Sleep Scientists: Research Twisted to Justify Torture
(WIRED) In a 2005 memo, Bush administration lawyers argued that it was okay for CIA interrogators to keep terror suspects awake for seven and a half days straight — because “even very extended sleep deprivation does not cause physical pain.” The attorneys backed up the claim by citing the work of a number of leading university researchers on sleep. Now, those professors are saying that their work was horribly misused.
“To claim that 180 hours [of sleep deprivation] is safe in these respects, is nonsense.” Dr. James Horne, with the Loughborough University Sleep Research Centre, tells the Obsidian Wings blog. “Prolonged stress with sleep deprivation will lead to a physiological exhaustion of the body’s defense mechanisms, physical collapse, and with the potential for various ensuing illnesses.”
In their studies, the researchers note, the subjects are well-fed, with ready access to video games and television. The CIA’s interrogation sites didn’t afford these niceties. And that can have a major impact on the well-being of the sleep-deprived. “It is total nonsense to cite our study in this context,” Dr. Bernd Kundermann, a psychiatry professor at the University of Marburg, tells Time. He said using his research to evaluate the CIA program was like using a study about “the transient reactions of a little schnapps” to justify forcing prisoners to “drink large amounts of alcohol.”
Dr. S. Hakki Onen, a sleep specialist with the Hôpital Gériatrique A. Charial, notes that subjects under the researchers’ care were also allowed to rebound from the long periods of sleeplessness — and regain their strength, in the process. That wasn’t the case in the CIA interrogation sites.
“When we treated these patients and restored their sleep, we also increased their pain thresholds. That therapeutic objective of our study is therefore opposite to its application as described in the reports,” writes Dr. Onen – whose research, like Dr. Horne and Dr. Kundermann’s studies, were cited in the controversial 2005 memo. “In a manner, it’s like giving a drug to a patient: if you administer it in small doses for therapeutic reasons, it helps them. If you give it in huge volumes, it becomes toxic — and can even kill them.”
In fact, the scientists say, the psychological stress caused by sleeplessness may be more dangerous than the physical impact – despite the lawyers’ conclusion that “extended sleep deprivation cannot be expected to cause ’severe mental pain or suffering.’”
After days and days of sleep deprivation, “the mental pain would be all too evident, and arguably worse than physical pain,” Dr. Horne notes.
Dr. Kundermann adds, “It can result in psychosis.”
According to a newly-declassified report from the Senate Armed Services Committee, sleep deprivation was one of a number of techniques “reverse-engineer[ed]” from the U.S. special forces program to resist interrogation and torture. Other techniques including “sensory deprivation,” “slapping,” and “waterboarding.” But while those “fear based approaches” were generally unreliable,” a special forces “Behavioral Science Consultation Team” noted, “psychological stressors such as sleep deprivation, withholding food, isolation, and loss of time were ‘extremely effective.’”
Despite the memo’s approval of up to 180 hours of sleeplessness, only three detainees had been subjected to sleep deprivation for more than 96 hours. Many others would be allowed an irregular hour or two of rest here and there. The Senate report refers again and again to suspects given “four hours of sleep every 24 hours, not necessarily consecutive.”
In conjunction with other pressures, that irregular sleep could have serious consequences. “In December 2002, two detainees were killed” while incarcerated at a facility in Bagram, Afghanistan,” according to the Senate report. “Investigators concluded that the use of stress positions and sleep deprivation combined with other mistreatment at the hands of Bagram personnel, caused or were direct contributing factors in the two homicides.”
The lawyers for Guantanamo Bay detainee Salim Hamdan claimed that their client spent 50 days during 2003 in a sleep-interruption program known as “Operation Sandman.” “Sleep deprivation of that nature for 50 days would constitute torture,” said one of Hamdan’s lawyers, Joseph M. McMillan.
In another detainee’s case, a military lawyer claimed his client “was moved from cell to cell 112 times during a 14 day-period in 2004 to keep him in a state of sleepless disorientation,” according to the New York Times. “A May report by the Justice Department inspector general said American military interrogators appeared to have collaborated with visiting Chinese officials at Guantánamo Bay to disrupt the sleep of Chinese Uighur detainees, waking them every 15 minutes the night before their interviews by the Chinese.”
In the 2005 memo, the lawyers appear at one point to acknowledge the psychological dangers of denying someone rest. “It may be questioned whether sleep deprivation would be characterized as a ‘procedure calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality’… we understand from OMS [CIA’s Office of Medial Services] and from the scientific literature that extended sleep deprivation might result in hallucinations in some cases.”
But, in the next breath, the attorneys brush such concerns aside. “Any hallucinatory effects of sleep
deprivation would dissipate rapidly,” they write. “Even assuming, however, that the extended use of sleep deprivation may result in hallucinations that could fairly be characterized as a ‘profound’ disruption of the subject’s senses, we do not believe it tenable to conclude that in such circumstances the use of sleep deprivation would be said to be ‘calculated.’” The intent of the interrogation isn’t to make the subject see things that aren’t there, the memo argues. It’s to make him talk.
UPDATE: David Hambling here. Sleep deprivation has been shown to have extreme effects in lab testing.One 1983 study on rats to find out the consequences of continued sleep deprivation pushed this to the limit: “stimulus presentations were timed to reduce sleep severely in experimental rats but not in controls. Experimental rats suffered severe pathology and death; control rats did not.”
Researchers believe that the same effect will occur with humans. Legally speaking though, treatment which may end in the subject’s dying may not necessarily count as torture.