Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation
By Shane O’Mara
Harvard University Press, 2015
Janat Gul appears to have had other names, among them Hammdidullah and Mullah Hamidullah. It is likely, as he claimed, that he changed his name to avoid being punished by the Taliban. He was once the head of Afghanistan’s Ariana Airline, but otherwise we know fairly little about him. Neither did his torturers.
Gul was arrested in January 2002 or 2003 (the relevant documents are sloppily dated) in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Afghanistan’s Hemland Province. By mid-2004 he was in a place referred to by CIA cables as “DETENTION SITE BLACK” and his fate was being decided by the most powerful people in the world. A July memo from National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to George Tenet, Director of the CIA, told Tenet that his agency was “permitted to use previously approved enhanced interrogation methods for Janat Gul, with the exception of the waterboard.” This was because the CIA had informed Rice that “Gul likely has information about preelection terrorist attacks against the United States.” Those torture methods were officially authorized on July 20th by the principals of the National Security Council, including Vice President Dick Cheney. The Council also directed the Justice Department to prepare a legal opinion on the legality of the authorized techniques, which was to be written in light of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution. Confirmation from Attorney General John Ashcroft arrived two days later.
This sequence of events and the supporting quotes come from the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, which was released in heavily redacted form in 2014. The report, which is very thoroughly researched and which makes use of classified documents, also tells us what happened next. It reads:
…Janat Gul was subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, including continuous sleep deprivation, facial holds, attention grasps, facial slaps, stress positions, and walling, until he experienced auditory and visual hallucinations. According to a cable, Janat Gul was “not oriented to time or place” and told CIA officers that he saw “his wife and children in the mirror and had heard their voices in the white noise.” …According to a CIA cable, “[Gul] asked to die, or just be killed.” After continued interrogation sessions with Gul, on August 19, 2004, CIA detention site personnel wrote that the interrogation “team does not believe [Gul] is withholding imminent threat information.” On August 21, 2004, a cable from CIA Headquarters stated that Janat Gul “is believed” to possess threat information, and that the “use of enhanced techniques is appropriate in order to obtain that information.”
Gul could not provide any information about this threat, and the interrogators again told CIA headquarters that Gul may not know anything. Headquarters ordered them to keep torturing:
According to an August 26, 2004, cable, after a 47-hour session of standing sleep deprivation, Janat Gul was returned to his cell, allowed to remove his diaper, given a towel and a meal, and permitted to sleep. In October 2004, the CIA conducted a [Redacted] of the CIA source who had identified Gul as having knowledge of attack planning for the pre-election threat. [Redacted], the CIA source admitted to fabricating the information. Gul was subsequently transferred to a foreign government. On [Redacted] informed the CIA that Janat Gul had been released.
The memos that authorized America’s early-21st century interrogation regime defined torture as anything causing serious pain, serious pain defined as “serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”; or anything causing prolonged mental harm, prolonged defined as “months or even years.” Everything else – everything that happened to Janat Gul – was considered “enhanced interrogation.”
One of the achievements of Shane O’Mara’s fascinating, uneven new book, Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation, is showing that even by the standards of this legal casuistry, the Bush Administration’s interrogation policy institutionalized the rote deployment of torture on virtually everyone it imprisoned. O’Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College in Dublin, explains that one can read a wide variety of studies and they will all,
confirm a similar pattern… there are profound and enduring changes in the brains of the tortured that relate precisely and specifically to the imposition of torture. These changes in the brain may vary from structural abnormalities (which can be visualized using brain-imaging techniques) to persistently abnormal activity in certain brain regions, to extreme and long-lasting sensitivity to pain, among other changes.
For example, the victim of torture, like the victim of war-induced PTSD, will likely suffer from hypertrophy of the adrenal glands and the amygdala. Among other hormones the adrenal glands produce cortisol, which helps the body respond to stress; the amygdala plays a decisive role in decision making, emotional reaction, and not incidentally, memory. The point that O’Mara brings across is that torture reshapes these organs—it reshapes people. Torture physically damages the brain, provoking dysfunction, causing pain that lasts long beyond the end of the victim’s interment. In effect, the torture continues even for those who are freed.
But conveying this horror story is not O’Mara’s primary goal. He also doesn’t take up the ethical case against such abuse at any length. The evil of torture and the pre-2001 international consensus as to its definition are taken as a given. O’Mara’s brief against torture is scientific, practical:
The empirical reality is this: the intelligence obtained through torture is so paltry, the signal-to-noise ratio so low, that proponents of torturing detainees are left with an indefensible case when the protorture case is examined on the terms in which they make the case for torture, especially when considered against other, effective, noncoercive methods. And it seems to me that there is no greater or stronger case to be made against a practice or a theory… that it fails completely on its own terms.
Why Torture Doesn’t Work is the empirical case against torture, a reading of scientific research which concludes that torture is a poor method of extracting information, and that the people who argued for it and used it had no idea what they were doing.
The ticking bomb, the threat of imminent attack, was the most common argument on the pro-torture side. The torture memos themselves aver that torture should only be applied if other methods “are unlikely to elicit this information within the perceived time limit for preventing the attack.” John Yoo, who co-authored the memos (and is now teaching law at UC Berkeley), argued without evidence that rapport-based methods take “weeks, if not months, if they work at all.” And yet, as O’Mara notes, torture was often applied to detainees for weeks on end: 180 hours of sleep deprivation, 30 days of waterboarding followed by another 30 days after the first month didn’t produce any information, and so on.
If the legal “experts” were incompetent, the interrogators were no better. O’Mara quotes the Senate torture report, which explains that:
The CIA deployed individuals without relevant training or experience. CIA also deployed officers who had documented personal and professional problems of a serious nature—including histories of violence and abusive treatment of others—that should have called into question their employment, let alone their suitability to participate in the sensitive CIA program.
And it’s incompetence all around, as the medical experts who supervised the torture and helped to drape it in a skein of scientific plausibility also recommended things like “rectal feeding” and “rectal hydration.” Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA, defended himself to CNN’s Jake Tapper this way: “Jake, I’m not a doctor and neither are you, but what I am told is this is one of the ways that the body is rehydrated, these were medical procedures.” Unfortunately, human beings can’t rehydrate or absorb nutrients this way: it’s just rape with a garden hose.
This is because every single thing that torture does to the body makes it harder for the victim to remember information. The chief culprit is stress, which even in small amounts can damage and reshape the brain. “Severe and sustained” stress, writes O’Mara, “greatly impairs the capacity of the brain to appropriately regulate the expression of thoughts, emotions and behaviors.” It is also extremely destructive of the brain’s capacity to recall detailed information.
So is sleep deprivation. The medical literature on the effects of sleep deprivation is vast, and all of it points to the same conclusion:
Sleep deprivation causes grave deficits in recall of previously learned and consolidated material, and the deficits induced increase in magnitude with the time since the last bout of sleep. The key conclusion is that sleep itself is vital for the consolidation of learning and memory and not merely because of the passage of time. Sleep deprivation, therefore, is an excellent tool for inducing amnesia.
Prolonged sleep deprivation can also produce hallucinations and induce suicidal thoughts, as we saw in the case of Janat Gul.
Torture is also likely to cause long-term disabilities like cognitive impairment, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. It may not produce good intelligence, but it is a brutally effective way of re-configuring the human brain, as O’Mara explains:
Prolonged chronic stress impacts negatively across a wide range of brain systems and bodily organ systems, causing deleterious long-term changes that are associated with neuropsychiatric, neuropsychological, and neurological conditions, as well as end organ inflammation and dysfunction. Thus, the experience of stress, in particular its intensity, chronicity, and uncontrollability, is implicated in depression, anxiety disorders, and impaired psychological well-being. Additionally, stress of this type impacts negatively on cognitive processing more generally.
I haven’t been able to find any information about Janat Gul after his release, but if he’s still alive, he’s still suffering.
Above I called O’Mara’s book uneven. That is because for all the persuasiveness of his argument, it is sometimes extraordinarily difficult to read. One of O’Mara’s reasons for writing the book was the relative silence of his peers. He says in the introduction that “there are great opportunities to educate, inform, and generate new knowledge,” and he laments that “there is a profound shortage [in the media] of people who have studied carefully the evidence on torture.” He complains of “the strange, abstracted, Vulcan-like musings provided by certain lawyers, policymakers and public commentators.”
I assumed the book was an attempt to bridge this gap. Instead, the prose is usually quite dry (as the large quote just above demonstrates), but more surprisingly, it is often very technical: if an author wanted to explain the effects of sleep deprivation and dietary manipulation to the public, I could hardly think of a less affecting sentence than, “These are extreme and inescapable interoceptively generated stressors that are imposed exogenously.” It’s strange, because the sentences that precede and follow this quote are perfectly normal. It happens dozens of times throughout the book: sudden shifts in tone marked by the abrupt use of needlessly obscure scientific language.
Technical writing, used judiciously, can be rhetorically effective. Why Torture Doesn’t Work contains a handful of passages where the concatenation of named, abused body parts made me nauseous and forced me to put the book down and regroup. These, however, were rare. O’Mara is right that debate over torture was impoverished by the absence of scientific information, and notes that the pro-torture argument was bolstered by a kind of faux-technical argot, what he calls, in one of his more felicitous phrases, the “the decorative use of scientific language.” But in making a case to the public on an issue this important, the use scientific language should be, as much as possible, accurate and compelling. I’m not sure if the author is aware of his language problem (the sudden shifts suggest that he is not), but I finished this book more certain than ever that in an age of “enhanced interrogation” – a term which is still used seriously by powerful people – the linguistic chasm separating much of academia from the public is a dangerous phenomenon.
Still, O’Mara deserves a lot of praise for writing a convincing and moral book. It’s yet more proof that the Bush Administration’s torture regime, like its wars, was an incompetent and cruel enterprise, one redolent of its complete inability to understand what violence does to the body and the mind.
Greg Waldmann is the Editor-in-chief of Open Letters Monthly, and a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.