The Bush Administration has turned to psychologists in developing interrogation techniques designed to reduce terror suspects to a state of infantile dependency. These methods arguably fall short of torture in the conventional sense. That is, they don’t necessarily involve rubber hoses, thumbscrews, and cattle prods. But in so far as they are designed to create a complete psychological breakdown they rank as some of the most repulsive methods for treating prisoners ever devised.
The methods of enhanced interrogation approved by Bush, which the administration refuses to discuss, center on sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, and psychological humiliation. Each individual method may seem borderline acceptable (e.g., what is wrong with keeping a terrorist awake indefinitely?), but the cumulative effect of all techniques used in total constitutes such a radical departure from American norms that one is virtually compelled to call them un-American.
A picture of the interrogation methods approved by Bush/Cheney has emerged from several sources, including terror suspects that were wrongfully detained and tortured. What follows is something of a composite, but it accurately reflects the methods employed by the CIA at so-called “black sites,” sites that for all intents and purposes are outside any legal jurisdiction whatsoever. The suspects are typically denied human contact, with the exception of black hooded guards and handlers. Efforts are made to keep them as uncomfortable as possible, which may include methods like confining suspects in cages so small it is impossible to stand up or sit down. The aim here is to deny the suspects any sense of control. To this end, suppositories are used regularly to insure that suspects even lose control of their bodily functions.
In conditions of complete sensory and sleep deprivation suspects will reach a state of complete dependency, they will suffer hallucinations, and ultimately a complete mental breakdown. They will undoubtedly reveal valuable information, but they will also tell their captors what they want to hear. The administration claims it has foiled plots using its harsh interrogation methods. However, suspects have also confessed to crimes they didn’t commit. For instance, it is clear that a false confession was taken as confirmation by Bush/Cheney that Saddam possessed WMD and was intent on sharing them with al-Qaeda. It is horribly ironic to think that the Bush administration’s dubious interrogation methods could be at least partly responsible for the fiasco in Iraq.
The Bush Administration claims that its interrogation methods have saved lives. But without transparency it is not possible to weigh the potential costs and benefits. One cost, little acknowledged, is that over time extremely dehumanizing interrogation methods have the effect of brutalizing both the suspects and their captors. The administration has taken to legalistic hairsplitting to justify its coercive interrogation methods. Within their framework, breaking bones is taboo, but breaking minds is perfectly ok. But if U.S. service personnel were treated in an equivalent fashion you can be sure their captors would be described as barbarous. Terrorists may not deserve therapy, but expanding interrogation methods to include psychological forms of torture will inevitably shrink America’s humanity.