Alex Massie

Is Sleep Deprivation Really Torture?

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It's disappointing to see my old and good chum and all-round good egg Iain Martin ask this question. But of course many people doubt, even though both the State Department and the FCO consider sleep deprivation a torture technique, that it really can be so vicious a tactic as to merit that label..

It sounds quite harmless, doesn't it? A bit like working the night-shift and then having to look after a couple of young kids while your wife goes out to work. Sleep Deprivation? That just means feeling tired, doesn't it? Same with shackling, eh? That just means being hand-cuffed. And the constant playing of loud music? Hell, my teenage son does that all the time! Is he being tortured? What a lot of fuss about nothing!

Except it is worth a fuss. These things mean something quite different when used as part of a series of interrogation techniques. This is especially so when they are used in combination. There's a multiplier effect. A couple of quotes from just one page of Jane Mayer's horrifying book*, The Dark Side:

"They were torturing people" said a former CIA official with extensive knowledge of the CIA's program. "No question. They did disgusting things to people. Their attitude was, 'Laws? Like who the fuck cares?'"

A former US offical, with access to details of the interrogation program, stressed that few outsiders truly understood the overwhelming power of the program. Critics have focused on specific techniques, such as waterboarding. But, he said, "What mattered was things done in combination. It can look antiseptic on a piece of paper, when it's a legal checklist. It seems clinical. It doesn't sound so much. You have to have the imagination to visualize it graphically, and in combination, over time, to understand how this all would work in reality. The totality is just staggering."

does work


On the contrary

But by the time the OLC [Office of Legal Counsel] reevaluated the CIA’s interrogation program in 2005, it revealed that the technique was overwhelmingly physical. “The primary method of sleep deprivation involves the use of shackling to keep the detainee awake,” wrote Bybee’s eventual replacement, Steven Bradbury, on March 10, 2005. “In this method, the detainee is standing and is handcuffed, and the handcuffs are attached by a length of chain to the ceiling.” The detainee’s feet are shackled to a bolt in the floor, giving him a “two-to-three-foot diameter of movement.” His hands “may be raised above the level of his head, but only for a period of up to two hours.” His weight is “borne by his legs and feet during sleep deprivation,” ensuring that he had to keep awake, for if he “los[t] his balance” from exhaustion he would feel “the restraining tension of the shackles.”

[...]According to the memo, the “maximum allowable duration for sleep deprivation” is “180 hours,” or seven and a half days, “after which the detainee must be permitted to sleep without interruption for at least eight hours.”

A footnote to the memo indicated that there was an associated technique of keeping a detainee awake through “horizontal sleep deprivation.” In that technique, “the detainee’s hands are manacled together and the arms placed in an outstretched position — either extended beyond the head or extended to either side of the body — and anchored to a far point on the floor in such a manner that the arms cannot be bent or used for either balance or comfort.” Interrogators would place similar restraints on the detainee’s legs. “The position is sufficiently uncomfortable to detainees to deprive them of unbroken sleep, while allowing their lower limbs to recover from the effects of standing sleep deprivation,” Bradbury wrote.

No Blood, No Foul


Now perhaps you're inclined to doubt the testimony of those prisoners who have been subjected to US-led or sponsored interrogation. Well, how about John Schlapobersky who was tortured by the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1960s. Here's what he said about sleep deprivation:

"Making a programme in which people are deprived of sleep is like treating them with medication that will make them psychotic. It also demeans the experiences of those who have involuntarily gone through this form of torture. It is the equivalent of bear-baiting, and we banned that centuries ago.

"I was kept without sleep for a week in all. I can remember the details of the experience, although it took place 35 years ago. After two nights without sleep, the hallucinations start, and after three nights, people are having dreams while fairly awake, which is a form of psychosis.

"By the week's end, people lose their orientation in place and time - the people you're speaking to become people from your past; a window might become a view of the sea seen in your younger days. To deprive someone of sleep is to tamper with their equilibrium and their sanity."

"In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep... Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.

"I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what the interrogator promised them.

"He did not promise them their liberty; he did not promise them food to sate themselves. He promised them - if they signed - uninterrupted sleep! And, having signed, there was nothing in the world that could move them to risk again such nights and such days."

entire point


And if these previous testimonies aren't sufficient, then consider Alexander Solzhenitsyn's account, as described in The Gulag Archipelago:

Sleeplessness, which they quite failed to appreciate in medieval times. They did not understand how narrow are the limits within which a human being can preserve his personality intact. Sleeplessness (yes, combined with standing, thirst, bright light, terror, and the unknown -what other tortures are needed!?) befogs the reason, undermines the will, and the human being ceases to be himself, to be his own "I" (As in Chekhov's "I Want to Sleep," but there it was much easier, for there the girl could lie down and slip into lapses of consciousness, which even in just a minute would revive and refresh the brain.) A person deprived of sleep acts half-unconsciously or altogether unconsciously, so that his testimony cannot be held against him.

They used to say: "You are not truthful in your testimony, and therefore you will not be allowed to sleep:"" Sometimes, as a refinement, instead of making the prisoner stand up, they made him sit down on a soft sofa, which made him want to sleep all the more. (The jailer on duty sat next to him on the same sofa and kicked him every time his eyes began to shut.) Here is how one victim-who had just sat out days in a box infested with `bedbugs-describes his feelings after this torture: "Chill from great loss of blood. Irises of the eyes dried out as if someone were holding a red-hot iron in from of them. Tongue swollen from thirst and prickling as from a hedgehog at the slightest movement. Throat racked by spasms of' swallowing."

Sleeplessness was a great form of torture: it left no visible marks and could not provide grounds for complaint even if an inspection-something unheard of anyway-were to strike on the morrow.

"They didn't let you sleep? Well, after all, this is not supposed to be a vacation resort. The Security officials were awake too!" (They would catch up on their sleep during the day. One can say that sleeplessness became the universal method in the [Gulag]. From being one among many tortures, it became an integral part of the system of State Security; it was the cheapest possible method and did not require the posting of sentries. In all the interrogation prisons the prisoners were forbidden to sleep even one minute from reveille till taps. (In Sukhanovka and several other prisons used specifically for interrogation, the cot was folded into the wall during the day; in others, the prisoners were simply forbidden to lie down, and even to close their eyes while seated.) Since the major interrogations were all conducted at night, it was automatic: whoever was undergoing interrogation got no sleep for at least five days and nights. (Saturday and Sunday nights, the interrogators themselves tried to get some rest.)


And, look, we recognise these things as being torture when other people do them. Here's the State Department's verdict on Jordan as rendered in Foggy Bottom's 2006 Human Rights Review:

"The most frequently reported methods of torture included beating, sleep deprivation, extended solitary confinement, and physical suspension."

Fundamentally, even if you feel like discounting all of the above, ask yourself this simple question: If a captured British or American soldier were subjected to this sort of treatment would you consider it torture?

I think most people, including those who favour using these techniques upon prisoners and suspects in our custody, would think it disgraceful and abhorrent if our boys were treated in this fashion. Which makes it disgraceful and abhorrent that we treat our prisoners in such a way.

*Even if you were to discount half of what Mayer reports (and I wouldn't) you still have a ghastly, terrible catalogue of crimes.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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