Beware Misdirection on Torture Scandal (The “DDD” Story)

The New York Times had a front page article on the legal peregrinations of the Bush Administrations as it seeks safe harbor for its ship of torturers. The next day, the scandal spills out into official Washington, and the stubborn evil denizens at 1600 Pennsylvania trot out for a desultory press conference. There’s the snarling, contemptuous Bush, explaining, “This government does not torture people.”

Away, in countless rooms in millions of houses, the populace reads the stories and sighs and does nothing. Politicians screech, and pundits blather, and the war their generation shouldered with both protest and calm continued its carnage. Slowly, the news media formed a tight narrative around the new scandal: Bush’s Justice Department had found a way to legally, and yet secretly (and only in 2007 America can this occur without oxymoron), legitimate forms of torture too bestial to contemplate — beatings, simulated drownings, freezing men half to death… you know, Bush had growled, interrogation techniques that were “tough, safe, necessary and lawful.”

But no one knew, no one could know, that in the bowels of CIA headquarters at Langley, a group of men and women were safeguarding a group of techniques that were already exposed, and already forgotten, that were carefully cozened, that men were trained in, that were meant to outlast the worst New York Times editorial or Congressional investigation. And if they were referred to, if anyone should have to whisper them, they could use the awful acronym that had referenced them for over fifty years now: DDD.

There are those, interrogation professionals, who know only too well how imperfect and imprecise the more violent methods of third-world torturers are. The Egyptians may wish to hang men from their arms until their sockets burst out of their shoulders. The Syrians may wish to attach electric wires to generators and to men’s genitals, and crank up the current. The Uzbeks may want to drown men in boiling water, or rip their fingernails out. But the CIA knew such methods were not, well, scientific.

In 1956, in the pages of an obscure academic journal, Sociometry, I.E. Farber, Harry F. Harlow, and Louis Jolyon West published a classic work of the interrogation field, Brainwashing, Conditioning, and DDD (Debility, Dependency, and Dread). It was based on a report for the Study Group on Survival Training, paid for by the U.S. Air Force. The article states that “permission is granted for reproduction, translation, publication, use, and disposal in whole and in part by or for the United States government”.

Who Were the Men Who Developed It?

Harry Harlow

Harlow was a Stanford educated psychologist. His career, however, unfolded mostly at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He became President of the Midwestern Psychological Association, and President of the Division of Experimental Psychology in the American Psychological Association (APA). In 1958, Harry Harlow was elected President of the APA itself.

But what Harlow was most famous for were his experiments on maternal deprivation and isolation, utilizing monkeys. His famous wire/cloth “mother” monkeys, nicknamed “iron maidens” by him, demonstrated the profound need for affection and attachment in all primates. In later years, he was demonized for by animal rights activists for his unethical experiments on animals.

The Wikipedia article on Harlow mentions the maternal-deprivation and isolation experiments on infant macaque monkeys, noting:

The monkeys were left alone for up to 24 months, and emerged severely disturbed….

The experiments were controversial, with some researchers citing them as factors in the rise of the animal liberation movement.

The standard biographical references fail to mention the DDD article.

I. E. Farber

Farber was a psychologist at the University of Iowa. He was researching the “Effects of Anxiety, Stress, and Task Variables on Reaction Time”, and had already co-authored, at the time of the DDD essay, an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, “Conditioned fear as revealed by magnitude of startle response to an auditory stimulus”.

Louis Jolyon “Jolly” West

Those of you who went to UCLA probably know the Louis Joylon West Auditorium at the Neuropsychiatric (or NPI) Building. West had been chairman of the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, and a controversial figure in his own right. Famously, he worked with Dr. Margaret Singer in a pre-trial examination of Patty Hearst. He also examined the imprisoned Jack Ruby, killer of Lee Harvey Oswald. Some of West’s causes stamp him as a liberal: he was against the death penalty. He supported the sit-in protesters of the civil rights movement, and travelled to South Africa to testify for prisoners of the apartheid regime there.

Dr. West also participated in a symposium for the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry (GAP) in November 1956. It was titled “Methods of Forceful Indoctrination: Observations and Interviews”, and I’ve written on it before. “Jolly” West told his Asbury Park, New Jersey, psychiatric audience that DDD consisted of “constant attempts to induce anxiety and despair”.

The New York Times obituary of West, who died at 74 in 1999, describes this famous/infamous figure (emphases added):

…Dr. West was part of a panel appointed to find out why 36 of 59 United States airmen captured in Korea confessed or cooperated in charges of war crimes against the United States. What seemed to be a collapse of will led some to call the airmen cowards, and others raised the fear that the Communists had found drugs or mysterious methods to induce “brainwashing”….

“What we found enabled us to rule out drugs, hypnosis or other mysterious trickery,” he once said in an interview. “It was just one device used to confuse, bewilder and torment our men until they were ready to confess to anything. That device was prolonged, chronic loss of sleep.” That, combined with the constant fear of harm and the total dependency on their captors, led the airmen into startling and fairly long-lasting personality changes.

The Times article fails to mention Dr. West’s links to the shadowy MKULTRA program of the CIA. He was linked as a CIA researcher into LSD in John Marks’s The Search for the Manchurian Candidate, and in later documents the litigious Scientologists and others dug up, as West was active in anti-cult activities. But most importantly, as Chief Investigator of the Study Group on Survival Training, he co-authored the DDD article, which was to become the blueprint for a style of interrogation embraced by the CIA in its KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual circa 1963 (photocopies here).

Basics of Scientific, Psychological Torture

While today’s headlines scream about waterboarding and beatings, CIA and military researchers had concluded two generations ago that such torture produced unreliable results. In addition, they left marks. Questions could be asked. Dead bodies, the “failures” of coercive interrogation, would have to be disposed of. But what if there were a way to torture someone without leaving any physical sign of outward mishandling: no bruises, no broken bones, no burn marks?

According to Farber, Harlow and West’s analysis (hereafter referred to as BCD), the purported confessions of Air Force and Marine Corps airmen held by the Chinese communists during the Korean War, to the effect that the U.S. had used “germ warfare” as a military tactic, were to be explained by the abusive conditions of captivity and the stress these prisoners underwent. (Whether the confessions of the airmen were false or not is a matter of some controversy. Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman’s book, The United States and Biological Warfare, University of Indiana Press, 1999, makes a compelling case that they were not.)

BCD examined the various types of stress undergone by prisoners, and narrowed them down to “three important elements: debility, dependency, and dread”.

Debility was a condition caused by “semi-starvation, fatigue, and disease”. It induced “a sense of terrible weariness”.

Dependency on the captors for some relief from their agony was something “produced by the prolonged deprivation of many of the factors, such as sleep and food… [and] was made more poignant by occasional unpredictable brief respites.” The use of prolonged isolation of the prisoner, depriving an individual of expected social intercourse and stimulation, “markedly strengthened the dependency”.

Dread probably needs no explanation, but BCD described it as “chronic fear…. Fear of death, fear of pain, fear of nonrepatriation, fear of deformity of permanent disability…. even fear of one’s own inability to satisfy the demands of insatiable interrogators.”

The bulk of BCD explains the effects of DDD in terms of Pavlovian conditioning and the learning theories of American psychologist Edward Thorndike. They also found the “collapse of ego functions” to bear some resemblance to “postlobotomy syndrome”.

By disorganizing the perception of those experiential continuities constituting the self-concept and impoverishing the basis for judging self-consistency, DDD affects one’s habitual ways of looking at and dealing with oneself. [p. 275]

BCD is full of nuggets of useful information, the kind that can explain material that otherwise appears insane. Take the painful stress positioning of prisoners documented at Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run detainee prisons. BCE explains: it’s all part of inducing dependency through expectation of relief, but in a diabolical way. Forced stress positions are a “self-inflicted punishment”, one which increases the expectancy of relief via “voluntary” means. But the latter is “delusory… since the captor may select any behavior he chooses as the condition for relieving a prisoner’s distress” [pp. 276-277].

This form of carrot and stick torture may not seem that sophisticated, but it is the use of basic nervous system functioning and human instinctual need that makes it “scientific” and effective. The need for sensory stimulation and social interaction, the need to eat, to sleep, to reduce fear, all of these are used to build dependencies upon the captor, using the fact that “the strengthening effects of rewards — in this instance the alleviation of an intensely unpleasant emotional state — are fundamentally automatic” [p. 278].

The CIA Perfects the Technique

This impairment of higher cognitive states, this disruption and disorganization of the very self of the prisoner, producing something like “a pathological organic state”, but one “perhaps rendering the prisoner susceptible to relatively simple conditioning techniques”, was subsequently modified and used by the CIA in its interrogations of countless individuals. If more brutal forms of torture sometimes were used, especially by over-eager foreign agents or governments, DDD remained the gold standard, the programmatic core of counterintelligence interrogation at the heart of the CIAs own intelligence manuals.

Chapter Nine of the CIA KUBARK manual, “Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources”, describes coercive interrogation procedures as

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.

The anonymous authors of KUBARK then quote the BCD article specifically:

Farber says that the response to coercion typically contains “… at least three important elements: debility, dependency, and dread.” Prisoners “… have reduced viability, are helplessly dependent on their captors for the satisfaction of their many basic needs, and experience the emotional and motivational reactions of intense fear and anxiety….

The subheads to the chapter are evocative of the DDD paradigm: “Deprivation of Sensory Stimuli”, “Threats and Fear”, “Debility”, “Pain”, “Heightened Suggestibility and Hypnosis”, and “Narcosis”.

CIA Reformers Thread the Needle

It may be worth noting here that modern apologists for the CIA, who appear in the guise of reformers, such as Steven Kleinman, a historian who wrote on World War II interrogation practice, and was a former Air Force intelligence officer himself, are big advocates for “rapport-building” interrogation. They despise the “bad cop” stuff, the violence that sends even professional interrogators over the edge, and makes the prisoner a bloody mess of dubious information.

Kleinman wrote an essay on KUBARK for last year’s “Educing Information” report for the Intelligence Science Board. In it, he makes, for a historian, a remarkable statement:

The KUBARK manual offers unique and exceptional insights into the complex challenges of educing information from a resistant source through noncoercive means. While it addresses the use of coercive methods, it also describes how those methods may prove ultimately counterproductive. Although criticized for its discussion of coercion, the KUBARK manual does not portray coercive methods as a necessary – or even viable – means of effectively educing information. [p. 133]

Not necessary? The CIA manual expends twenty percent of its exposition upon coercive interrogation techniques. Not viable? Here’s what the manual has to say about the “counterproductive” methods of torture:

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.

In other words, torture is used to test the veracity of information otherwise obtained during the normal course of counterintelligence work. Its use to “educe information” is also not without its hard-grained efficacies. The CIA is very clear on this:

And 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….

The profound moral objection to applying duress past the point of irreversible psychological damage has been stated. Judging the validity of other ethical arguments about coercion exceeds the scope of this paper. What is fully clear, however, is that controlled coercive manipulation of an interrogatee may impair his ability to make fine distinctions but will not alter his ability to answer correctly such gross questions as “Are you a Soviet agent? What is your assignment now? Who is your present case officer?”

So much for Kleinman’s analysis. But what about other contemporary commentators, like Time Magazine‘s in-house ex-CIA man, Robert Baer? In a recent Time column, Baer rightly condemns Bush for his specious denial of governmental torture. He derides torture as uneffective, and a tool of political intimidation. But it’s what he doesn’t say that is important. By making waterboarding, slapping, and freezing of prisoners what torture is all about, the DDD paradigm of coercive interrogation is kept out of sight. This is was the same strategy used with great effectiveness in the reissuing last year of the Army Field Manual for interrogation.

This new AFM was lauded for banning the beating of prisoners, threatening them with dogs, sexual humiliation, performing mock executions, electrocution of prisoners, and waterboarding, among other noxious techniques. But in an appendix to the manual, the following procedures are authorized for certain prisoners: complete separation, sometimes with forced wearing of goggles and earmuffs, for up to 30 days (after which approval for more must be sought); limiting sleep to four hours a day, for 30 straight days; and other concurrent techniques, including “futility”, “incentive”, and “fear up harsh”. In the latter, fear within a detainee is significantly increased, through knowledge of the person’s phobias, if possible.

Why “Enhanced” Torture?

In the press, and in the speeches of politicians on both sides of the aisle, the new AFM was praised as a model of reform. The CIA was urged to embrace the AFM’s policies, but has demurred. Why, one wonders, as it’s evident the AFM has maintained a core DDD operational capacity (isolation, sleep and sensory deprivation, fear)?

One reason may be that when a prisoner doesn’t know what to expect, or in fact expects something truly awful, that increases the captive’s fear. Increased fear also enhances the negative effects of techniques like sensory deprivation. It is very likely that whatever is really done in dark CIA prisons, making it well-known that the CIA can waterboard you, or freeze you, or beat you is all about ratcheding up the Dread component of DDD. Similarly, indefinite detention has the effect of increasing the Dependency component of DDD: elimination of habeas corpus tells the prisoner “you have no escape”. The prisoner depends on the captor for his life, if not the existence (in its earthly form) of his very soul.

While I believe this explains the CIA’s stubborn adherence to “enhanced interrogation techniques”, but there may be other, convergent reasons. It’s difficult to know what goes on within the CIA, as its business is covert by definition, and misdirection, lying, and obfuscation are its tools in trade. Perhaps the CIA is holding out on its more atrocious forms of torture, waiting to pull an AFM-like manuever of its own, if it has to. It’s also possible that the CIA — a rogue governmental agency if there ever was one — simply doesn’t like to be told what to do.

But we citizens should not let induced ignorance become societal indifference. It is important that all elements of the U.S. torture program be exposed and made illegal. If the country can not rise morally to this, then a terrifying future lies before us.

Also posted at Invictus


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    • Valtin on October 10, 2007 at 8:34 pm

    Hope you all like it.

  1. and chilling at the same time along with enlightening.

    • snud on October 10, 2007 at 9:59 pm

    Very well done and informative! You ask a rhetorical question at the end:

    The CIA was urged to embrace the AFM’s policies, but has demurred. Why…?

    I couldn’t help wonder if their “rationale” is the old “Terrorist with a suitcase nuke…” scenario where time is of the essence.

    I understand that torture isn’t going to likely work in such a scenario – the torturers will just get bogus information from the tortured until the “nuke” goes off.

    But we are talking about the CIA here – an organization that at one time was putting acid (LSD) in each other’s coffee, surrepticiously dosing their own.

    Not a very bright thing for them to do!

  2. I started to read while eating spagetti.  I need to come back and read it later.  Looking forward to it. 

  3. I just downloaded the Farber/Harlow paper from jstor. 

  4. You do great reporting here and always.  Although “like it” may not be quite the size of my response (the news but worsens), I salute your intrepid efforts to bring forth the truth.

    It is very likely that whatever is really done in dark CIA prisons, making it well-known that the CIA can waterboard you, or freeze you, or beat you is all about ratcheding up the Dread component of DDD

    I have long concluded that torture was about shutting mouths, not opening them.  Come declaration of martial law in the US, we may perhaps recognize an ultimate end of the dread tactic… upon our own public.  In the end it looks like an object lesson spectacle to me.  The last thing they want is for their erstwhile black ops employees to talk.

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