Progress in Macroeconomics?
Notes and Handouts for Berkeley Physics Colloquium, May 11, 2009

CIA Sleep Deprivation, Torture Reporting, and Journalistic Ethics

One reason that we academics tend to judge journalists harshly is because of their... excessive claims of originality. We tend to believe strongly that situating your work and your contribution in the ongoing discussion is one of the very first duties of a writer--and a duty that is absolutely essential to any attempt to inform or educate readers.

Journalists act differently. They try to make their readers as ignorant as they can about where the information is coming from. In my view, this is both unethical and ineffective: it tends to lead to great suspicion of American journalists, and a discounting of what they write:

Now comes Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times refusing to acknowledge what appear to be very substantial dependencies on Spencer Ackerman and Hilzoy.

Let's pick up the trail. On April 29, Spencer Ackerman wrote in the Washington Independent:

A Torture Mystery: How Did the CIA Come to Use Stress Positions for Sleep Deprivation? Hidden in plain sight in the Office of Legal Counsel memos on the CIA interrogation is a mystery: How did the “enhanced interrogation” technique of sleep deprivation come to depend on stress positions? Somehow, between 2002 and 2005, CIA interrogators began using what the International Committee of the Red Cross called “prolonged stress standing” as a means to keep detainees from falling asleep so as to make them docile and cooperative when questioned. What isn’t clear is how that non-intuitive sense of “sleep deprivation,” which was not mentioned in the initial legal authorization for the technique, came into official CIA usage.... But by the time the OLC reevaluated the CIA’s interrogation program in 2005, it revealed that the technique was overwhelmingly physical. “The primary method of sleep deprivation involves the use of shackling to keep the detainee awake,” wrote Bybee’s eventual replacement, Steven Bradbury, on March 10, 2005. “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 feet are shackled to a bolt in the floor, giving him a “two-to-three-foot diameter of movement.” His hands “may be raised above the level of his head, but only for a period of up to two hours.” His weight is “borne by his legs and feet during sleep deprivation,” ensuring that he had to keep awake, for if he “los[t] his balance” from exhaustion he would feel “the restraining tension of the shackles.”

Both memos gave legal approval to the use of stress positions like shackling. And both memos contemplated and blessed the use of techniques in combination with each other, finding that no conceivable permutation of combined techniques would constitute “severe pain or suffering” or “severe mental pain or suffering.” But until the release of the 2005 memo, there had been no official acknowledgment that sleep deprivation as practiced by the CIA depended on physically restraining a detainee...

Today Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times writes:

Memos shed light on CIA use of sleep deprivations: From the beginning, sleep deprivation had been one of the most important elements in the CIA's interrogation program, used to help break dozens of suspected terrorists, far more than the most violent approaches. And it is among the methods the agency fought hardest to keep.... Because of its effectiveness -- as well as the perception that it was less objectionable than waterboarding, head-slamming or forced nudity -- sleep deprivation may be seen as a tempting technique to restore.

But the Justice Department memos released last month by Obama, as well as information provided by officials familiar with the program, indicate that the method, which involves forcing chained prisoners to stand, sometimes for days on end, was more controversial within the U.S. intelligence community than was widely known. A CIA inspector general's report issued in 2004 was more critical of the agency's use of sleep deprivation than it was of any other method besides waterboarding, according to officials familiar with the document, because of how the technique was applied. The prisoners had their feet shackled to the floor and their hands cuffed close to their chins, according to the Justice Department memos....

"The position is sufficiently uncomfortable to detainees to deprive them of unbroken sleep, while allowing their lower limbs to recover from the effects of standing," it said....

The Justice Department memos also cited research that suggested sleep deprivation was not harmful. "Experience with sleep deprivation shows that 'surprisingly, little seemed to go wrong with the subjects physically,' " said the May 10, 2005, Justice Department memo -- one of many instances in which government lawyers cited scientific papers in asserting that the program was safe.

But some authors of those studies have since said that the conclusions of their research were grossly misapplied. James Horne, director of the Sleep Research Center at Loughborough University in Britain, said he was never consulted by U.S. officials and didn't know how his work was being used until the memos were released. "My response was shocked concern," Horne said in an e-mail interview. Just because the pain of sleep deprivation "can't be measured in terms of physical injury or appearance . . . does not mean that the mental anguish is not as bad."... "To claim that 180 hours is safe in these respects is nonsense," Horne wrote in a separate online posting. Even if sleep deprivation succeeded in getting prisoners to talk, he said, "I would doubt whether the state of mind would be able to produce credible information, unaffected by delusion, fantasy or suggestibility."

And here is the "separate online posting":


Obsidian Wings: Prof. James Horne On The Memos: When discussing sleep deprivation, the memos released last Thursday cite the work of Dr. James Horne in support of the claim that sleep deprivation for up to 180 hours is not torture. (See here, pp. 35-40.) I wrote to Dr. Horne and asked him whether he would like to respond to this use of his work. (He had given a statement to Zachary Roth at TPMMuckraker, but I thought he might like the opportunity to respond at greater length.) What follows is his response....

My book ‘Why We Sleep’ was written without any thought of ‘coercive techniques’ in mind. Nevertheless I made it very clear that pure sleep deprivation in otherwise happy healthy volunteers, as in laboratory settings without additional stresses, is not very eventful for the body, while it is much more so for our brain and behaviour. Whereas sleep helps people withstand stress, sleep loss makes us more vulnerable to other stresses, especially as the inherent sleepiness and other adverse effects on the brain confuse the mind’s ability to figure out how to deal with and avoid these stresses.  Thus I emphasise that my book’s conclusions were based on ‘pure sleep deprivation’ without additional stresses. Such findings were derived from otherwise undemanding and benign laboratory studies that do not typify the real world, whereas people are usually sleep deprived because of other stresses such as long and arduous working hours, family crises, etc. Healthy people who have volunteered for sleep deprivation experiments are usually well cosseted by their experimenters, perhaps too much so, and might have been inadvertently protected from the full effects of sleep loss.  Apart from the sleep deprivation, volunteers typically lead a tranquil existence, are fed very well and, except for having periodically to undergo various harmless tests, have plenty of time for relaxation, reading and watching TV. There have been many of these experiments with human volunteers, with the longest lasting 8-11 days.  Volunteers can pull out any time and there is full medical cover. The purpose of these studies has been to explore what sleep does for the body and brain, by removing sleep and see what happens. Under these circumstances, the ‘body’ copes well, whereas the brain and behaviour are obviously affected – not only by sleepiness but by more subtle changes whereby individuals can no longer think for themselves and become more like automatons.  

With additional stresses as in ‘coercive techniques’, the situation for the sleep deprived victim becomes deplorable, as the mind and brain under these circumstances trigger the body’s defences to create a physiological ‘alarm reaction’ whereby, for example, various stress coping hormones are mobilised and prepare the body for possible trauma, even blood loss. I emphasise that this alarm reaction is not present under ‘pure sleep loss’ as I have just described.  Prolonged stress with sleep deprivation will lead to a physiological exhaustion of the body’s defence mechanisms, physical collapse, and with the potential for various ensuing illnesses.  We don’t know at what point this latter phase would be reached with ‘coercive techniques’, but to claim that 180 hours is safe in these respects, is nonsense.  Moreover, whereas physical pain may not be particularly apparent even at this stage, the mental pain would be all too evident, and arguably worse than physical pain.

Even if one was to be pragmatic and claim that this form of sleep deprivation produced ‘desired results’, I would doubt whether the state of mind would be able to produce credible information, unaffected by delusion, fantasy or suggestibility.

Whilst Bradbury’s memo acknowledges (p36) that, “We note that there are important differences between interrogation technique used by the CIA and the controlled experiments documented in the literature” – i.e. what I wrote might not be wholly applicable to ‘coercive techniques’, this key point was understated. I had no knowledge of this memo or its contents until a few days ago, and am both saddened and appalled that my book has been used in this way.  

Jim Horne

Sleep Research Centre, Loughborough University, UK
20th April 2009