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Sleep, Interrogation, and the War on Terror

An article by Jake Horowitz, Hiten Chawla, and Peter Williams for The Stanford Daily
Also check out their petition letter to President Obama on the same topic

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    Among the many hotly contested issues surrounding the Bush administration’s handling of the War on Terror, none have galvanized domestic and international opinion in the way that American interrogation processes have. Frequently, the debate on interrogation is cast in legal and moral terms. The Bush administration and its defenders, in justifying American interrogation policies, have maintained that what the United States has done is not only legally justifiable, but also morally laudable, in that its interrogation policies serve a moral good: the disruption of terrorist networks and the prevention of future terrorist attacks. Critics, however, charge that many of the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques rise to the level of torture, and as a consequence, are both illegal and morally repugnant.

    Although both the legal and moral aspects of the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques warrant thoughtful consideration, an alternative, more tractable question to ask is whether or not the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques are effective. In some sense, if the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques were demonstrated to be ineffective at compelling detainees to divulge accurate, truthful information, then the legal and moral debates would be rendered moot.

    While water boarding has emerged as the most controversial interrogation practice that the Bush administration has employed, sleep-related interrogation is another form of interrogation that deserves close scrutiny. The Bush administration has employed two forms of sleep-related interrogation: “sleep adjustment” and “sleep deprivation,” both of which are described in a Department of Defense (DOD) Working Group Memo issued in March 2003, and in a DOD Memo issued on April 16, 2003. Sleep adjustment refers to the practice whereby the sleep cycles of detainees are distorted (for example, by manipulating meal times, sleep times, room/cell temperatures, and the presence or absence of light, sound and other external stimuli) in order to induce an extreme form of disorientation similar to jet lag, only more severe. Sleep deprivation is defined, according to the March 2003 DOD Working Group Memo, as the practice of “keeping the detainee awake for an extended period of time (allowing individual to rest briefly and then awakening him, repeatedly) NOT to exceed four days in succession.”

    Putting aside the questions of whether these two techniques rise to the legal definition of torture, and under what conditions, if any, they are morally justifiable, how effective are sleep adjustment and sleep deprivation? How often do they yield accurate, actionable intelligence?

    The answer is that sleep adjustment and sleep deprivation yield arguably the least accurate, least useful information of any interrogation technique currently employed by the military, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the War on Terror.

    The reason why sleep adjustment and sleep deprivation are such poor interrogative methods is because both significantly degrade the quality and accuracy of the information that detainees are capable of providing to interrogators.

    Let us begin with sleep deprivation. The primary effect of sleep deprivation is an increase in the subject’s sleep debt. Because sleep debt is cumulative, the longer the subject is deprived of his or her daily sleep requirements, the greater his or her sleep debt will grow. As sleep debt increases, so too does the intensity of the sleep drive, which is regulated by the sleep homeostat. However, because the subject is kept in a constant state of sleep deprivation, he or she is unable to repay the sleep debt.

    Among the various consequences of this extreme sleep debt, the most significant to the issue at hand is the negative effect that sleep debt has on the cognitive abilities and functions of the subject. Extreme sleep debt degrades the cognitive abilities of the sleep deprived subject in many ways, such as by impairing logical reasoning; impairing decision making; impairing verbal processing; diminishing attention; and causing hallucinations.

    However, the most important effect of high sleep debt is its debilitating effect on short-  and long-term memory. As a consequence, when sleep deprivation is applied to detainees, there exists the very real risk that sleep deprivation will cause the detainees to forget the information that the interrogators are trying to extract from them. In the end, the detainees will either be unable to answer questions, due to the fact that sleep deprivation has caused them to forget the answers, or they will lie, either intentionally or unintentionally, in order to stop the interrogation and get some sleep.

    The reliability of information from a sleep deprived victim is further compromised by the fact that sleep deprived subjects are generally considered to be less capable of resisting suggestion than non-sleep deprived subjects. Consider the following scenario. Interrogator I asks question Q to detainee D, expecting the answer to Q to be A. During the interrogation, I is likely to steer D towards answering with A, because this fulfills I’s hunch. If D is highly sleep deprived, he is highly likely to succumb to I’s suggestion that A is the answer, even if A is not the correct answer. Thus, D will likely answer A regardless of whether it is the correct answer. As this scenario illustrates, any information gathered from a significantly sleep deprived individual is very likely to be highly misleading, if not downright incorrect.

    Another problem with extreme sleep deprivation is that, according to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), an American human rights non-governmental organization (NGO), sleep deprivation can increase blood pressure, thereby increasing the risk that subjects will develop severe cardiovascular problems. PHR also found that sleep deprivation generally tends to exacerbate existing medical ailments. Thus, practicing sleep deprivation on detainees can severely jeopardize the health of detainees, which ultimately only serves to impede rather than facilitate the interrogation process.

    Sleep adjustment is different in process but similar in effect to sleep deprivation. Sleep adjustment refers to the process by which the circadian rhythm of the biological clock, which is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus, is rendered out of synch with the subject’s schedule of waking and sleeping. This mismatch can make it very difficult for the sleep adjusted subject to fall asleep, which in turns leads to sleep deprivation, an increased sleep debt, and all of the aforementioned problems associated with sleep deprivation and sleep debt. And because detainees cannot modify their schedules, the times of their meals, or their exposure to light, detainees who are the subjects of sleep adjustment are doomed to suffer from sleep deprivation. As a result, detainees who have undergone severe sleep adjustment are likely to provide as unhelpful and inaccurate information as detainees who have been outright sleep deprived.

    Bearing all this in mind, this author applauds President Obama’s 22 January 2009 Executive Order, “Ensuring Lawful Interrogation,” which revokes the ability of government organizations such as the CIA, FBI and military to employ interrogation techniques considered to contravene international law and custom, and which requires that such organizations comply with Army Field Manual instructions regarding interrogation. Because the Army Field Manual prohibits “abnormal sleep deprivation,” in theory, if Obama’s Executive Order is properly followed, then the practice of sleep adjustment, which indirectly leads to abnormal sleep deprivation, and the practice of sleep deprivation, which outright constitutes abnormal sleep deprivation, will both be prohibited. However, should the debate on torture and interrogation resume at some later point in time – and it is highly likely that it will – one should be able to reject out of hand any interrogation policy that permits or advocates sleep deprivation or sleep adjustment – not necessarily because such techniques are immoral or illegal, but simply because they are ineffective and often counterproductive.


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