Something Is Missing

I’m still digesting the torture memos, and probably won’t say anything comprehensive about them tonight. I did, however, want to flag one thing that is missing.

The US Code defines torture as “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control. “Severe mental pain or suffering”, in turn, is defined as: “the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from”, among other things, “the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.”

Suppose there were something that these memos said, in passing, was done to detainees (see e.g. here, p. 4), and that we know independently was done to detainees in US custody; that was known to reliably induce terror and pyschosis in fairly short order; that was described as doing so in government documents that are among the obvious antecedents of the interrogation procedures described in these memos; and that was used precisely in order to produce its psychological effects.

You’d expect the memos to consider whether this technique might count as an act intended to produce “severe mental pain or suffering”, since it involves a mind-altering procedure “calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality”, and might well produce “lasting psychological harm”, right?

Wrong. There is no consideration of sensory deprivation as a form of torture in these memos.

Here’s an account of early CIA experiments on sensory deprivation:

“Dr Donald O. Hebb at McGill University found that he could induce a state akin to psychosis in a subject within 48 hours. Now, what had the doctor done? Hypnosis, electroshock, LSD, drugs? No. None of the above. All Dr Hebb did was take student volunteers at McGill University where he was head of Psychology, put them in comfortable airconditioned cubicles and put goggles, gloves and ear muffs on them. In 24 hours the hallucinations started. In 48 hours they suffered a complete breakdown. Dr Hebb noted they suffered a disintegration of personality. Just goggles, gloves and ear muffs and this discovered the foundation, or the key technique which has been applied under extreme conditions at Guantanamo. The technique of sensory disorientation. I’ve tracked down some of the original subjects in Dr Hebb’s experiments of 1952 and men now in their 70s still suffer psychological damage from just two days of isolation with goggles, gloves and ear muffs.”

Here’s the CIA’s Kubark Manual:

“Drs. Wexler, Mendelson, Leiderman, and Solomon conducted a somewhat similar experiment on seventeen paid volunteers. These subjects were “… placed in a tank-type respirator with a specially built mattress…. The vents of the respirator were left open, so that the subject breathed for himself. His arms and legs were enclosed in comfortable but rigid cylinders to inhibit movement and tactile contact. The subject lay on his back and was unable to see any part of his body. The motor of the respirator was run constantly, producing a dull, repetitive auditory stimulus. The room admitted no natural light, and artificial light was minimal and constant.” (42) Although the established time limit was 36 hours and though all physical needs were taken care of, only 6 of the 17 completed the stint. The other eleven soon asked for release. Four of these terminated the experiment because of anxiety and panic; seven did so because of physical discomfort. The results confirmed earlier findings that (1) the deprivation of sensory stimuli induces stress; (2) the stress becomes unbearable for most subjects; (3) the subject has a growing need for physical and social stimuli; and (4) some subjects progressively lose touch with reality, focus inwardly, and produce delusions, hallucinations, and other pathological effects.”

Doesn’t that sound like the sort of thing that might constitute a mind-altering procedure “calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality”? It does to me. And guess what? Just sixteen months after this memo was written, the Army published a brand new field manual that said:

“Separation does not constitute sensory deprivation, which is prohibited. For the purposes of this manual, sensory deprivation is defined as an arranged situation causing significant psychological distress due to a prolonged absence, or significant reduction, of the usual external stimuli and perceptual opportunities. Sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, depression, and anti-social behavior. Detainees will not be subjected to sensory deprivation.”

So I’m wondering: didn’t it occur to anyone to ask the OLC whether sensory deprivation was a form of torture? If so, where’s that memo? And if not, why not?