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The American science of interrogation

Debility, dependency and dread -- for decades, U.S. researchers and policymakers ramped up the techniques of "coercive" questioning.

October 22, 2005|Rebecca Lemov | 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.

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