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Dick and Liz Cheney tell us that enhanced interrogation is not torture and that it made the US safer by providing actionable intelligence. They say it was unwise to make the US techniques public, because the terrorists can now train to them. Both of these claims are hogwash. More importantly, though, they expose a flaw in the Cheney mindset. The Cheneys adhere to The Rambo Myth: Subjects of torture will grant a true confession in order to avoid the pain of more torture. If we are just sadistic enough, we will get the truth out of those bastards.
Cheney et al. provided pressure to waterboard several high value prisoners to obtain information in short order. While there is some disagreement about whether or not waterboarding was used to forge a connection between Iraq and al Qaeda, it is clear that we waterboarded one prisoner 83 times and another 183 times in one month. What did this likely accomplish?
Let’s have a look at the ticking bomb.
There is a lot of disagreement amongst pundits and policymakers about the benefits or failures of the W administration’s approach to interrogation and torture. Apologists defend it fiercely by stating that we gained actionable intelligence. Anti-torture activist argue that we can never get good information because a person will say anything to stop torture once it becomes unbearable.
For the purpose of interrogating high-value al Qaeda operatives, probably neither of these opinions represents what happenes in practice.
This May 30, 2005 memo covers much ground with respect to harsh interrogation, and waterboarding in particular — including the rationalizations for its continued use.
The “waterboard,” which is the most intense of the CIA interrogation techniques, is subject to additional limits. It may be used on a High Value Detainee only if the CIA has “credible intelligence that a terrorist attack is imminent”; “substantial and credible indicators that the subject has actionable intelligence that can prevent, disrupt or delay this attack”; and “other interrogation metbods bave failed to dicit the information [or] CIA has clear indications that other methods are unlikely to elicit this information within the perceived time limit for preventing the attack.
They selected waterboarding specifically for use in the ticking bomb scenario. It is fair to ask what we can expect from carrying out protracted waterboarding on a high-value prisoner: US interrogators waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times and Abu Zubaida 83 times in one month.
Waterboarding is commonly misrepresented in the media. If you are unfamiliar with the technique, please see this diary that describes waterboarding by the OLC definition, and another that includes some description of the suffering that waterboarding inflicts. What is important to understand for this diary is that waterboarding inflicts extreme terror, physical pain, and it creates hypoxic-anoxic conditions deadly to brain tissue. The OLC memos use the pain of organ failure as a metric to define torture? Waterboarding, in fact, causes organ failure. It kills the brain.
The body can live only minutes without oxygen, and the brain shuts down quickly on the waterboard. After a short time, the prisoner is slowly dying. His body becomes painfully locked in the fight to keep from aspirating at the same time it struggles to suck in air. When he gets a break for a few breaths much of his energy is simply spent on not choking on the liquid that built up at the back of his throat — just about the time he manages to not sputter when he takes in air, they start over with a new drowning cycle.
Waterboarding is in fact controlled execution — but the act of killing the prisoner gets interrupted before he actually dies. They bring the prisoner back only to have the execution start all over again. On the waterboard, interrogators keep him in a perpetual state of dying.
What does a prisoner’s mind do under these conditions?
We know that memory is fragile and suggestible even under low stress conditions, and recall [in mice] is impaired under stress. The reason that the recall is impaired in mice is that neurons in the hippocampus fire at and increased frequency. But torture is an attack on this part of the brain particularly — it is the systematic use of trauma to provoke a change in consciousness. It is a deliberate, systematic attack on the emotional centers of the brain. The point is to overstimulate the limbic and autonomic nervous systems enough to cause an emotional breakdown. Memory failure results in confabulation: The brain will record highlights of major events, and the mind will fill in the gaps with plausible but false events that the brain’s owner believes to be true.
It is important to stress that confabulators are not lying: they are not deliberately trying to mislead. In fact, the patients are generally quite unaware that their memories are inaccurate, and they may argue strenuously that they have been telling the truth.
It turns out that the part of the brain that controls memory function is most sensitive to hypoxic stress — low oxygen conditions sometimes results in permanent damage that renders a person not just suggestible but unable to distiguish fact from fiction.
The exact causes of confabulation are unknown, but basal forebrain damage may lead to memory impairments, while frontal damage may lead to problems in self-awareness. Thus, the patient may have a memory deficit but be unaware of his deficit.
The problem quickly becomes not “will they” answer the questions accurately — the problem becomes “can they”.
Waterboarding is designed to work when people break very quickly. If we assume that the alleged al Qaeda manual represents our prisoners’ thinking, we will find that they will not break quickly. Al Qaeda operatives are taught that torture is most intense right before the questioning stops, and that giving up anything will only prolong experience — because interrogators will keep going to try and extract more. That, combined with the Ticking Dick approach is a recipe for disaster.
In terms of the ticking bomb scenario, the problem is not that a prisoner might admit to falshoods in order to stop the torture — the problem is that he will begin to believe those falsehoods himself.