Scientists, torture and history

As NBC reports, “torture teachers” for the CIA earned $80million, and applied the expertise of academically trained psychologists.

This got me digging out my notes on the 1970s radical science movement (full feature on this for Mosaic early next year). One of the reasons I’m interested in them is the work they did unpicking technologies of control in Northern Ireland. It’s a story in itself, but one with a fair bit of relevance today: rubber bullets, CS spray, water-cannon, and interrogation techniques.

The bulk of the work on so-called “in depth” interrogation was done by Tim Shallice, who later went on to be director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. Although it wasn’t directly Tim’s area of expertise, he knew enough of the relevant science to help translate it for a broader audience, and bring the topic under greater scrutiny. He had some professional distance from the subject, so could be a lot more critical/ take a lot more risks than many others working more closely in the field, whilst still having some specialist knowledge. Some scientists might be happy to weaponise their scholarship, but people like Tim could disrupt that.

Here’s an extract from a 1974 pamphlet The New Technology of Repression: Lessons from Ireland, co-authored by Tim, which explores the issue of interrogation.

Of the 342 internees arrested on the rely morning of August 9th, 12 were subject to much more complex procedures than the others. After being held for two days at Regional Holding Centres, they were transferred to an “interrogation centre” (location unknown) for ten hours, transferred again to Crumlin Road Jail, and returned to the interrogation centre. (All movements were performed hooded.) The men were held at the centre for ix days. Except when actually being interrogated they were kept in a room — the ‘black hole’, as one of the interrogators called it. When it the black hole, they were forced to stay in a fixed position with their hands spreadeagled high on the all and their legs apart. (The KGB called this the ‘stoika’ position.) If they collapsed, or moved to try to relive the numbness in their limbs, they’d be beaten back to position. the room was filed with a loud monotonous sound “like the escaping of compressed air” or “the constant whirring of a helicopter blade”. Their heads were reseed in loosely fitting boiler suits. No sleep was allowed or the first two or three days, and their diet was restricted to bread and water. The temperature was normally too hot, occasionally too cold.

The components of this process — disorienting and impersonal post-arrest procedures, sleep deprivation, inadequate food and isolation — are the classic components of personality break-down processes long used by interrogators. The best documented use of these methods was that by the KGB in the Soviet purges of the 1930s. The British methods of 1971 we’re hover more severe than those of the KGB. In particular, the KGB achieved isolation by placing the prisoner in a featureless, relatively silent room, and making him continually face the same way. In Northern Ireland, isolation was achieved by the prevention of ay chafe in sensory input by use of the hood the mashing noise (white noise of 85-87 decibels), the fixed position and the wearing of a loose-fitting boiler suit — an altogether more extreme regime.

The Russian methods are the culmination of the break-down methods gradually developed during the long history of the craft of interrogation; the methods used in Ireland result from the scientific analysis and hence the perfecting of the realty cruder methods. Isolation is extrapolated to its limed by presenting any change in sensory input as far as is practicably possible […]

Even in the reassuring atmosphere of a psychological experiment, her subjects are amply rewarded for staying in a comfortable sensory deprivation environment, the situation is a very stressful one. Hallucinations, nightmares, inability to think, fears of madness, body-image distortions (e.g. “my body is like a spinning cone going away from my body”) and paranoid delusions occur frequently. In situations where subjects are also printed from moving, hardly anyone can stand it for more than 10 hours. In Ireland even the official Compton Report admits to durations “at the wall” of up to 16 hours at a stretch, and of up to 43 hours if breaks for interrogation are ignored.

Moreover, the effect of sensory deprivation is highly dependent upon the subject’s anxiety — the higher the anxiety, the more fearsome its effects. In Northern Ireland even before the sensory deprivation began, the depersonalised and highly confusing arrest procedure produced very high anxiety levels. As could be predicted from the psychological research results, the techniques produced a psychotic breakdown in the men within about 24 hours of their being at the wall. The symptoms consisted of loss of sense of time, visual and auditory hallucinations, profound apprehension, depression and delusional beliefs. […] Perhaps the best way of indicating the symptoms is by a quote from a statement by one of the sufferers: “The hood was put on my head again and I was put against a wall for a short time they beat my head on the wall. I was then taken into a copter; taken a journey of 1 hour, put in the lorry and back into the room with the noise. I was put against the wall again and left. I was beaten when I could not stand any longer, taken away for questioning, taken back to the wall, back for questions back to the wall, back for questions — ‘God when will it stop’. Time meant nothing I was only a sore, aching body and confused mind. After a time I was only a mind.”

I’m not sure where the equivalent scientists like Tim are today, or if a 21st century academic career allows the same time and freedom he enjoyed.

Britain ended up in the European Court of Human Rights on this issue, in case you were wondering.

I don’t know if any of it offered useful information for the interrogators.

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