“Doctors of the Dark Side”

[I wrote this a couple of years ago after seeing this film, which was released in 2011. Since then, the BBC covered some of this area in

The Secret War on Terror (World Service) Aug/Sep 2011 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00jq0d4

and Panorama: Fighting Terror with Torture (BBC1) 7 Aug 2015 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0656ggf

both still available. Recently, the extent of the collusion of the American Psychological Association with the Bush administration was revealed. I will deal with this in a subsequent blog.]

DODS: Medical personnel in the US torture programme

Western democracies have prided themselves in applying humane standards to the treatment of prisoners of war. This treatment is encapsulated in the Geneva Convention, first formulated in 1864 and modified since, most recently in 1949.1 They have also signed up to the UN Convention against Torture.2 Undoubtedly, these conventions have been flouted by some democratic states (France in Algeria, Britain in Northern Ireland, USA in Vietnam, …). However, the US explicitly banned torture and harsh treatment by military interrogators after the Vietnam war, introducing the Army Field Manual on Interrogation (FM 34-52)3 in 1992. However, in recent years, the US has subjected captives to treatment which had previously been recognised as torture or, at least, as inhumane. A particularly disturbing aspect has been the involvement of medical professionals, doctors and psychologists, in advising or agreeing to such treatment.

This is the subject of the documentary film (by Martha Davis) Doctors of the Dark Side4. This important film received its first UK showing on 29 October 2013 at University College London. Over 300 people attended the screening and the discussion that followed, including contributions from the film’s director, who had flown from the US specially for the showing, and from Philippe Sands and other human rights activists.

Intriguingly, the film opened with the case of US Navy Petty Officer Daniel King. In 1999, he was working as a cryptanalyst when a routine polygraph (“lie detector”) test proved “inconclusive”. He was then subjected to extensive interrogation, including 29 days of sleep deprivation (described as torture by AFM 34-52) to get him to admit to spying. This had the effect of so confusing and disorienting him that he thought he must be guilty but had “forgotten” the details. Crucially, a psychologist working for the navy, Michael Gelles, was shown trying to get King to admit to something, while King asked him for help in recalling the “memory” he thought he had lost. Gelles had forgotten that his responsibility was to his patient and that he should “first do no harm”. (Later, Gelles turns up at Guantamo Bay where he plays a rather more honourable role in exposing abusive interrogation practices.)

Complicity of medical personnel in torture was a key feature in interrogation of suspects in the “war on terror”. Psychologists in particular helped to develop a programme of techniques to “break down” suspects. Leading these were Drs Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell who took as their guide the SERE programme. Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape was designed partly to help US armed forces members to resist abusive interrogation, including torture. They reverse-engineered the programme to come up with enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT) that would be used on Al Qaeda suspects … and anyone else who happened to be in the wrong place when people were rounded up. Perhaps 85% of prisoners at Abu Ghraib were innocent. The problem that EIT amounted to torture was solved by simply asserting the opposite! The problem that these techniques typically produce useless or untrue information and false confessions was ignored. The problem that EIT psychologically damaged victims, many innocent, permanently was also ignored. And so was the problem that any admissions made could not be used in a court of law.

The film shows some of the abuse of prisoners by soldiers at Abu Ghraib to set the scene and then shows staged examples of some techniques: sleep deprivation, extreme isolation, enforced nudity, sexual humiliation, extremes of temperature, loud noise, bright light and darkness, confinement in a cage or tiny box, the use of uncomfortable stress positions, slamming into a specially-built plywood wall, and of course waterboarding or simulated drowning. Doctors would be on hand to monitor blood pressure, pulse rate and blood oxygen levels, and to authorise interrogation to continue. They were not protecting their “patients” but allowing them to be abused up to the time where their lives might be in danger.

Dissenting doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists are interviewed in the film (supporters of EIT were not available!). One of these is retired Brigadier General Dr Stephen Xenakis, a top army psychiatrist, who states that it is “extremely cruel to keep someone awake – they will have psychotic-like thinking, they will be very disorganised and … very unreliable.” Thus what is “the single greatest scandal in the history of American medical ethics” unfolded, where doctors were “the centrepiece of torture”, devising methods of torture that “do not leave wounds” and supervising their use, “keeping alive those that are meant to be kept alive”. One military psychologist is quoted: “If producing some pain does the most good for the most people, it’s entirely ethical.” However, as Nathaniel Raymond (Physicians for Human Rights Campaign Against Torture) points out, “When people committed these same acts, we prosecuted them in the past in places like Nuremburg. What’s different here?”


1Article 3: “Noncombatants, combatants who have laid down their arms, and combatants who are hors de combat (out of the fight) due to wounds, detention, or any other cause shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, including prohibition of outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”

2UN Convention against Torture (and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment): Definition of torture “Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.” 3http://www.fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm34-52.pdf 4http://www.doctorsofthedarkside.com

Interrogating terrorists

Terrorism exists and, regardless of any blame due to the US or other governments for encouraging it by their actions, we have an interest in not being blown up. And, like it or not, the security forces, police and military, are the main defence we have. Would that it were otherwise! Surely we therefore want terrorist prisoners to tell us what they know about their plans to murder us. If this includes “enhanced interrogation techniques” (Bush government) or “torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” (UN Convention against Torture) surely this would be justified. This is a scientific question!

The answer is “No,” according to leading military interrogators in the US itself!

One of these, FBI agent Ali Soufan, testifying to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2009, stated that using conventional non-coercive techniques he had got useful information from an al Qaeda operative, Abu Jandal, straight after reading him his rights. He works by building a relationship with the detainee who, isolated and fearful, eventually comes to rely on him as someone he can talk to and who will listen to him. Acting in a non-threatening way in itself confuses the detainee who has been led to expect the opposite. Then, as the interrogator, Soufan would impress the detainee with the evidence already known against him. The interrogator has to do his “homework” on this evidence and make the detainee feel that lies will be identified quickly. Clearly, this is a lot more difficult and requires a lot more skill than simply humiliating and brutalising someone but, Soufan shows, it gets more, and more truthful, information and often more quickly than coercive techniques which, in any case, al Qaeda terrorists are trained to resist. [This was described four years ago in an interview in the BBC’s “The Secret War On Terror” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pORhafgywVA%5D

Soufan argues that harsh techniques are expected by the terrorist prisoner but also that the information gained is unreliable. The process is slower, too: sleep deprivation for 180 hours obviously takes … 180 hours, while waterboarding Khalid Shaikh Mohammed 183 times took months and did not provide useful information (but did provide false information). Almost as an afterthought, Soufan reminds us that information gained by torture or other harsh methods is not admissible in courts of law.

The contrast between the two approaches is exemplified by the case of Abu Zubaydah. Within an hour, Soufan and his FBI colleague got useful information from Zubaydah and continued to do so. For ideological reasons, the CIA was ordered to take over and, with the assistance of “private contractors”, used enhanced techniques. The intelligence dried up. Soufan was asked to return and the intelligence started coming again. The pattern of alternation continued with the same results until Soufan, his colleague, and a psychologist refused to be party to this ill-treatment any longer.

Another interrogation expert, retired Brigadier General David Irvine, speaking to a bi-partisan panel looking into the use of torture by US forces, stated that “going to the dark side” yielded no useful information that saved the “hundreds of thousands” of lives claimed by Bush and his colleagues. In fact, the US had been “badly misled by false confessions … derived from brutal interrogations”.

As an interesting observation, the enhanced techniques were based on milder forms of ill-treatment used on trainee US soldiers to help them withstand such treatment from Stalinist captors (e.g. in Korea or Vietnam). And such treatment was originally developed by the Stalinists as “brain-washing” to elicit not truth but false confessions for propaganda purposes.

One false confession that had unfortunate consequences was by Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a jihadist from Libya. He was co-operating with FBI interrogators using legal techniques but the CIA felt he had more to tell and sent him to Egypt to be tortured. He then falsely claimed that Saddam Hussein had met al Qaeda members to discuss nuclear weapons. He said later that he was pressed to talk about biological weapons as well but, as he knew nothing about them, was unable to come up with a plausible lie. This “information” about links between Iraq and al Qaeda was then used by Colin Powell as part of the justification for the invasion of Iraq.

Soufan’s techniques come straight out of the US Army Field Manual on Interrogation (FM 34-52). This notes, among other things, that “physical or mental torture … [as] illegal acts are not authorized and will not be condoned by the US Army. … Experience indicates that the use of prohibited techniques is not necessary to gain the cooperation of interrogation sources. Use of torture and other illegal methods is a poor technique that yields unreliable results … and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear. … Revelation of the use of torture by US personnel will bring discredit upon the US … [and] may place US and allied personnel in enemy hands at a greater risk of abuse by their captors…”

These comments are an accurate prophecy of what happened when the Bush government junked 34-52 and allowed the practice of what 34-52 explicitly described as physical (stress positions) and mental (sleep deprivation) torture.

False confessions

Many people falsely admit to committing crimes or falsely accuse others. There are many reasons for their doing this but a very powerful one is to get torture or harsh treatment to stop. The Innocence Project in the US has been instrumental in getting more than 300 serious criminal convictions overthrown, often through use of DNA evidence not available or suppressed at the time of conviction. They report that in a quarter of these cases the innocent person had actually falsely confessed to the crime after threats or other coercion.

Such treatment was used by Stalin to get many political opponents and other innocent people to confess to grotesque crimes, starting with the Moscow ‘show trials’ of 1936. Under the influence of beatings, forced standing, sleep deprivation, and threats to family members, virtually all of the surviving leaders of the Russian Revolution confessed to one or more of setting up a terrorist organisation to kill Stalin, poisonings, sabotage, spying, planning to partition the Soviet Union between Germany, Britain and Japan, being fascists, being agents of Nazi Germany, and working to restore capitalism. How much more likely are false confessions amongst the inmates of Guantanamo Bay, Bagram or other military bases, whether guilty or innocent?

The polygraph or “lie detector”

This is a device which measures heart rate/blood pressure, breathing and skin conductivity (related to sweating). The theory is that when telling a lie these parameters are affected differently from when being truthful. As the American Psychological Association* points out, there are several problems with polygraph tests. Firstly, there is no evidence for the theory that there is a unique physiological response to deception. Secondly, there is a strong placebo response in those who believe that they work (and are therefore fearful). Thirdly, people (such as genuine spies) can be trained to outwit polygraph operators.

The evidence is that polygraphs are better than guessing (in the range 80-90%) but that there are a substantial proportion of false positives and false negatives. For instance, if there are 100 spies in the CIA, out of say 20,000 personnel, then perhaps 85 will fail a polygraph test and 15 won’t. But so will 2985 non-spies, so there will be over 3000 people to investigate. Worse, some of the spies will be able to evade detection through training. The polygraph is really worse than useless!



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