Wednesday, August 1, 2012


"Congress's definition of torture in those laws - the infliction of severe mental or physical pain - leaves room for interrogation methods that go beyond polite conversation" - John Yoo

In an interview with Jon Delano on Pittsburgh Radio back in 2008, then-Republican Presidential candidate John McCain talked about his experience of torture (enhanced interrogation is the current euphemism of choice). He had this to say:

"When I was first interrogated and really had to give some information because of the physical pressures that were on me, I named the starting line-up - defensive line - of the Pittsburgh Steelers as my squadron-mates."

Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Libyan who led the Al Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, was captured by Pakistani officials in November 2001 and handed over to the FBI. He cooperated with FBI interrogators and freely gave information about Richard Reid, AKA the Shoe Bomber. He agreed to cooperate further if the US would allow his wife and family to emigrate to the US.

However, despite this progress, the CIA approached GW Bush and asked for permission to take him into their custody for, shall we say, more robust questioning at the hands of Egypt through the process of extraordinary rendition, in other words, torture by proxy. Given permission, the CIA just turned up and took him from the FBI. One fine CIA officer was heard saying as he took the prisoner away: "You know where you're going. Before you get there, I'm going to find your mother and fuck her."

The information gleaned from al-Libi was used repeatedly by officials of the Bush administration to establish a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda as one of the many false pretexts for the invasion of Iraq, and was indeed used in the now infamous speech to the United Nations Security Council by then-Secretary of State, Colin Powell. These huge efforts were made despite then-classified reports by both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency that strongly questioned the credibility of the information.

It turns out those reports were correct. At least now we know why they were really classified.

These are just two stories of many that demonstrate not only the unreliability of torture, but also the tragedies that can unfold by embracing it as a tool, the Iraq War being one obvious example. On an individual level, the probability of innocent people being tortured is high. The International Committee of the Red Cross cited intelligence officials as saying that 70%-90% of the prisoners inside the Abu Ghraib prison, one of the most horrific sites of mass torture to receive wide publicity, were the 'wrong people'.

Recall the case of Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, a car salesman and a father of six young children who just happened to have an identical name to an actual terror suspect. He was kidnapped by the CIA and subjected to torture (repeatedly beaten and sodomized) in Afghanistan before being transferred to United States' most famous gulag, Guantanamo Bay. When the CIA realized their error, they flew him to Albania and dumped him in a back street with not even an apology. According to cables released by Wikileaks, the US warned Germany not to allow any local investigation of his kidnapping or abuse.

The Land of the Free.

As torture is officially banned in most countries (although unofficially it remains widespread), and as there are binding international treaties forbidding its use, such a method of extracting information lies outside the normal framework of first establishing whether a captive is innocent or guilty.

Proponents of torture often introduce the 'ticking time bomb' argument, the idea that in certain extreme situations, such as a nuclear bomb with a timer in Times Square, international law goes out of the window and any technique can be used to obtain the information required to avert the disaster.

Authoritarians habitually introduce extreme and unlikely scenarios to make their case. Nevertheless, this is a persuasive argument which cannot be dismissed...until it is refuted by neuroscience.

The conventional wisdom is that subjects being tortured will say anything for the torture to stop, thereby rendering any information unreliable, although there could be some diamonds among the rough: in theory, this argument supports torture, albeit as an extremely inefficient way of gleaning information because every single thing the subject says would have to be checked out thoroughly. Rich states certainly have the resources to do this and that is likely to be one reason why nations like the UK and the US have resorted to outsourcing torture to black sites around the world.

However, according to neurobiologist Shane O'Mara of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin, this conventional thinking is bogus. In a paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science entitled 'Torturing the Brain', he says that the use of repeated extreme pain and stress can have profound effects on brain chemistry, radically affecting memory and so-called 'executive functions', namely planning or forming intentions.

From an article about the paper:

Fact One: To recall information stored in the brain, you must activate a number of areas, especially the prefrontal cortex (site of intentionality) and hippocampus (the door to long-term memory storage). Fact Two: Stress such as that caused by torture releases the hormone cortisol, which can impair cognitive function, including that of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. Studies in which soldiers were subjected to stress in the form of food and sleep deprivation have found that it impaired their ability to recall personal memories and information, as [a] 2006 study reported. "Studies of extreme stress with Special Forces Soldiers have found that recall of previously-learned information was impaired after stress occurred," notes O'Mara. "Water-boarding in particular is an extreme stressor and has the potential to elicit widespread stress-induced changes in the brain."

Stress also releases catecholamines such as noradrenaline, which can enlarge the amygdale (structures involved in the processing of fear), also impairing memory and the ability to distinguish a true memory from a false or implanted one. Brain imaging of torture victims [] suggest why: torture triggers abnormal patterns of activation in the frontal and temporal lobes, impairing memory. Rather than a question triggering a (relatively) simple pattern of brain activation that leads to the stored memory of information that can answer the question, the question stimulates memories almost chaotically, without regard to their truthfulness.

These neurochemical effects set the stage for two serious pitfalls of interrogation under torture, argues O'Mara. The first is that "information presented by the captor to elicit responses during interrogation may inadvertently become part of the suspect's memory, especially since suspects are under extreme stress and are required to tell and retell the same events which may have happened over a period of years." As a result, information produced by the suspect may parrot or embellish suggestions from the interrogators rather than revealing something both truthful and unknown to the interrogators. Second, cortisol-induced damage to the prefrontal cortex can cause confabulation, or false memories. Because a person being tortured loses the ability to distinguish between true and false memories, as a 2008 study showed, further pain and stress does not cause him to tell the truth, but to retreat further into a fog where he cannot tell true from false.

The other barrier to eliciting truthful information through torture is that the captive quickly learns that, as O'Mara puts it, "while I'm talking, I'm not being water-boarded." In other words, speaking = relief from pain. That conditions the suspect to speak at all costs, not distinguishing between what is true and what is made up. "To briefly summarize a vast, complex literature: prolonged and extreme stress inhibits the biological processes believed to support memory in the brain," says O'Mara. "Coercive interrogations involving extreme stress are unlikely, given our current cognitive neurobiological knowledge, to facilitate the release of veridical information from long-term memory."

Note: please read the original article for sources to support the facts within the above four paragraphs.

Bang goes the ticking bomb argument.

This article by Doctor Ruwan M Jayatunge details the far-reaching psychological effects of torture, noting that not only the victim but the families and friends of the victim are exposed to deep suffering and psychological issues, often rendering them incapable of maintaining relationships or holding down a job on top of all the usual well-documented long-term problems of depression, insomnia and susceptibility to substance abuse.

That so many victims of torture are in fact completely innocent and unknowing of anything useful to their captors is a tragedy. That in many cases prisoners would be happy to give up everything they know simply by being threatened with torture is doubly so. It is quite unambiguously a crime against humanity with no rational argument that can support it.

Indeed, rationality rarely comes into the arguments of its proponents. Most readers will be familiar with the 'waterboarding' technique, often also called 'simulated drowning' by the establishment media. This euphemism makes it sound like a soft touch. However, this article from The Washington Post written by a former Nevada National Guard member makes it clear that it is more like 'simulated death'. From the article:

The victim experiences the sensations of drowning: struggle, panic, breath-holding, swallowing, vomiting, taking water into the lungs and, eventually, the same feeling of not being able to breathe that one experiences after being punched in the gut. The main difference is that the drowning process is halted. According to those who have studied waterboarding's effects, it can cause severe psychological trauma, such as panic attacks, for years.

The Bush administration used legal weasel words with their pet lawyers to justify the use of waterboarding in its War on Terror in the full knowledge that the United States tried and executed some Japanese officers for performing this very same technique (among other 'war crimes') on allied prisoners of war during World War II. Other Japanese soldiers were sentenced to hard labor. Barack Obama, with his damaging and cowardly mantra of 'not looking back, looking forward' has legitimized these clearly illegal and immoral acts, tarnishing international law and setting tragic precedents for dictators (and sometimes democratically elected leaders) everywhere.

Torture is illegal under international law and binding international treaties such as the United Nations Convention Against Torture and, for international conflicts, the Geneva Conventions III and IV. Condemnation comes from all quarters: the Catholic Church, no stranger to torture in its own history, unequivocally condemns torture in its Catechism of the Catholic Church as follows:

In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors.

Groups like the World Organization Against Torture and the International Coalition Against Torture as well as noble smaller organizations like Freedom From Torture, which provides medical care and counselling to victims, should all be given our full support. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook and do whatever else you can to help these groups end this holdover from the dark ages.

There is no room anywhere in a civilized world for torture, especially with the only rational argument supporting its use, the 'ticking time bomb', blown out of the water. The disgrace of the fact that supposed beacons of freedom, human rights and democracy like the US and the UK are guilty of it is overshadowed only by their craven attempts to evade responsibility and accountability by rendering victims overseas to hellholes where just about anything can happen to them. This is, in truth, yet another failing of our broken systems, fake democracies, in which this illegal and immoral behavior is able to persist.

Written by Simon Wood
Twitter: @simonwood11

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1 comment:

  1. What's troubling is that the gov should and is aware of this by way of MKUltra and like programs used for brainwashing people. This is something the CIA was directly involved with. The release of declassified documents as well as released statements from those undergone the procedure verifies their knowledge of this. They know that to torture someone does induce a fog in the victim therefore allowing for ideas to be implanted in their minds. They know that extreme torture further causes the shattering of the personality thereby breaking into multiples. This serves to protect the individual's mind. Its a survival technique. The gov knows that the only effect achieved by using these methods are purely a means to manipulate and control another and nothing more whether this be through the active use at that moment or long after by where the person has been reprogrammed . Its a sadistic and inhumane process. In the film Rendition an innocent man is tortured and he releases the names of a soccer team to his captures. It is Jake Gyllenhal's character who is able to determine torture isn't an effective means of attaining accurate intel and also that the names given were that of a sports team. Its an unconscionable practice. In a time of supposed forward thinking and advancements in understandings we're nothing more than barbaric vicious animals. In a 1970's film entitled Cannibal Holocaust the main character sets out to determine events which led to a lost group of would-be revered documentary creaters. He learns that these people are nothing more than deplorable monsters. The film ends with him asking a question "Who are the real monsters". The same question can be posed to our gov and military for it is they who are the monsters, terrorists, and vial entities. -Bex


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