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Torture: What’s in a Name? It Was Never Just “Sleep Deprivation”

An article by Greg Miller at the L.A. Times has lifted the veil on the profound terror lying behind the supposedly known nomenclature of torture. Miller focuses on the use of "sleep deprivation," a term we will now have to always render in quotes, as the irony of describing one sort of torture as a means of covering up three or four other kinds of torture is both diabolical and morbidly depraved.

Let me explain. The L.A. Times article begins as a tale of GOP and CIA pushback against President Obama’s decision to release the Office of Legal Counsel memos a few weeks back, igniting thereby the dry tinder of scandal, and, if you believe the scaremongers, threatening the security of the country.

…CIA Director Michael V. Hayden… expressed disbelief that the administration was prepared to expose methods it might later decide it needed.

"Are you telling me that under all conditions of threat, you will never interfere with the sleep cycle of a detainee?" Hayden asked a top White House official, according to sources familiar with the exchange.

Hayden, who must have pulled a couple of all-nighters in his time, mimics the arguments of a myriad of ignorant commentators who compare the sleep deprivation forced upon "war on terror" prisoners with the time they stayed up all night with the buds and still aced the test the next day, or dragged through work, or drove to Las Vegas on jugs of hot coffee and NoDoz (or something not entirely OTC). How impudent and naive these anti-torture liberals must be?

Yes, how ignorant! for I had been preparing an article for some time to counter such views, combing through the U.S. Army’s own manual on combat stress and sleep deprivation, scientific literature, and clinical case studies, but it turned out that I didn’t even know what "sleep deprivation" was. Seriously. I didn’t know it needed to be understood with bracketed quotes. The government has taught me, and now I know, and now you will know.

The reason, as Miller tells us, John Helgerson’s 2004 CIA Inspector General report on the Company’s interrogations found "sleep deprivation" more problematic than any other technique, except waterboarding, was "because of how it was applied." Stephen Bradbury describes "sleep deprivation" in his May 10, 2005 memo. Up until now, the media has focused on the outrageous time limits: up to 180 hours of continuous wakefulness (over 7 full days), down from 240 hours earlier in the CIA), but the duration was only the half of it:

The primary method of sleep deprivation involves the use of shackling to keep the detainee awake. In this method, the detainee is standing and is handcuffed, and the handcuffs are attached by a length of chain to the ceiling. The detainee’s hands are shackled in front of his body, so that the detainee has approximately a two- to three-foot diameter of movement. The detainee’s feet are shackled to a bolt in the floor. Due care is taken to ensure that the shackles are neither too loose nor too tight for physical safety. We understand from discussions with OMS [CIA Office of Medical Services] that the shackling does not result in any significant physical pain for the subject. The detainee’s hands are generally between the level of his heart and his chin. In some cases, the detainee’s hands may be raised above the level of his head, but only for a period of up to two hours. All of the detainee’s weight is borne by his legs and feet during standing sleep deprivation. You have informed us that the detainee is not allowed to hang from ‘or’ support his body weight with the shackles. Rather, we understand that the shackles are only used as a passive means to keep the detainee standing and thus to prevent him from falling asleep; should the detainee begin to fall asleep, he will lose his balance and awaken, either because of the sensation of losing his balance or because of the restraining tension of the shackles. The use of this passive means for keeping the detainee awake avoids the need for using means that would require interaction with the detainee and might pose a danger of physical harm.

Shackled in forced positions with limited movement, mostly forced to stand for hours or days on end, and kept awake, these techniques amount to forced standing, forced positioning, limitation of movement (hence a form of kinesthetic deprivation), and disorientation (fear of falling).

Yet there is more. The prisoner is often if not usually nude, save for a diaper, which is reportedly changed often enough not to cause a rash, but certainly humiliating and meant to induce shame. Meals are fed to the prisoner by hand, which is also humiliating, but these meals are not food as we might think of it, but "bland, unappetizing" "commercial liquid meal replacements" containing 1500 calories maximum per day. (The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a minimum of 1800 calories per day for men, 1200 for women. In other words, these prisoners are slowly starving. The restricted diet is to be discontinued if a prisoner were to lose ten percent of their body weight. By way of comparison, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM), loss of five percent or more body weight in a given period is a telling sign of clinical depression.)

If the prisoner cannot stand, due to disabling swelling in the legs, edema or other physical disability, which Bradbury assures us is not painful — because CIA medical personnel told him so! — then they are removed from the hanging shackle and "would not be permitted to dangle by his wrists." But, supposedly standing sleep deprivation does not allow hanging by the shackles or wrists. One must presume then that some dangling by the wrist would be allowed by standing sleep deprivation, or why the prohibition for those medically released? So now we can add suspension to our list of techniques included under the rubric "sleep deprivation."

The non-standing prisoner is shackled to a stool too small "to permit the subject to balance himself to be able to go to sleep." If this, too, is beyond the physical capacities of the prisoner, they undergo "horizontal sleep deprivation."

The detainee’s hands are manacled together, and the arms placed in an outstretched position — either extended beyond the head or extended to either side of the body — and anchored to a far point on the floor in such a manner that the arms cannot be bent or used for balance or comfort.

Once the prisoner is able to, it’s back to the standing form of sleep deprivation.

In practice, as Bradbury’s other May 10, 2005 memo makes clear, these "enhanced interrogation techniques" — of which "sleep deprivation" is only "one" — are usually used in combination with each other. The baseline environment consists of white noise and continuous light, which Bradbury disingenuously ascribes to security concerns, but it is really a form of environmental and sensory/perceptual manipulation, to be traded off with sensory overload ("loud noises").

What this L.A. Times story demonstrates is the proclivity of the CIA and other government torturing agencies to twist the meaning of words, and stuff into the nomenclature of one "technique" or procedures a veritable cornucopia of different torture methods. In this "enhanced interrogation" version of sleep deprivation, forced sleep deficit was combined, as we can see, with shackling, forced positions and forced standing, humiliation, manipulation of diet, sensory overload, and possibly other torture procedures.

So, this is what the CIA and U.S. government has been selling as "sleep deprivation!" The situation is ominously reminiscent of the Army Field Manual’s use of the "Separation" technique in its Appendix M. It, too, is really an omnibus set of procedures, including solitary confinement, restriction of sleep (I’m not using the term "sleep deprivation" here in order to avoid confusion), partial sensory or perceptual deprivation, use of fear, and likely use of sensory overload, and manipulation of environment, among other possible variations. The AFM purposely confuses procedures used for security with those used to break down a human being. It talks about isolation or separation as if it were a single procedure, when, like the CIA’s use of "sleep deprivation", it masks an entire torture program of its own.

In the case of Bradbury/CIA’s EID techniques, we can understand now that when Hayden, or Cheney, or any other torture apologist says sleep deprivation only means the disruption of sleep cycles, we know that to be a blatant, criminal lie. When the CIA says "sleep deprivation," they mean forced shackling and forced positions, suspension, production of swelling in the lower extremities, disorientation and fear, humiliation, diet manipulation and slow starvation, along with forced wakefulness.

Like an evil version of a Russian Matryoshka doll, as you look deeper and deeper, behind a supposedly straight-forward, if debilitating torture technique like sleep deprivation, there lies nested, one within the other, greater and greater forms of torture and abuse. As Miller’s article makes clear, they would like to return to this form of extreme torture. When proponents ask for a return to use of "sleep deprivation," at least now we know what they are talking about: extreme torture. (Apparently the use of sleep restriction under isolation and fear and partial sensory deprivation or overload, with sleep rationed at 4 hours maximum per day for up to 30 days, with possible extensions, as currently the case in the Army Field Manual for GWOT prisoners, is not enough for the EIT crowd, even if the Army’s own Combat Stress manual cites the debilitating nature of the 4 hour minimum, particularly if circadian rhythms are disturbed.)

Everything the government says about torture and interrogation is a lie. At least that’s what I have to assume until and unless the government makes it clear that it will call things what they are, will hold the most blatant and depraved sorts of criminal behavior to account. Meanwhile, it is the least we can ask of the press, and now the blogging world, that they do what Greg Miller has done, not take government pronouncements as received wisdom, but begin to speak the truth.

Update: After writing and posting this story, it was pointed out to me that the bulk of the material, as concerns the mixing of sleep deprivation with stress positions and other torture procedures by the CIA, as part of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" described in the Bradbury memos, was discussed in an excellent article by Spencer Ackerman at The Washington Independent back on April 29. I should have known an astute reporter like Spencer would have been on this issue from the beginning, beating out the L.A. Times by over a week. I regret missing his story at the outset, and encourage readers to follow up their interest in this issue by reading his rather more newsworthy piece. — Jeff Kaye

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.