Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Frankenstein's Children: Modern Torture's Scientific Bible

I wrote this piece over at Daily Kos in September 2006. I am reposting it here because it is an important piece of historical analysis, in the form of a book review, regarding the participation of psychologists and psychiatrists in the construction of the U.S. government's torture program.

* * * *

What if there was a book that dispassionately looked at the history and methodology of torture? What if this book looked at human physiology and psychology and tried to scientifically establish how to best break another human being and bend him or her to your will? What if this book were written by top behavioral scientists and published in the United States? And, finally, what if the studies published in this book were financed by the U.S. government?

Look no farther, there is, or rather was, such a book. Published in 1961 by John Wiley & Sons, The Manipulation of Human Behavior was edited by psychologists Albert D. Biderman and Herbert Zimmer. This book, unfortunately, cannot be found online, nor was a second edition or printing ever made (not surprisingly). But I will provide a review here, and an introduction into the nightmare world of science, torture, and politics that helped shape our modern world and today's news.

This book represents a critical examination of some of the conjectures about the application of scientific knowledge to the manipulation of human behavior. The problem is explored within a particular frame of reference: the interrogation of an unwilling subject....

Much of the work in this book was sponsored by the U.S. Air Force...(p. 1)

Albert Biderman had researched the so-called brainwashing of American POWs during the Korean War. He worked as Principal Investigator of an Air Force Office of Scientific Research contract studying stresses associated with captivity. Biderman was also Senior Research Associate at the Bureau of Social Science Research.

...the U.S. Air Force provided at least half of the budget of the Bureau of Social Science Research in the 1950s. Military contracts supported studies at this Bureau such as the vulnerabilities of Eastern European peoples for the purposes of psychological warfare and comparisons of the effectiveness of "drugs, electroshock, violence, and other coercive techniques during interrogation of prisoners." (from a review of Chistopher Simpson's Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare,1945-1960)

His associate, Herbert Zimmer, was an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University, and also worked at times as a consultant for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. When you read their book, The Manipulation of Human Behavior (MHB), the various essays by other authors include statements crediting research to grants from the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology and the Office of Naval Research.

The titles of the book's essays are bone-chilling in their scientific bland exactitude. Here they are, with authors, for the record:

1. The Physiological State of the Interrogation Subject as it Affects Brain Function, by Lawrence E. Hinkle, Jr., Assoc. Professor of Clinical Medicine in Psychiatry, New York Hospital
[I have come to see over the past months of research that this essay by Hinkle is often referenced, and is key in understanding later methods of psychological and modern torture.]

2. The Effects of Reduced Environmental Stimulation on Human Behavior: A Review, by Phillip E. Kubazansky, Chief Psychologist, Boston City Hospital

3. The Use of Drugs in Interrogation, by Louis A. Gottschalk, Assoc. Professor of Psychiatry and Research Coordinator, Cincinnati General Hospital

And because you probably can't wait, and to juice up this account, I'll admit, yes, this is the chapter that goes into LSD, mescaline use and all that. Gottschalk found enough data in the research literature to find that LSD-25 might have "possible applications... to interrogation techniques".

The conclusions reached on mescaline hold equally for the possible applications of this drug to interrogation. As a tool in the advancement of knowledge of psychopharmacology, LSD-25 is a drug on which clinical and experimental research is likely to continue. (pp. 123-124)

Likely to continue..." An ironic understatement?

4. Physiological Responses as a Means of Evaluating Information, by R. C. Davis, Professor of Psychology, Indiana University

5. The Potential Uses of Hypnosis in Interrogation, by Martin T. Orne, Teaching Fellow, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard University Medical School

An aside: Some of you may recognize Martin Orne as the psychiatrist of the famous poet Anne Sexton, who in the early 1990s released the tapes of her psychotherapy sessions with him to a biographer, precipitating a storm of controversy.

6. The Experimental Investigation of Interpersonal Influence, by Robert R. Blake and Jane S. Mouton, Professor of Psychology, University of Texas, and Social Science Research Associate, University of Texas, respectively

7. Countermanipulation Through Malingering, by Malcolm L. Meltzer, Staff Psychologist, District of Columbia General Hospital

Six of the essay contributors were psychologists; two were psychiatrists.

Cui bono?

I cannot give a full review here of all the research and conclusions derived herein. The significance of the book itself is hard to gauge, because nothing of its like was ever published again. We can assume that the government agencies that financed the research passed along the results to those who could use it. Biderman himself in his introduction to MHB put it this way:

In assuming the attitude of the "hard-headed" scientist toward the problem, there is a danger in falling into an equivalent misuse of science....

The conclusions reached do in fact show that many developments can compound tremendously the already almost insuperable difficulties confronting the individual who seeks to resist an interrogator unrestrained by moral or legal scruples....

Several scientists have reported on the possible applications of scientific knowledge that might be made by the most callous interrogator or power. The results of their thinking are available here for anyone to use, including the unscrupulous. (pp. 6, 9) (emphasis mine)

Spine feeling the shivers yet? When I first read the above, I thought I had stumbled into a fascist nightmare out of Robert Jay Lifton's The Nazi Doctors. But then, I read on:

The alternative is to confer on the would-be interrogator a monopoly of knowledge by default. His success, as the various chapters of this book illustrate, depends heavily on the ignorance of his victims. [B. F.] Skinner has argued that those who are most concerned with restricting the vulnerability of men to control others have the most to gain from a clear understanding of the techniques employed. (p. 9)

Was Biderman saying that publishing this material publicly was an oblique attempt to expose what was going on? Was there a twinge of guilt in these men and women, working for the military under the guise of medical and university establishments? I don't know. But Biderman had a few other psychological observations about torture worth quoting (and think about President Bush as you read this, as he said the other day that he has spent a significant amount of time studying the issue of interrogations, torture, etc.):

The profound fascination of the topic under consideration may stem from the primitive, unconscious, and extreme responses to these problems, which gain expression in myth, dreams, drama, and literature. On the one hand, there is the dream-wish for omnipotence, on the other, the wish and fear of the loss of self through its capture by another. The current interest in problems of manipulation of behavior involves basic ambivalence over omnipotence and dependency, which, if projected, find a ready target in the "omniscient" scientist....

Conjectures concerning the prospects of "total annihilation of the human will" appear almost as frequently as those regarding the threat of mankind's total destruction by thermonuclear of similar weapons.....

Viewing the problem in magical or diabolical terms is not an altogether irrational analogy, given the existence of those who simultaneously practice and seek perfection of the means for controlling behavior and conceive their efforts as directed toward
"possessing the will" of their victims....

Thus, magical thinking and projections, as has been indicated, pervade prevalent judgments regarding the significance of the behavioral alterations that interrogators can effect. (pp. 4-6)

No matter whatever qualms these researchers had, they were sure of two things: "that some potentialities of interrogation have been overestimated", particularly those that relied on old methods (extreme violence); and

There is no question that it is possible for men to alter, impair, or even to destroy the effective psychological functioning of others over whom they exercise power. (p. 10)

The problem for the torturers, though, was the "elicitation of guarded factual information". For this, something more scientific was needed, something better than the old, unreliable techniques. -- In many ways, the disputes over interrogation now embroiling Washington are about the utility of methods, with Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney representing the old (omnipotence-craving) school, and McCain, Powell, and the military representing those who understand that psychological manipulation (often amounting to torture itself) gets them what they want, without the international treaty entanglements. The CIA is itself split within by a similar two wings.

The Experiments

The basic conclusions of the authors of MHB is that drug and hypnosis in interrogations is often not useful, and that while deserving more study (from their 1961 standpoint), the most promising research was in the area of sensory deprivation and a study of personality and identity formation and interpersonal methods of control.

More than one MHB author pointed to the work of Donald O. Hebb, McGill University, also a President of the American Psychological Association, whose 1954 presidential address to the APA, Drives and the Conceptual Nervous System, is considered a classic psychology text. Hebb focused on the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation upon the human organism. Such isolation, in combination with sleep deprivation and self-induced fatigue (through stress positions, etc.) formed the new torture paradigm, producing what they called "disordered brain syndrome."

From Hinkle's chapter:

The experiments of Hebb and others... who have concerned themselves with "sensory deprivation," have consisted of putting men into situations where they received no patterned input from their eyes and ears, and as little patterned input as possible from their skin receptors.... The subjects were deprived of opportunity for purposeful activity. All of their bodily needs were taken care of -- food, fluids, rest, etc. Yet after a few hours the mental capacities of the participants began to go awry. (pp. 28-29)

Alfred McCoy, author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror, and Professor of History at University of Wisconsin, Madison, gave an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company, linking the torture of David Hicks in Guantanamo prison with the CIA-researched, Hebbsian torture paradigm MHB explores.

Dr Donald O. Hebb at McGill University found that he could induce a state akin to psychosis in a subject within 48 hours. Now, what had the doctor done? Hypnosis, electroshock, LSD, drugs? No. None of the above. All Dr Hebb did was take student volunteers at McGill University where he was head of Psychology, put them in comfortable airconditioned cubicles and put goggles, gloves and ear muffs on them. In 24 hours the hallucinations started. In 48 hours they suffered a complete breakdown. Dr. Hebb noted they suffered a disintegration of personality. Just goggles, gloves and ear muffs and this discovered the foundation, or the key technique which has been applied under extreme conditions at Guantanamo. The technique of sensory disorientation. I've tracked down some of the original subjects in Dr Hebb's experiments of 1952 and men now in their 70s still suffer psychological damage from just two days of isolation with goggles, gloves and ear muffs. David Hicks was subjected at peak to 244 days of isolation, the most extreme isolation in the 50-year history of these CIA psychological torture techniques. David Hicks has suffered untold psychological damage that will take a great deal of care, a great deal of treatment and probably the rest of his life to move beyond.

Kubazansky, 45 years before Prof. McCoy spoke on Australian TV, more dryly summarized the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation in his MHB essay:

The boredom, restlessness, irritability, and other mood changes observed also may well apply. The stimulus-hunger and increased suggestibility which have been observed may make an individual more vulnerable to revealing information he might otherwise withhold, particularly when accompanied by the social uncertainty induced in the interrogation situation. Unprepared for these consequences of isolation and deprivation, like many experimental subjects, an individual may become apprehensive and indeed panicked by his reactions. The appearance of hallucinatory-like phenomena and their emotional accompaniments have often been quite anxiety provoking. (p. 90)
Then Kubazansky gave some unsolicited advice for those who could, very unfortunately, find themselves in such tortuous circumstances:
Knowledge of the importance of retaining spatial and time orientation, and self-stimulation in concrete tasks, are two examples of techniques for reducing stress by increasing psychological structure. (p. 90)

There is so much more I could write here, but I'm aware this diary has already approached the limits of most people's attention, at least to material presented in this format. I hope that in providing this information I am providing a public service by widening our knowledge of the history of the subject, by showing the breadth and depth of the subject, and giving substance to the sometimes trivial or cursory examination of the issues that drive the most important political battles of our day.

If this diary gets an appropriate response, and there is demand, I'll take up a second diary in the future examining the research from the rest of the book.

5 comments:

911truthnc said...

Thanks for the article. Very informative. It is time citizens awake to the horrors committed by our government!

Charles Rey said...

Do write an update to this post and a continuation of the book review. I indeed received an education from this post.

There is typically a noteworthy history associated with one's current behavior. The same appears to be true for those who wish to play with torture today.

Zorro said...

This is an unpleasant topic and we should never forget that unless we have had experience of this then we can only guess at the horrific effect these simple sounding psychological methods can have.

It's really useful to read your essay on this topic and to have access to your links. Please don't stop adding more info and more links as ou find them as you are providing a valuable resource and an interesting perspective. Thank you.

The Comic Torah said...

This is extremely useful and helpful information. I am another of those folks interrogating the records, trying to figure out how things went so wrong. I'm grateful for your blog and hope you'll keep writing.

John Robinson said...

I am very thankful for your information. It has enormous implications, not only for understanding the history of the use of torture in the military, but also, I believe, for understanding a very well funded campaign by corporate media to numb and dumb down the American public.

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