Thursday, November 10, 2005

Torture and the Sciences: The perversion of the scientific enterprise.

''The military trains people to withstand interrogation. Are those methods being misused at Guantánamo?''

The New Yorker's reporter Jane Mayer wrote in the july 11th 2005 issue about experiments being conducted by psychologists and psychiatrists on prisoners at the american prison in Guantanamo bay, Cuba. A link to this article appears in one of her recent reports on the death of a prisoner at the hands of the CIA in the Abu Ghraib Iraqi prison (November 14th, 2005, issue).

Torture with the intimate knowledge.
The question asked by the reporter is: Are the methods, applied in the training of the military to withstand torture, being misused at Guantánamo ? The question derives from the fact that specific complaints about the treatment received by Guantanamo prisoners at the hand of their interrogators seem to coincide with methods used by the American military in an ensemble of training techniques grouped as a special program known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape). These methods, developed at the end of the korean war, are used to increase the ability of military personnel, sent on sensitive missions, to resist to extreme physical and psychological conditions. They were accompanied by research charting levels of cortisol in blood and saliva as measures of anxiety and stress. The same methods are being used now in Guantanamo with a different intent; to break the physical and psychological integrity of the prisoners hoping it will contribute to extract information. The methods are being performed by the same people who were specially trained for them, and had to withstand them in different conditions, with the intimate knowledge of the personal experience on their effects, and without the safeguards inherent to the training program. This amounts actually to plain torture.

Torture with the scientific knowledge.
This fact, which the US administration is trying to hide, is highly disturbing. However, most disturbing is that torture sessions performed by former trainees of SERE - and actual interrogators - are conducted with the help of psychologists and psychiatrists in what is known as the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs). These teams assist the interrogators, not to provide safeguards, but to actualize and optimize the technique, adapting it to the special context related to the cultural and religious specifics of the prisoners in Guantanamo.

''The research, which began during the Cold War, developed new currency after September 11th, when the Bush Administration declared a global war on terror and began trying to extract intelligence from radical Islamists, many of whom have been trained not to reveal anything about their activities. Since 2001, the critics say, medical and scientific personnel have played a role, largely hidden, in helping to design and monitor interrogations that are intended to exploit the physical and mental vulnerabilities of detainees. According to a former interrogator at Guantánamo who was interviewed at length by a lawyer, behavioral scientists control the most minute details of interrogations, to the point of decreeing, in the case of one detainee, that he would be given seven squares of toilet paper per day.''

The intimate knowledge, the interrogators engage in performing torture with the SERE methods, is a knowledge which seems to induce in some interrogators real satisfaction, if not relief of being this time on the other side of the interrogation compared to when they received their training, and derived from the feeling of being in a powerful position - something that was aknowledged at the stage of training when they had to assume such a role on their colleagues. But there is a scientific knowledge at work here. This knowledge does not derive from personnal experience, it is institutional, systematic and even more destructive to prisoners because it does not rely on common knowledge of human relationships but on independant knowledge about the inner working of their body and their mind, accessible only to scientists.

Torutre and killing as experimentations for the purpose of knowing more in order to do more harm, in order to know more.

''In past wars, the U.S. military has used health-care consultants for therapeutic purposes, to evaluate the combat readiness of soldiers with psychological or physiological problems, and to provide soldiers with counselling and psychotropic drugs. But Major General Geoffrey D. Miller—who commanded the Guantánamo Bay detention center between November, 2002, and March, 2004, and who was then sent by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to manage Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq—established a new role for health-care advisers. “These teams, comprised of operational behavioral psychologists and psychiatrists, are essential in developing integrated interrogation strategies and assessing interrogation intelligence production,” Miller explained in an internal report in September, 2003.''

Where safeguards may have played a role in discarding some experiments that could have been done on trainees in the SERE program, there is no such a thing in Guantanamo. On the contrary, previous scientific knowledge extracted from the SERE training on american army personnel is being used in its full extent and developped during interrogations on Guantanamo prisoners in what may be called in vivo experiments on the real thing. This leaves out the possibility that the interrogators are merely using their intimate knowledge of torture derived from the training provided by the SERE program. They are being guided and helped by behavioral scientists participating in the interrogations. We are left with the only possibility for the role of Science in this story: An active and systematic role in torture. What I mean by active is that scientific knowledge is applied here in order, not only to manage the risks of torture, notably death, but to extract information about the working of the body and the mind. This may seem secondary to the first objective of interrogations, extracting intelligence from detainees, but the monitoring and the use of feedback by a scientific team is part of the scientific methodology of experimentations. Scientists helping torturers are collecting data in these circumstances. Whether they are going to publish them is not an issue, they are using them to perfect the methods of torture. The scientific team is not using a preestablished protocol based on a certain conception of humanity, dignity and so on..., it is changing its interrogation techniques, according to context, culture and beliefs of the tortured. This is an interactive scientific program that is being perfected by learning from actual torture. It s following exactly the scientific method of investigation: a hypothesis put to test is revised and refined from feedback resulting from experimental manipulation. This amounts to knowledge about brain and mind, extracted by torture. What we have here is a deliberate and systematic approach using science not only as a independant knowledge used to harm and not to kill, but as a methodology applied in an experimental setting relying on torture where harm is done at every step from the initial knowledge (initial conditions) to the confirmation/refutation approach used to produce the intelligence and back again to the newly produced knowledge modifying the initial conditions on how to Torture with the desired outcome.

Guantanamo Brain/Mind experimentations: A further step in the perversion of Science.

What the BSCTs are doing in Guantanamo goes a little bit further than other unethical use of scientific experimentation in history. The history of research ethics on Humans is relatively recent. It started at the dawn of the twentieth century with the introduction by the US congress of laws regulating the manufacturing and the use of vaccines and continued with regulations introduced each time something goes wrong in scientific research; the Nuremberg code with a ten point statement restricting the use of Humans in scientific experimentation, the regulations prompted by the effects of Thalidomide on developmental abnormalities in babies, the Helsinki declaration by the world medical association and, more recently, the Belmont Report, at the end of the seventies, adding more regulations in the US on the use of Humans in research after it was shown that african american men treated for Syphillis with Arsenic in a research project were refused alternative medecine (penicilline) when it became available and more importantly were kept ignorant about the less harmful treatment. These recent and past events of the history of research on Humans not only showed the ugly entanglement between scientific experimentations and crimes against humanity but helped us, scientists, lawmakers and ethicists, take action against the abuse of human dignity and integrity to shape the modern ethics of scientific research.

Guantanamo's psychological and behavioural experimentations with Torture on detainees are a step further in the abuse of Humans in scientific experimentations because: 1) they evolve with experimentation on torture, they are dependant a posteriori on results obtained in an unethical setting, 2) they are production oriented.
The Bush administration have set the conditions and the means, including an extraterritorial facility and scientific teams, for producing intelligence on the basis of Torture. “These teams, comprised of operational behavioral psychologists and psychiatrists, are essential in developing integrated interrogation strategies and assessing interrogation intelligence production,” Miller explained in an internal report in September, 2003. Note that, in this statement, general Miller is preoccupied with the production and not the quality of intelligence.

Scientific research cannot ignore what happens beyond its official limits. Regulations in scientific research on Humans were introduced after abuses were done, most of the time, outside mainstream and academic Science. However, every new perversion of the scientific enterprise challenges the current and existant rules in scientific research ethics. And this new one is at the heart of science and has advocates at very high levels in the US government. At this point, I am still surprised that, aside doctors and lawyers working for humanitarian organizations, there are no Brain/Mind scientists publicly condemning such a dramatic perversion of their Science.


tc said...

For an interesting expose' on the role of neuroscientists in early research leading to refined torture techinques see
I was particularly distressed to see the name of DO Hebb crop up repeatedly in this and other writings on the subject. As you know he is very highly regarded in the field for his contributions, not the least into synapse formation and consolidation. Indeed his book "The Orgnaization of Behavior" is one of the books I very much cherish owning. As to your comments about lawyers and physicians the response of these two professional groups has been scandalous. Torture has been effectively sacntioned by the silence of academics of both groups on the subject matter. I do not believe any single group of professionals has come out of this scandal with their reputation enhanced.

Sonia Mansour-Robaey said...

Thanks for the link. I had a very quick look at it and I have to tell you and tell my other readers that, although secret experiments are conducted for military and security reasons, I believe that not all testimonies on the site are to be taken seriously. One has to be very cautious about all this and our role as scientists should be to draw a line between things plausible and complete fiction in order to defend science and its role in society.
I also cherish Hebb's work and own 'The organisation of behaviour' which is really a great work. He was a great scientist and he influenced the field of cognitive neuroscience more than anybody else. I don't think you can held Hebb responsible if his name and work are used in a malicious and non ethical way. First he is not among us anymore to defend himself, and knowing Hebb the scientist makes me think that he could not have endorsed an unethical use of his science. The ethics of scientific research extends to Ethics in general and Hebb believed in a role for his science, not to control people, but to educate them and make them better humans.
As for lawyers and physisians who voiced concern about torture in Guantanamo amd Abu Ghraib, I was not speaking of academics, I was speaking of professionnals engaged in the field and not arm-chair academics. I agree with you that the response of academics is scandalous. Usually, academic scientists are very silent on controversial public and political matters in the states and Canada because they fear for their operating grants, official recognition and promotion. I am just highlighting here that the system is different from Europe, and specially France, where grant attributions offer more protection for individual researchers to publicly voice their concerns.