Interrogation: Torture Techniques and Technologies

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Interrogation: Torture Techniques and Technologies


Interrogation seeks to acquire information from a person. Since the person being interrogated is often not comfortable with the process or even willing to divulge information, the interrogation process is different from a conversation. Conversationally, information is freely exchanged and offered. However, interrogation is a less compliant process. Interrogation can take different forms, but these all have a similar aim: to control the subject in such a way that he or she yields to pressure and provides the information being asked for.

Information can be obtained by the use of pain. Torture is centuries old. In medieval times, as a few examples, victims were stretched on a rack, burned with hot branding irons, stoned, or uncomfortably shackled. But over the past century, techniques and technologies of physical and psychological torture have been "refined." Information can now be obtained without leaving a physical trace of the trauma of torture.

Newer methods of torture have been driven by the need for speed in obtaining the information, and, in the case of governments, in disguising the torture from organizations like Amnesty International that can hinder the information-gathering process.

Torture Components

The techniques and technologies of torture can be grouped into three categories: hardware, software, and liveware. The term "hardware" refers to the equipment used; software refers to the techniques of torture that are taught to interrogators. Torture liveware refers to the human element of torture, typically the interrogator.

Torture hardware. Examples of torture hardware include shackles for the arms, legs, and even thumbs, whips, canes, beating devices (i.e., clubs, rubber hoses), water, electrical generators to administer electroshocks, and devices that suspend someone painfully above the ground. In fact, the list of physical harm that can be inflicted is long. Any possible route to inflict pain that can be conceived of has been used.

Machines that generate intolerable noise ("white noise") or bright pulses of ultraviolet light are sometimes used. Hardware can also have a chemical nature. Some drugs can cause physical discomfort, pain, and disruptions to the body's biochemistry. Examples include curare,

insulin, and apomorphine. Drugs such as these differ from psychoactive drugs that alter thought processes or biochemical activity in the brain. Food and water deprivation, or maintaining an uncomfortable position for a long time, can also induce biochemical changes.

Electromagnetic radiation can also be a means of torture. Studies in animals have shown that electromagnetic waves of certain wavelengths can destroy lung and brain cells. While not necessarily lethal, these effects are debilitating and can be painful. Electromagnetic stimulation can have other nonlethal effects on humans. Extreme emotions of rage, lust, and fatigue can be caused. A 1950s research program called "Operation Knockout," which was funded by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, discovered that electroshock treatments could be used to cause amnesia. Memories could be erased, and the subjects reprogrammed. This "psychic driving" is a form of torture.

The most widely used torture hardware is electro-shock. Pulses of energy, which are therapeutically useful in some medical treatments, have been adapted as a torture technique. The application of electricity stimulates muscle activity to such an extent that involuntary and painful muscular contractions occur. Longer pulses of electricity produce successively greater debilitation. For example, a five-second discharge from a cattle prod can completely immobilize someone for up to 15 minutes

Torture software. The use of intimidation, threats, harsh and comforting language, and even silence are all techniques that, when combined with the hardware of torture, can extract information from a victim.

Such interrogation techniques have become standard operating procedures for interrogators. Indeed, manuals have been written for interrogators. One example is the Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, which was written by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and whose existence became known in 1997 as part of a Freedom of Information Request. A second example is the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which trained interrogators until 1991. The U.S. is by no means unique in providing such training.

Technical and technological orchestration of torture. Interrogation techniques are intended to "soften up" the victim,

depleting the physical and mental resources that can be used to resist the pressure to reveal information. This is also known as breaking of the spirit. Depriving someone of sleep and sensory stimulation (by keeping them in a dark and soundless environment, akin to solitary confinement) can cause extreme anxiety, intense fear, and paranoia.

The behavior of the interrogator is an important part of the process. For example, a comforting word or supplying water and food can make a victim grateful enough to yield to a request for information. Conversely, degrading or demeaning behavior can cause the victim to give up.

Torture as practiced by terrorist organizations, military and paramilitary forces, and by other government agencies is seldom a haphazard affair. The task of breaking someone's spirit involves the coordination of activities, and the use of certain techniques and technologies at certain times.

The torture process can begin at the moment of arrest or kidnapping. Taking someone by surprise is more jarring than if someone has time to physically and mentally prepare himself or herself for arrest. The majority of people are at their lowest ebb both physiologically and psychologically in the early morning or near bedtime. A surprise detainment at those times is especially jarring.

The feeling of disorientation and fear can be heightened during transport to wherever the victim is to be detained. For example, the use of a blindfold or a hood deprives someone of visual cues that can help them maintain a sense of control.

The next phase is usually detention. Time spent alone in unfamiliar surroundings, deprived of familiar and comfortable clothing, wondering about what is to come can be disorienting and terrifying. Also the detainee is forced to rely on his or her own mental resources, which can lead to self-doubt and fear.

Removing the stimuli for senses like sight and sound can be used during this and other phases of torture. Human physiology and behavior is largely governed by the input of information. If sensory stimulation is lacking, physical and mental deterioration often occurs. For example, a study was done where subjects were immersed in body-temperature water up to their necks. Their heads were hooded to blind them. After just a few hours, sensations of tension gave way to hallucinations.

Conversely, stimulating senses such as smellby, for example, the lack of toilet facilitiescan prove overwhelming.

The threat of torture can be as effective as the actual pain in destroying resistance. This is because many people are able to tolerate pain more so than they believe they can. Once the reality occurs, victims may even draw strength from their ability to withstand the torture. Once physical torture has begun, the threat of death can also help the victim. Indeed, death can be a welcome relief from the pain. If however, the torture is perceived as unending, information can be volunteered in the hopes of ending the suffering.

Pain is an inherent part of torture. Because people have different tolerances to pain, or are more sensitive to some forms of pain than to others, torture can be tailored to exploit the sensitivities of the victim.

The techniques and technologies of torture are pervasive and widespread. As newer technologies are developed for other humane purposes, it is likely that these will be adapted for the inhumane purpose of torture.



Elliston, Jon. InTERRORgation: The CIA's Secret Manual on Coercive Questioning, 2nd ed. San Francisco: AK Press, 1999.

Gordon, Nathan J., William L. Fleisher, and C. Donald Weinberg. Effective Interviewing and Interrogation Techniques. San Diego: Academic Press, 2001.


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