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Isolation: “The Ideal Way Of ‘Breaking Down’ A Prisoner”

The isolation and degradation of Bradley Manning by the Marine Corps penal authorities at the Quantico brig represents a significant acceleration of government torture policy, as it is meant, among other things, to further desensitize the U.S. population to the use of torture. Torture will be used on political dissidents in this country, that is clear now, and PFC Manning is the first, but there will be others.

How bad is isolation? Bad enough that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself felt it warranted a “caution” in his April 16, 2003 memo authorizing certain aggressive forms of interrogation, i.e., torture.

Caution: the use of isolation as an interrogation technique requires detailed implementation instructions, including specific guidelines regarding the length of isolation, medical and psychological review, and approvals for extension of the length of by the appropriate level in the chain of command. This technique is not known to have been generally used for interrogation purposes for longer than 30 days. Those nations that believe that detainees are subject to POW protections may view use of this technique as inconsistent with the requirements of Geneva III, Article 13 which provides that POWs must be protected against acts of intimidation; Article 14 which provides that POWs are entitled to respect for their person; Article 34 which prohibits coercion and Article 126 which ensures access and basic standards of treatment. Although the provisions of Geneva are not applicable to the interrogation of unlawful combatants, consideration should be given to these views prior to application of this technique.

Rumsfeld — bureaucrat that he is — concentrates on the legal obstacles to the use of isolation. But the psychological components have been well studied for decades. The following is from a 1961 article on use of isolation for interrogations written by Lawrence Hinkle, then a psychiatrist at Cornell Medical Center, and a CIA consultant (link to quote can be found here, emphasis in quote is mine):

It is well known that prisoners, especially if they have not been isolated before, may develop a syndrome similar in most of its features to the “brain syndrome”…. They become dull, apathetic, and in due time they become disoriented and confused; their memories become defective and they experience hallucinations and delusions…. their ability to impart accurate information may be as much impaired as their capacity to resist an interrogator….From the interrogator’s viewpoint it has seemed to be the ideal way of “breaking down” a prisoner, because, to the unsophisticated, it seems to create precisely the state that the interrogator desires: malleability and the desire to talk, with the added advantage that one can delude himself that he is using no force or coercion…. However, the effect of isolation on the brain function of the prisoner is much like that which occurs if he is beaten, starved, or deprived of sleep.

In the Camp Delta Guantanamo camp-wide SOP, declassified a few years ago, isolation was described as a tactic meant “to enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee” by isolating him or her in a Maximum Security cell, without even access to Red Cross or religious personnel, for at least the first four weeks upon arrival. Such isolation is meant to deprive the prisoner of all social support and “ability to resist.”

Indeed, it appears that the Marines are implementing the SERE “Coercive Management Techniques,” themselves modeled after Albert Biderman’s Chart of Coercion, which was taught to interrogators at Guantanamo. What are these “coercive management techniques”? I outlined them in an article in June 2008, which also examined the ways JPRA/SERE personnel taught their techniques to Guantanamo interrogators and “behavioral consultants”:

1. Isolation: This deprives the prisoner of all social support and “ability to resist”. While turning the prisoner upon his own resources, it “makes victim dependent upon interrogator” (quotes are from the SERE version). Furthermore, isolation can be complete, semi, or “group isolation”.

2. Monopolisation of Perception: This means again “physical isolation. Darkness or bright light. Barren environment. Restricted movement. Monotonous food.” The goal? To fixate the prisoner upon his “immediate predicament”, the technique also “eliminates stimuli competing with those controlled by captor,” frustrating all action “not consistent with compliance.”

3. Induced Debilitation and Exhaustion: This is what it seems to be, i.e., a method to weaken a prisoners’ “mental and physical ability to resist.” Techniques include: “Semi-starvation. Exposure. Exploitation of wounds. Induced illness. Sleep deprivation. Prolonged constraint. Prolonged interrogation” and “over-exertion”, among other practices (tortures!)

4. Threats: Which “cultivates anxiety and despair”, including threats of death, non return, “endless interrogation and isolation”, threats against family, and “mysterious changes of treatment”.

5. Occasional indulgences: To provide positive motivation for compliance, it also has the effect of hindering “adjustment to deprivation.”

6. Demonstrating “Omnipotence” and “Omniscience”: The purpose of this is said to suggest to the prisoner the “futility of resistance”. How is this done? By “demonstrating complete control over victim’s fate”. (And this, by the way, is a crucial way that the ban on habeas corpus for these prisoners, recently overturned by the Supreme Court, fed into the military’s torture program, by demonstrating that there was no appeal to anyone.)

7. Degradation: This is where one finds the prevention of personal hygiene, the insults, taunts, “demeaning punishments” and “denial of privacy”. The goal was to damage prisoner self esteem, making “capitulation” a lesser evil. It also “reduces the prisoner to ‘animal level’ concerns.” [Forced nakedness or stripping of the prisoner would come under this category. In fact, “stripping” or “forceful removal of detainee’s clothing” was part of the 2002 SERE SOP “coercive management techniques, “used to demonstrate the omnipotence of the captor or to debilitate the detainee.”]

8. Enforcing Trivial Demands: Again the point is to develop compliance in the captive, and takes place through “enforcement of minute rules.”

So there you have it, these are the “principles” the SERE instructors insisted future trainers for interrogators at Guantanamo (and since SERE instruction migrated to Iraq and Afghanistan as well, we can presume there as well) “be thoroughly prepared to discuss and explain”.

I suppose we can say these techniques have now migrated to Quantico as well, and so the torture virus enters the domestic body bloodstream, through its military vector.

Make no mistake, we are living in a totally lawless world, where there is no accountability for great crimes, whether those crimes be the torture of countless thousands, the aggressive bombing and devastation of non-attacking countries, violations of privacy against ordinary citizens, or the rape and pillage of the economies of the world for the benefit of a privileged few.

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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.