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Mental damage from CIA tactics is disputed

Justice Department memos say no permanent harm was inflicted from interrogation techniques, but some doctors and psychologists disagree.

April 20, 2009|Sarah Gantz and Ben Meyerson

WASHINGTON — The conclusion in recently released Justice Department memos that CIA interrogation techniques would not cause prolonged mental harm is disputed by some doctors and psychologists, who say that the mental damage incurred from the practices is significant and undeniable.

An August 2002 memo outlined 10 interrogation techniques used on top Al Qaeda suspects, including waterboarding, stress positions and -- for one prisoner with a known fear of insects -- cramped confinement with a bug. Other memos also described such techniques.

"I disagree wholeheartedly with their contention that there are no long-term psychological effects of these treatments," said Nina K. Thomas, an adjunct clinical associate professor at New York University's postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, who has worked with torture victims.

Interrogation techniques undoubtedly have lasting effects, she said, such as paranoia, anxiety, hyper-vigilance and "the destruction of people's personalities."

Brad Olson, a research professor of psychology at Northwestern University, said the approved methods could be extremely damaging.

"Even given individual differences in a person's resilience, over time -- using any of those techniques in combination -- there's absolutely no question they are going to lead to permanent mental harm," Olson said.

When interrogators were tipped off to one prisoner's fear of insects, they planned to put him and a bug in a box, although the CIA said it never did so.

"Some of these [techniques] clearly have a very real physical component," said Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. He cited waterboarding, in which water is poured over the face to simulate drowning, as an example.

A prisoner deprived of sleep may be overwhelmed with memories of torture when they become tired years later, Keller said. The same is true, he said, for the stomach growls of those tortured by starvation.

But David Rivkin, who served in the Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, defended the practices. He said the military had been subjecting its own to these techniques for years during training.

"If this is torture, we've been torturing our own soldiers for years," Rivkin said. "Why is it that we are all of a sudden revolted and aghast?"

In Rivkin's estimation, these techniques are better than other methods of coercion. "They're not easy, but they're enormously restrained -- they're not relying on brute force, they're not relying on infliction of pain," he said.

Regardless of its lasting damage, torture is not an effective way of extracting information, said Fathali Moghaddam, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University.

"Depending on the individual being tortured, all of these can have the effect of leading the individual being tortured to give completely incorrect information -- as a way of stopping the pain," Moghaddam said.

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sgantz@tribune.com

bmeyerson@tribune.com

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