The American science of interrogation

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REBECCA LEMOV is the author of "World as Laboratory: Experiments with Mice, Mazes and Men," to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in December.

PAGING THROUGH the sheaf of declassified documents that comprise the first three years of Bush administration policy toward detainees in the global war on terror, one comes across a curious document. Dated Nov. 27, 2002, it is a short affair, about two pages, but it is important because it marks a potential turning point, a road not taken.

Until that point, the administration had been accumulating legal arguments for “ramping up” the use of more aggressive interrogation techniques. But in this particular document several higher-ups took a step back, recommending that certain techniques known as Category III (such as “waterboarding” and false executions) be halted pending further review. “Our armed forces are trained to a standard of interrogation that reflects a tradition of restraint,” warned William J. Haynes II, general counsel to the Department of Defense.

Still, even in this cautionary document, a long list of techniques, including “the use of stress positions (like standing) for a maximum of four hours” within a 24-hour period, as well as the forced shaving of body parts, were approved without reservation. Signing off on this document several days later was Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who took the trouble to add a mild, handwritten demurral: “However, I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours? D.R.”

Rumsfeld’s penciled comment is remarkable for two things: the fact that the secretary of Defense took time out that afternoon to imagine what it would be like to be subjected to a coercive interrogation technique, and the suggestion that he found it entirely reasonable. In the weeks that followed, the stress-positions technique that he referred to (Category II, No. 1), along with many other interrogation methods, were approved for use.


Rumsfeld, however, was far from the first American to think closely and carefully about interrogation. In fact, beginning in the 1920s, an American science of coercion was honed in laboratories and, eventually, extended to post-laboratory settings such as prisons and detention centers, giving how-to instructions in applying coercive stimuli to increase a subject’s compliance.

Coercion wasn’t new, of course. As long as prisons and ideologies have existed, interrogators and inquisitioners have passed down tried-and-true techniques for getting information out of those who are reluctant to give it up.

But in 20th century America, breaking the human will became a science, indeed a uniquely American one, sometimes called “aversive conditioning” and sometimes “coercive interrogation.” (Indeed, who but Americans, with their bent to render everything from cake baking to car repair as science, could have imagined creating systematic methods for eliminating “purposive behavior” and inculcating “desired goal responses”?)

THE FIRST RAT ran through the first maze for scientific ends around 1906 at the University of Chicago. This was the work of the youngest PhD Chicago had ever produced, John B. Watson, who employed rats in various stages of sensory deprivation -- their whiskers plucked out, paws muffled, eyes blinded -- to ascertain whether they could still navigate a maze.

It didn’t take long before rat-in-maze work and other animal experimentation had taken off in psych labs at every major university. One lab experiment that signaled a breakthrough, of sorts, for the budding science of interrogation was undertaken by Yale’s Hobart Mowrer in the mid-1930s. Mowrer showed that when sheep and guinea pigs were hooked up to electrodes and subjected to an unpredictable regime of shocks, their stress level in anticipation of a shock could be made to rise to “any desired level.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, social scientists (from psychology, sociology, anthropology and psychoanalysis) began transferring their research from small animals to human beings in what came to be known as “human engineering,” a type of behaviorism-meets-Freud approach aimed at developing a unified science of human behavior. At Yale, scientists worked to render the vagaries of all that people do and think as charts, numbers and logarithms.


When researchers tried a similar procedure to Mowrer’s on humans in 1937 -- specifically, Yale undergraduates were stripped nude, strapped to wire Army cots and rigged with electrodes delivering shocks to their wrists and thighs -- most subjects dropped out of the experiment forthwith. Undaunted, the Yale researchers concluded you could actually rewire a person this way, and that you could also use symbols to bring about radical changes of mind and behavior.

During the mid-1950s, this line of research grew (and turned toward the pragmatic). An immense Cold War program run by the military, State Department, CIA and other governmental and nongovernmental sources proceeded into the chancy terrain of what could be done with controlled environments and captive human beings.

Dr. Louis Jolyon West, working in a climate of fervid anticommunism toward the end of the Korean War, was hired by the military to research the urgent problem of a disturbing “attitude change” observed among American fighters who were returned from captivity. The men were displaying a compliance rate that seemed close to total, and in the Journal of Social Issues, two leading social scientists who examined them and studied their debriefing files questioned “whether or not persons may at some time be helpless to control their behavior once they have fallen into ‘enemy’ hands.”

West’s group came up with the moniker “DDD” -- based on the Yale scientists’ theories of conditioned fear -- to explain what had happened to some of the men. The first D was for debility: This was induced by semi-starvation, fatigue and poor health (untreated wounds, in particular). The second D was for dependency: This was produced by a prolonged deprivation of basic requirements such as food and sleep. The deprivation was interrupted by occasional, unpredictable, brief respites, reminding the prisoner that the captor had the power to relieve his misery.

The third D was for dread, produced by encouraging chronic fear -- of death, pain, deformity or permanent disability. Captors also hinted at violence against a prisoner’s family and other unnamed humiliations. In each case, the factors of DDD sent the prisoner down a gradual path of weakening that in most instances led to total compliance with his captors’ demands.

ENTER THE CIA, which quickly realized it could use these findings itself in dealing with enemy captives. By 1963, the CIA’s relevant chapter in the manual Counterintelligence Interrogation, “The Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources,” included a step-by-step approach for inducing the “debility-dependence-dread state” through the manipulation of the prisoner’s sleep, temperature, clothing, body image, anxiety level, sense of dignity and ultimately sense of self.


Also in the 1950s, Harold Wolff of the Cornell Medical School was commissioned by his acquaintance, CIA head Allen Dulles, to compile all historical and current information available on the topic of “forceful indoctrination.” In addition to interviewing defected KGB agents and looking over top-secret files, Wolff and his colleague, Lawrence Hinkle, appear to have run some experiments of their own. A test subject was placed in an untenable situation -- a “situation of frustration” -- in which any effort to escape or reduce discomfort was fruitless. “If the pressures are continued long enough ... he becomes first exasperated, and finally dejected and dependent upon anyone who offers to help him,” they reported. Their 1956 “Communist Interrogation and Indoctrination of ‘Enemies of State’ ” became a classic in the field.

In succeeding decades, the science of coercion spread. In the 1970s and 1980s, the CIA-backed School of the Americas taught Argentine, Salvadoran and Panamanian soldiers techniques for forcibly extracting information. An updated 1983 CIA field manual, harking back to Wolff and Hinkle, described how a “questioner” could work “to manipulate the subject’s environment, to create unpleasant or intolerable situations, to disrupt patterns of time, space and sensory perception.”

So was there ever a “tradition of restraint,” as claimed by Haynes in his memo? In some parts of government, perhaps. There were, for instance, directives (found, among other places, in the U.S. Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogation) designed with care to uphold a standard of comportment and that, altogether, comprise a different take on interrogation from the CIA’s gloves-off approach.

The recent 90-9 vote in the Senate approving, over strong White House opposition, an amendment by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that outlaws the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of any prisoners under U.S. control is an important nod to that tradition.

But to understand how cruel, inhuman and degrading techniques came into favor, one must turn to a more remote scientific history -- nearly forgotten, slightly embarrassing but increasingly pervasive.