few rogue guards. When Secretary Rumsfeld testified before the HASC on May 7, 2004, the day the torture of Mohammad Jawad commenced, he told Congress, in reference to those detainees who had been abused at Abu Ghraib, Quote 'I am seeking a way to provide appropriate compensation to those detainees who suffered such grievous and brutal abuse and cruelty at the hands of a few members of the U.S. military. It's the right thing to do.' "

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Interestingly, while most detainees were subjected to the "frequent flyer" program  to aid interrogations, Jawad was not interrogated for months afterward. His brutal treatment, all meticulously documented in official logs, was apparently punishment for some unspecified offense, or perhaps simply entertainment for the guards. There is still much that we don't know about this "program," just as there is much we still don't know about many other aspects of recent US brutality toward detainees.


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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)

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