Imagine no longer, and read how the CIA, the RAND Corporation, and the American Psychological Association (APA) met on July 17-18, 2003, and in a workshop entitled the "Science of Deception: Integration of Practice and Theory" discussed new ways to utilize drugs and sensory bombardment techniques to break down interrogatees. The latter are signal techniques of psychological torture long utilized by the CIA and other intelligence agencies and military around the world.
The kicker is: the CIA denies it uses torture, and the APA claims that its official position is against torture and involvement in psychologists in research, planning or implementation of coercive interrogation. So what's going on?
Let's get to the meat of the revelations right away. At Arlington, Virginia, at the headquarters of the privately-held but long linked-to-the-government think tank, the RAND Corporation, approximately 40 participants met at a "workshop" to discuss the issue of deception in interrogations, with "generous financial support" from the CIA, which also provided "operational expertise". The participants included:
...research psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists who study various aspects of deception and representatives from the CIA, FBI and Department of Defense with interests in intelligence operations. In addition, representatives from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security were present.
What did they discuss?
According to APA's Public Policy Office, who publishes an online newspaper called, with perhaps an unconscious taste for irony, "Spin":
The scenarios dealt broadly with issues such as embassy walk-in informants, threat assessment, intelligence gathering, and law enforcement interrogation and debriefing. Participants were prompted in advance to think about research issues and practical considerations they wanted the broader group to consider. Across the two days, there were a number of thought-provoking discussions suggesting the need to develop both short-term and long-term research programs on deception
Research into Torture
The workshop proceeded to discuss various "scenarios", per their program. Some of these scenarios -- really questions for consideration by the agencies involved -- are not remarkable in and of themselves. Others appear potentially sinister.
But none are more sinister than those that appear in the section "Law Enforcement Interrogation and Debriefing". (All following quotes, unless otherwise noted, come from the APA's Government Policy: Science Policy website.)
Law enforcement routinely question witnesses and suspects regarding criminal activity. How do you tell if the individual is telling the truth, lying, or something in between? Acts of omission and acts of commission are both important to identify.
This truly is an ancient problem. The accused of former times were brought before judges and called to "the question". In the Parlements of France that preceded the French Revolution, the accused would be first given the question ordinaire, which only consisted of arms and legs stretched on the rack. If that didn't work, the accused would be encouraged to confess via the question extraordinaire, i.e., compelled to drink up to 20 jugs of water. (Thanks to Ian Davidson and his research in the marvelous book, Voltaire in Exile, for info on French medieval torture.)
But the modern APA and their police and intelligence cohorts have another idea.
How do we find out if the informant has knowledge of which s/he is not aware? How important are differential power and status between witness and officer? What pharmacological agents are known to affect apparent truth-telling behavior?.... What are sensory overloads on the maintenance of deceptive behaviors? How might we overload the system or overwhelm the senses and see how it affects deceptive behaviors?
The Unknown History of Psychological Torture, or How They Do It
Using drugs to influence interrogations; using sensory deprivation, distortion and overload or bombardment; these were signal techniques in a decades-long research program that came to be known by its most famous moniker, MKULTRA. Its techniques were codified by the early 1960s in a CIA Counterinsurgency Interrogation Manual, also known by its codename, KUBARK.
According to numerous researchers, the CIA, and the psychologists and psychiatrists they contracted to work with them, including many of the top behavioral scientists of their day, experimented with many drugs in their quest to find a "truth" drug that would open up the recalcitrant and expose the liar and the dissembler. It's not hard to find information on this in many places, some dubious, some not, on the Internet. The CIA has declassified a paper from its in-house intelligence journal from the early 1960s, "'Truth' Drugs in Interrogation", where they discuss research on drugs for interrogation ranging from scopolamine, amphetamine and barbiturates to cannabis, LSD, and mescaline. The CIA authors discuss the limitations of using drugs, based on research, and conclude that a special use for drugs may be found in detection of deception.
The general abhorrence in Western countries for the use of chemical agents "to make people do things against their will" has precluded serious systematic study (at least as published openly) of the potentialities of drugs for interrogation....
...at best a drug can only serve as an aid to an interrogator who has a sure understanding of the psychology and techniques of normal interrogation. In some respects, indeed, the demands on his skill will be increased by the baffling mixture of truth and fantasy in drug-induced output. And the tendency against which he must guard in the interrogatee to give the responses that seem to be wanted without regard for facts will be heightened by drugs: the literature abounds with warnings that a subject in narcosis is extremely suggestible.
It seems possible that this suggestibility and the lowered guard of the narcotic state might be put to advantage in the case of a subject feigning ignorance of a language or some other skill that had become automatic with him. Lipton found sodium amytal helpful in determining whether a foreign subject was merely pretending not to understand English. By extension, one can guess that a drugged interrogatee might have difficulty maintaining the pretense that he did not comprehend the idiom of a profession he was trying to hide.
But the quotes from the CIA/RAND/APA deception workshop are not from 40 years ago. They are from 2003! Evidently the research into using drugs on captured or arrested or incarcerated prisoners or "enemy combatants" has not ended.
Sensory Bombardment, or Why Can't We Watch the Movie "The Ipcress File?
In the hit 1960s spy drama, The Ipcress File, starring a young Michael Caine as the British intelligence agent Harry Palmer. Palmer stumbles upon a secret government project codenamed Ipcress, which stands for "Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under strESS".
In the film, Palmer is himself tortured by the proponents of Ipcress, shut into a small chamber and bombarded for hours by extremely loud noises and music, meant, it seems to drive him insane. He keeps his sense of personal self by jamming a secretly hidden nail into the palm of his hand: the pain keeps him centered and helps him resist the brainwashing.
I've gone into the plot because if you live in the U.S., you cannot obtain this film new on DVD or video. Despite the fact it stars the popular star Michael Caine, and despite the fact it won British awards for Best Screenplay and the BAFTA Award for Best British Film of 1965, and despite siring three sequels, the picture has not been released in the U.S. for many years. It's probably some legal hang-up, but given the subject matter, one wonders.
Research into sensory deprivation, sensory and perceptual distortion, and sensory overload or bombardment constituted a gigantic research project in the fields of psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience from the early 1950s through the late 1970s. Subsequently, the research, which had engendered hundreds if not thousands of papers, many of them with research funded by the Pentagon, seemed to disappear. Yet strangely, the topic did not disappear. It remained part of the apparatus of secret intelligence programs, and one would presume, classified research.
I have written some on this before in my recent essay, "Heart of Darkness: Sensory Deprivation and U.S. Torture -- Where from Here?" But what is needed is a full history, and an explanation that the layman will understand. I will attempt a small example of the latter here. But those wishing to investigate further will have to send away to their local used bookseller to find two important books that document this history and research:
Sensory Deprivation, A Symposium held at Harvard Medical School, Solomon, Philip, Jack H. Mendelson, Philip E. Kubzansky, Richard Trumbull, P. Herbert Leiderman & Donald Wexler, Editors, 1961, Harvard University Press
Sensory Deprivation: Fifteen Years of Research, John Zubek, Editor, 1969, Appleton-Century-Crofts
Sensory Bombardment and Deprivation: A Crash Course
The brain needs a certain amount of stimulation. Early developmental studies show that early sensory deprivation during formative periods of development often results in the failure of the somatosensory systems to develop normally, both neuroanatomically and neurochemically. For those of you into such disputes, "nature" needs "nurture" to express itself.
What the research on sensory deprivation/distortion/overload demonstrated was that the nervous system is adapted to a range of stimuli, and requires an certain minimum of cortical activation. If this range is exceeded (sensory overload) or is lacking (sensory deprivation), the brain does not operate correctly. A special case is sensory or perceptual distortion. As the researchers got more deeply into it, they found that distortion of expected stimuli, or producing a vague, featureless visual field, caused greater disruption of psychological functioning than sensory deprivation per se.
What all this comes down to is that the CIA and Pentagon, searching for ways to disrupt the will and functioning of those being interrogated, found in the various modalities of sensory disruption a shiny new tool in their armamentarium of coercive techniques, joining it to isolation (itself a special form of deprivation), stress positions, sleep deprivation, and the induction of fear and physical debility (e.g., starvation).
According to the British writer Dominic Streatfeild, in his recent book Brainwashed: The Secret History of Mind Control (2007, St. Martin's Press), both the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs) at Guantanamo Bay, and the British Intelligence Corps have lately experimented with the effects of loud, overpowering sounds upon interrogatees, including "babies crying, discordant car horns, bloodcurdling screams and Chinese opera tapes" (p. 360). Americans preferred to torture via thrash-metal music and white noise.
The actual choice of noise doesn't appear to make much difference: what matters is that it's loud, repetitive and annoying. To an interrogation subject who hasn't been allowed proper sleep for a couple of days, an unexpected cacophony will cause him to jump out of his skin. This is how the big boys maintain the shock of capture.
How CIA Uses This Kind of Torture
The CIA's torture manual, known as KUBARK, declassified in part some years ago, but still bearing many redactions, describes in its Chapter IX, "Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources" its theory and practice of coercion. I will highlight what it says on sensory forms of torture, as it also describes in this chapter alone use of threats and fear, induction of weakness and debility, hypnosis, narcosis (drugs), and pain.
Coercive procedures are designed not only to exploit the resistant source's internal conflicts and induce him to wrestle with himself but also to bring a superior outside force to bear upon the subject's resistance....
All coercive techniques are designed to induce regression. As Hinkle notes in "The Physiological State of the Interrogation Subject as it Affects Brain Function" (7), the result of external pressures of sufficient intensity is the loss of those defenses most recently acquired by civilized man: "... the capacity to carry out the highest creative activities, to meet new, challenging, and complex situations, to deal with trying interpersonal relations, and to cope with repeated frustrations. Relatively small degrees of homeostatic derangement, fatigue, pain, sleep loss, or anxiety may impair these functions." As a result, "most people who are exposed to coercive procedures will talk and usually reveal some information that they might not have revealed otherwise."
So much for the idea that torture produces nothing. It does in fact produce information, it's the reliability of the information that is often in question. But this author has direct experience of talking with people who have been interrogated under torture, and I can tell you that it does sometimes produce actionable intelligence, at the expense of the humanity and suffering of the "subject". Much of the time, however, it produces nothing, because the arrested person is innocent, or has been made too disabled by the torture, or is producing what he or she hope the interrogator wants, irregardless of truth value.
The CIA puts it this way:
Psychologists and others who write about physical or psychological duress frequently object that under sufficient pressure subjects usually yield but that their ability to recall and communicate information accurately is as impaired as the will to resist. This pragmatic objection has somewhat the same validity for a counterintelligence interrogation as for any other. But there is one significant difference. Confession is a necessary prelude to the CI interrogation of a hitherto unresponsive or concealing source.The astute reader will note that KUBARK does not mention sensory overload (although it does mention disruption of familiar "patterns" in a person's life). But the research literature is clear: sensory overstimulation is meant to disrupt a person's normal functioning, and like other forms of psychological torture, leaves scars upon a person's psyche, having been subjected to a regimen of dependency, debility and dread.
...the use of coercive techniques will rarely or never confuse an interrogatee so completely that he does not know whether his own confession is true or false. He does not need full mastery of all his powers of resistance and discrimination to know whether he is a spy or not. Only subjects who have reached a point where they are under delusions are likely to make false confessions that they believe.
As for sensory distortion:
...a person cut off from external stimuli turns his awareness inward, upon himself, and then projects the contents of his own unconscious outwards, so that he endows his faceless environment with his own attributes, fears, and forgotten memories....
(1) the deprivation of sensory stimuli induces stress; (2) the stress becomes unbearable for most subjects; (3) the subject has a growing need for physical and social stimuli; and (4) some subjects progressively lose touch with reality, focus inwardly, and produce delusions, hallucinations, and other pathological effects.
I've gone into some detail here so the casual but interested reader can understand the import of what is here discovered.
Stop Psychological Research into Coercive Interrogation -- Summary
1. The CIA bankrolled a meeting of behavioral scientists, including psychologists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists, under the banner of the American Psychological Association, and hosted by the RAND Corporation. Also present were officials from the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the White House.
2. At this workshop, the participants considered ways of combatting deception in interrogations. Two ways they discussed were consistent with a long-standing use of coercive interrogation techniques -- use of drugs in interrogation, and the use of sensory manipulation of subjects, both in order to produce debilitating changes in subjects that make them more pliable in interrogations
3. This meeting proves that the research that made up the mind control project of the 1950s and 1960s is not dead, and that psychological forms of torture and mind manipulation are studied at the highest levels of government, and with the connivance and collaboration of major U.S. academic and social institutions, in this case the American Psychological Association.
A group of psychologists in the APA are fighting to stop the use of psychologists in the kinds of interrogations discussed in this article. You can read about it here and here. I suggest the following: write to the President of the APA, and tell her your opposition to the kinds of activities documented herein.
I would also suggest that these activities and the deception workshop itself involved unethical, if not illegal, actions, and that the members involved should be sanctioned. -- You can contact Sharon Brehm, Ph.D., President of the APA at her webpage, where there is a form for this purpose. Or you can write APA at
American Psychological Association, 750 First Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002-4242
Or call the Ethics Office of APA and complain directly: (800) 374-2721, extension 5930. Tell them to direct your message to Dr. Stephen Behnke, the APA flack working on these issues.