Enhanced Interrogation Techniques – How they were developed and why…
When we look at how these enhanced techniques were developed, it provides some insight into why and how detainees were ultimately handled. The programmatic approach and the specific techniques were devised by two psychologists who worked at the USAF Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School. They were not trained as interrogators and had no experience conducting interrogations before being hired to develop the interrogation program. They were, however, experts in interrogation resistance techniques, had extensive expertise in psychology and human manipulation and were very familiar with the programmatic approach to interrogation. To indicate they were not subject matter experts would be a falsehood. We’ll start with a brief review of the relevant background on where and when the techniques came from.
SERE school was established after the Korean War to train service members to avoid capture, and resist (but survive) interrogation. The relevant portion of SERE school to this process is the resistance labs where service members are subjected to a variety of manipulation techniques that are representative of various potential elements of a foreign interrogation. The goal is to train the student to apply a series of resistance techniques under duress and maximize the potential for captured service members to survive.
The techniques used to simulate the conditions a Service Member may experience were selected from studies on human manipulation done by the CIA in the 50’s and 60’s. Some of these are detailed in a publication known as the KUBARK Manual which was published in 1963 and declassified in the late 1990’s. The techniques have been modified over the years to produce today’s SERE School. The intent of the techniques is to provide stress and allow a SERE student to understand the application of resistance techniques in a simulated but challenging environment. SERE School is not, and never has been, a source of sound interrogation practices. It is a source of sound resistance techniques. Although related, they are far from the same thing.
According to the Senate Report, the psychologists developed and submitted the program and these techniques in 2002. They later formed a private entity in 2005, which was subsequently hired by the CIA to manage and supervise the entire program. The construct of the techniques and program by which they would be used were based on the intentional inducement of a state of learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is the term for the result of a series of experiments originally conducted by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steve Maier. They were attempting to induce a state of depression so they could study and attempt to find ways of alleviating it. In the experiments, animals (Dogs) were exposed to a painful stimulus (Electric shock), which was inescapable. There were other groups who could escape, control groups, etc… The dogs’ exposed to inescapable shocks very quickly stopped trying to avoid it and were subsequently unable to independently learn to avoid it when avoidance became an option. This induced state of an inability to learn to avoid painful stimuli was referred to as learned helplessness.
Although, the animals would no longer try to avoid the shock, the dogs could be taught by the researchers to avoid it. It took very significant training to prove to them that they could be effective in avoiding the shock. The key to this approach is that once “learned helplessness” had set in, the animals were dependent on researchers to “teach” them to avoid pain again. They were incapable of learning normal avoidance techniques on their own…
The goal of an interrogation is to extract information and condition a human being to provide willingly accurate information. That goal is incompatible with learned helplessness by itself, as the punishments would no longer have an impact on the subjects behavior. The subject would have learned they were powerless to avoid it, and that their actions had no bearing on the result. Like the dogs in the study, they would simply endure. The basis for the theory under which these techniques were developed is to punish a human being until they no longer have the ability or will, to attempt to avoid punishments in the future. From that point, the interrogator would “teach” or condition that person to believe that providing accurate, timely information will allow them to avoid further punishment in the future.
The most relevant example is the treatment of detainee al-Nashiri, which we will look at in more detail in the next article in the series. The report indicates he was initially cooperative and compliant, yet he was subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques for at least four different periods against the advice of on-site personnel. The plan was written up and approved giving a range of interrogators permission to “eliminate al – Nashiri’s sense of control and predictability” to produce “the desired level of learned helplessness”. There are also recommendations that he be provided “minute rewards” to incent him to continue to cooperate.
This would indicate the goal of the program was to induce learned helplessness and subsequently teach the subjects a means of avoiding future harsh treatments (Communicating truthfully). The “Chief of CIA interrogations” resigned over the treatment of al-Nashiri. He retired calling the entire program a “train wreck” with which he refused to be associated. On paper the entire system was designed to produce state of dependence on the interrogator, and state of complete psychological surrender on the part of the detainee. This state was subsequently used to extract any and all information from the subject.
What does Enhanced Interrogation consist of?
Waterboarding: Waterboarding is placing a person on their back (Typically while strapped to a board), and placing their head below their feet at some angle. The face is covered with a porous material (Typically cloth), and water is poured on the nose and mouth. The technique is (or was) used in SERE Schools to provide severe consequences for actions that are considered likely to have resulted in a student being killed, were he or she facing a real interrogation. Additionally, is some courses it was used to emphasize that anyone can be “broken”. The angle is usually sufficient to keep the subject from inhaling the water, although breathing becomes a trade-off between the demand for air and the sensation that you are breathing water. It is quite uncomfortable. Additionally, the term dousing (a technique where cold water is thrown on the subject) was recorded as waterboarding early on in the program as dousing was never officially reviewed and approved by the Department of Justice.
Rectal Rehydration and Feeding: This technique has been used throughout history for the absorption of alcohol (which is apparently experiencing a resurgence among college students in this day and age), water and nutrition. It was also used as means of torture in the Middle Ages as a technique by which water is used to swell the intestines to a point of discomfort. There is no medical justification for the procedure as there are more effective means of rehydrating or involuntarily feeding a subject, which have a lower inherent risk of injury. The concept that rectal rehydration or feeding was done out of medical necessity is unsupportable. Additionally, the documentation in the report states that it was used as means of degrading the subject on at least on occasion.
Physical Aggression: Slaps, walling, and rough takedowns are referenced. Open handed strikes to the face, abdomen, or other parts of the body can be used as an effective means of shocking a subject but are unlikely to result in long-term damage. It can get their attention, wake them up, or cause moderate pain. It is a simple, easy and quick means of punishment. Walling is physically slamming a person into a wall. The intent is similar to the strikes in that it provides a means of demonstrating control, and causing moderate pain. The rough takedowns” are described as a group of people tackling the subject and aggressively dragging him to the desired location. Some version of all of these techniques is used SERE Schools.
Stress Positions: Stress positions are used to make a subject uncomfortable. It is unlikely that that a person will remain in a position for a prolonged period, unless the interrogator is in the room with them. Placing them in a very confined space, or tying a person’s hand, or hands, above their head (not hanging from their arms), is one way to cause a person to stand for a prolonged period. Threats at some point become insufficient to keep an exhausted person in an uncomfortable position, and mechanical means (rope or chains) become the only feasible way of achieving compliance. Stress positions are used in SERE Schools.
Sleep deprivation: Sleep deprivation is used to cause disorientation and extreme fatigue. People become more compliant when fatigued, and it becomes harder for them to maintain a consistent set of inaccuracies. In short, they become confused, and it becomes much easier to for the interrogator to determine fact from fiction. Stress positions are one means of keeping a subject from sleeping as well as dousing him with water, noise, light, movement, and various combinations of events could be used to keep a subject awake. These techniques are applied to service members in SERE schools to induce a state of sleep deprivation.
Threats: Verbal threats are used throughout interrogation as a means of conditioning the subject. The threat may be as simple as if you do not speak, I will leave you alone, make you stand for another 24 hours or strap you to the waterboard. Threats are effectively the opposite of incentives for good behavior. To be effective, the consequence must be acted on if compliance is not achieved by the threat alone. An unverifiable threat is counterproductive in the initial phases, as the interrogator must build credibility with the subject. When an interrogator makes a promise or a threat, it must be carried out to condition the subject to believe intuitively that what the interrogator says will happen in inevitable. Threatening harm to a related 3rd party whom the U. S. did not have physical control over would be unverifiable and ineffective early in the process. Later in the process, even though the subject knows it to be unlikely, he would be inclined to believe that threats against a third party are credible, and it may be used to produce the desired reaction. Threats are used in SERE Schools.
Isolation: Isolation is used to disorient a subject. Humans are social creatures, and a lack of contact for prolonged periods is extremely stressful. The lack of another human reference point is very likely to cause self-doubt, and further, create an intuitive desire to see the interrogator. Effectively, the only human with whom the subject has meaningful contact is the interrogator. All humans intuitively desire companionship – even when there is abuse inherent in the relationship. We can see examples of this in domestic violence where prolonged escapable relationships that are rife with abuse continue and yet the victim remains. Typically there is a strong sense of dependence on the abuser. In the case of isolation, the interrogator becomes the only other human being in the equation, and the subject becomes, even more, dependent in the interrogator. Isolation is used in SERE Schools.
Nudity: Disrobing a subject serves some purposes. First it removes all possessions further reinforcing the idea that they have nothing except what the interrogator provides them. Second, it gives the interrogator more control over the temperature, as the subject is less able to regulate his comfort level. Lastly, very few people are naturally comfortable when naked, and none are comfortable naked in that environment. SERE Schools use this technique, however, in mixed-sex training, students retain their undergarments typically.
Temperature manipulation is used to keep a subject uncomfortable. Effective use would keep his cell very cold, and the interrogation room temperate to create the subliminal desire to be in the interrogation room. The use of loud or unfamiliar sounds or white noise would be another example. Constant light or darkness and unpredictable changes can further the sense of helplessness. These subtleties conspire to make resistance to interrogation nearly impossible over the long term. Environmental manipulation is used in SERE Schools.
It is important to note that the resistance lab of SERE schools ranged from a few days to a little over a week depending the course. The techniques are applied in concert, but in limited application with the goal of the student gaining a level of comfort applying counter-techniques. There are safety components built into the program where the equivalent of a time out may occur should the student fall too far from the goal of the specific exercise of the learning point missed. There are onsite psychological assessments and medical support to ensure students are not damaged by the process. It is a very controlled environment. SERE school is a volunteer only school, and at any time, a student could, in theory, stop training and depart the school of their volition. None of those options are available to a prisoner.
The goal of the program was to push the subjects beyond a point of capitulation to a state of dependence. The medical support on site was used to revive, or resuscitate subjects and it would appear other than keeping them alive, the concept of humane treatment was actively considered counter productive during phases of the program. Medical staff was used to ensure the survival of the subject so that negative reinforcements could continue to be applied beyond what a human being could endure. The psychological goal of the program cannot be considered a healthy outcome either. It would appear from the report that the psychological staff was there to assist with breaking the subject and not to safeguard his psychological well-being. It is evident from the report that there may have been a structure similar to SERE school that would, in theory, stop treatment at a point that it became dangerous to the subject, but from the practices portrayed in the report, it was implemented in quite the opposite fashion.
Are these techniques useful or more effective than other options?
Anyone who has participated in a resistance lab will tell you that a harsh interrogation will cause you far more anxiety than a soft approach. It will far more rapidly induce the desire to cooperate. In gaining physical compliance, harsh techniques are superior and will instill the desired effect more quickly. We see the same in animal studies. The intensity of the stimulus is directly related to the strength and duration of the response. What is difficult to evaluate is how effective are harsh techniques at forcing you to divulge truthful information.
We cannot duplicate that in training, as the students know there are limits, and they know the time constraints. Further, the “information” the student has, is provided as part of the scenario and is something the scenario interrogator already knows… At a certain level of harshness certainly any human being will say something to make the pain stop. The reality is that level is very different for each person. I am not aware of a means of determining what the “optimal” level of discomfort is save trial and error.
What we do know is that the most accurate and timely information is provided by willing subjects. Forcing information has repeatedly been shown to produce a mixed bag of accurate and inaccurate results. The bottom line is we don’t know, and without conducting controlled experiments on human beings under duress, we will never know. I sincerely hope we never have the data to answer that question. We simply do not know if creating a state of learned helplessness and teaching a person to tell the truth is more or less effective than traditional interrogation which does not induce the state of learned helplessness.
The first finding of the report states that the enhanced interrogation techniques “were not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees”. This is unknowable. Certainly information from detainee interrogations using enhanced techniques resulted in intelligence gains and information. The part that is unknowable is, were those gains achievable without the use of enhanced techniques in the same timeframe? Were the techniques counter-productive to the process? These are simply not questions we can answer and for the committee to report that they were “not effective” is not the truth because we have no means to quantify the data.
From the standpoint of creating the conditions in which a detainee is more likely to communicate, to state that harsh tactics are less effective than soft tactics is inaccurate and indicative of the political pressure involved in producing the report. The accuracy of the responses generated are unknowable, but we have animal studies that prove the intensity of the negative stimulus increases the degree of the response in the subject. In short they are certainly more likely to get a resistant person talking and cooperating at least on the surface, which is the first step in any interrogation – get the subject talking.
The individual application of any of the techniques in isolation from the others seems, for the most part, innocuous with the exception of rectal hydration and feeding that is medically indefensible and appears to have been used a means of degrading the subject. This was not an authorized technique and the medical justification claimed for its use is non-existent. In isolation, any one of these techniques including waterboarding would not meet most people’s definition of torture, although there is a segment of the population that disagree’s.
The application of the techniques was not in isolation, but in concert with the intent of creating an environment with an inescapable series of punishments. That collective system of environmental and physical control was designed to induce a state of “learned helplessness” in a human being. This psychological end state is quite likely to meet most people’s definition of torture.
The effectiveness of that application is not something we can quantify. We can make a very strong case and even go so far as to say that it is more effective at gaining compliance with requests then softer techniques. The accuracy portion cannot be assessed. Ultimately, the effectiveness is not relevant to the question of whether or not it constitutes torture. What is relevant is the question of whether or not we see inducing a state of learned helplessness in another human being as in line with the values on which our society is based.
In the next article, we will take a look at the application of these techniques to individuals and the physical conditions created to support them.
~ Patrick Henry