Isolation Torture Routine at Guatánamo

On November 7th of this year, a major 2003 Guantanamo Standard Operating Procedures [SOP] manual was posted on the wikileaks web site. Ignored by most major sources for nearly a week, Wired and the Miami Herald picked it up the following Wednesday [the Herald amplified their reporting the next day. Reuters, has picked up on the leak Thursday and the New York Times on Friday.

The Miami Herald describes the manual and its importance and give a flavor of its bureaucratic contents:

“A how-to manual, it draws back a curtain on the secretive, isolated base in 2003, more than a year into operation of the Bush administration prison.

And it lays out — with typical military attention to detail — everything from when to use pepper spray to who should witness a cavity search to how to dig a proper Muslim grave.

It also offers the mundane details of what detainees were given at the open-air prison camp overlooking the Caribbean, where the Pentagon today holds about 300 war-on-terror captives at Guantánamo for possible interrogation and trial by Military Commission.

No hair dye, it says on one page. But a double amputee got to keep a bucket in his cell, it says.”

The manual is classified ‘for official use only’ and access was “limited to those requiring operational and procedural knowledge in the direct performance of their duties as well as those directly associated with JTF-GTMO.” The Department of Defense has attempted to avoid its release and has denied the American Civil Liberties Organization [ACLU] access under the Freedom of Information Act.

In addition to the mundane, but often chilling details–destroying a Styrofoam cup was a punishable offense and receiving extra toilet paper required being at the highest level of privileges while the interrogators determined one’s ration of this “comfort item”–of the running of this high security facility designed to facilitate interrogations and intelligence gathering, the manual contains two major revelations. The first of these revelations, which is the focus of both the Reuters and the New York Times reports, is that, despite claims to the contrary, the US was hiding detainees from the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC]. As Reuters puts it:

“The manual also indicates some prisoners were designated as off limits to visitors from the International Committee of the Red Cross, something the military has repeatedly denied.”

Each detainee is assigned to one of four ICRC visitation levels. Level A is:

“No Access: No contact of any kind with the ICRC. This includes the delivery of ICRC mail.” [p. 17.1]

In fact, for only one of the four levels was the IRC allowed unrestricted access to ask the detainee whatever questions they deemed appropriate. The other levels allowed only visual access or questions about “health and welfare only.” The camp commander seemed determined to prevent the ICRC from being able to obtain accurate information about detainee treatment.

This denial of ICRC access was in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which state, as the Center for Constitutional Rights points out, that all prisoners “shall have access to all premises occupied by prisoners of war” and that “duration and frequency of these visits shall not be restricted.” The restriction of ICRC access may have been one reason that the administration tried, unsuccessfully, to deny Geneva protections to Guantanamo detainees. Given the repeated denials that detainees were withheld from the ICRC, we have here additional evidence that, when it comes to what occurs in US detention facilities, no claims of the government should be taken as true without independent confirmatory evidence.

The second major revelation from the SOP, mentioned in passing by Reuters, concerns the routine use of isolation and sensory deprivation on Guantanamo detainees in order to weaken them and make them ready for interrogations. As Reuters reports:

“It [the SOP] says incoming prisoners are to be held in near-isolation for the first two weeks to foster dependence on interrogators and ‘enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process.'”

Here is the actual language from the SOP [Section 4-20, p. 4.3] demonstrating the precision with which abuse was administered. In fact, it makes clear that Reuters got it partially wrong in that the “near-isolation” was to last at least four weeks, not two, and that it could be continued indefinitely, beyond the four-week (30 day):

“a. Phase One Behavior Management Plan (First thirty days or as directed by JIG [Joint Intelligence Group]). The purpose of the Behavior Management Plan is to enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process. It concentrates on isolating the detainee and fostering dependence of the detainee on his interrogator. During the first two weeks at Camp Delta, classify the detainees as Level 5 and house in a Maximum Security Unit (MSU) Block. During this time, the following conditions will apply:

(1) Restricted contact: No ICRC or Chaplain contact

(2) No books or mail privileges

(3) MREs for all meals.

(4) Basic comfort items only:

(a) ISO Mat
(b) One blanket
(c) One towel
(d) Toothpaste/finger toothbrush
(e) One Styrofoam cup
(f) Bar of soap
(g) Camp Rules
(h) No Koran, prayer beads, prayer cap.

(5) Mail writing and delivery will be at the direction of the J-2.

b. Phase Two Behavior Management Plan. The two-week period following Phase 1 will continue the process of isolating the detainee and fostering dependence on the interrogator. Until the JIG Commander changes his classification, the detainee will remain a Level 5 with the following:

(1) Continued MSU

(2) Koran, prayer beads and prayer cap distributed by interrogator

(3) Contacts decided by interrogator

(4) Interrogator decides when to move the
detainee to general population.”

Isolation has long been a preferred measure of abuse in US detentions. As Mark Benjamin pointed out last July in Salon, isolation and the associated sensory deprivation, not waterboarding or other more commonly discussed techniques, is the CIA’s favorite form of torture. It has been know for years that isolation was authorized for use at Guantanamo, even after some of the harshest techniques used in 2002 and known to have been deployed against Mohammed al-Qahtani were stopped from routine use and restricted in 2003 to the so-called “varsity program.” Isolation was one of the interrogations techniques authorized by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in his April 16, 2003 memo. However, that memo gives a sense that isolation is a severe, possibly illegal, technique:

“Caution: the use of isolation as an interrogation technique requires detailed implementation instructions, including specific guidelines regarding the length of isolation, medical and psychological review, and approvals for extension of the length of by the appropriate level in the chain of command. This technique is not know to have been generally used for interrogation purposes for longer than 30 days. Those nations that believe that detainees are subject to POW protections may view use of this technique as inconsistent with the requirements of Geneva III, Article 13 which provides that POWs must be protected against acts of intimidation; Article 14 which provides that POWs are entitled to respect for their person; Article 34 which prohibits coercion and Article 126 which ensures access and basic standards of treatment. Although the provisions of Geneva are not applicable to the interrogation of unlawful combatants, consideration should be given to these views prior to application of this technique.”

The Guantanmo SOP now provides official documentation that, at the time of the Rumsfeld memo and despite its warnings regarding the techniques’ potential illegality and physical and psychological dangers, isolation was routinely used by the Defense Department at Guantanamo on all new detainees. The Rumsfeld memo complements the SOP in that it documents the central role of “medical and psychological review,” and, thus, medical and psychological personnel in the administration of this technique.

Isolation is as damaging as other, more prominent, abusive interrogation techniques. The recent Physicians for Human Rights-Human Rights First report, Leave No Marks: Enhanced Interrogation Techniques and the Risk of Criminality, details the negative effects of isolation and sensory deprivation:

“People who are exposed to isolation for the first time develop a group of symptoms that include ‘bewilderment, anxiety, frustration, dejection, boredom, obsessive thoughts or ruminations, depression, and, in some cases, hallucination’.

Prolonged isolation has been demonstrated to result in increased stress, abnormal neuroendocrine function, changes in blood pressure and inflammatory stress responses.

Findings from clinical research performed by prominent psychologists such as Dr. Stuart Grassian and Dr. Craig Haney, highlight the destructive impact of solitary confinement. Effects include depression, anxiety, difficulties with concentration and memory, hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucination and perceptual distortions, paranoia, suicidal thoughts and behavior, and problems with impulse control” [p. 32].

These findings regarding negative effects make clear that attempts to prevent torture and detainee abuse need to curtail the use of isolation to an absolute minimum, only potentially acceptable when needed for temporary management of unruly or dangerous detainees. It should never be sanctioned as a routine tool for “fostering dependence on the interrogator.” Such uses are immoral and are likely violations of the UN Convention Against Torture and the US Torture and War Crimes Acts. As thee PHR-HRF report argues:

“The medical impact of sensory deprivation and prolonged isolation supports the conclusion that both techniques of interrogation may be considered prosecutable acts of ‘torture’ or ‘cruel or inhuman treatment’ under the WCA or Torture Act because they cause ‘severe’ and “serious” mental pain and suffering. The lasting depression and posttraumatic stress disorder that victims of isolation suffer constitute the prolonged and/or non-transitory mental harm required for mental pain to be considered severe or serious. Moreover, isolation and sensory deprivation in interrogations is likely calculated to ‘disrupt the senses or personality.’ “

Of relevance to those of us struggling to change American Psychological Association policy on psychologist participation in interrogations, the APA included clauses in its 2007 resolution against torture that allows continued participation in the use of isolation [and sensory deprivation] in certain circumstances:

“This unequivocal condemnation includes, but is by no means limited to, an absolute prohibition for psychologists against the following used for the purposes of eliciting information in an interrogation process: isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation and/or sleep deprivation used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm.”

The APA inclusion of this carefully-qualified language led many APA critics, as well as certain reporters to wonder will psychologists still abet torture? It is therefore essential that the APA clarify the meaning of these apparent “loopholes. ”
Recent attempts by the APA to address the meaning of these “loopholes” raise the possibility that APA leaders, reeling under the impact of massive protests among members and criticism in the press, are looking to resolve any ambiguities in the 2007 Resolution. But so far, the APA leadership have failed to make a clear, unequivocal statement that this use of isolation at Guantanamo is unethical. In a recent widely circulated letter by the APA Director of Ethics, he stated:

“The third and final category of techniques consists of techniques that may not be “used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm.”

In my opinion, the description of these behaviors-isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation, and sleep deprivation-suffered from not having adequate time to find wording that conveyed the authors’ intention. As I’m sure you recall, the discussions focused on the definition of these words and precisely what the implications of an absolute prohibition would be. As an example, an individual in detention may be separated and placed in a cell in isolation, in order to prevent that individual from colluding with another detainee in formulating a story that is consistent between them. Likewise, the regimen of a camp may require that detainees begin their daily routines at a very early hour. I believe that everyone will agree neither example would constitute impermissible isolation or sleep deprivation, but it is important to find language that clearly separates what is permissible from what is impermissible.”

If the APA really intended that the “loophole” clauses allowing isolation in certain circumstances, was just to cover routine uses of the kind here mentioned, the APA should have no difficulty stating clearly and unequivocally that the use of isolation described in the Guantanamo SOP is unethical and that psychologists participating in that use are engaging in unethical behavior. Further, the APA should have no trouble coming up with clear language making these crucial distinctions.

In considering the APA’s positions, we should remember that the Chief Psychologist of the Guantanamo Joint Intelligence Group [JIG] at Guantanamo at the time of this SOP, was none other than Colonel Larry James, who the APA chose to introduce their 2007 Resolution on the Council floor. The SOP makes clear that the JIG was the military unit that decided how long isolation was used on each detainee to “enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process” The Rumsfeld memo makes clear that “medical and psychological supervision” were essential elements of this decision-making process. It is thus likely that the JIG’s psychological unit was involved in determining exactly how much of this abuse a given detainee could tolerate. It hardly inspires confidence in the APA’s willingness to stand unequivocally against US torture and abuse that they selected this same Col. James to make the case for their carefully parsed and nuanced resolution. The APA has ignored extensive evidence from official documents and press reports raising questions about the activities undertaken by the psychological component of the JIG command during the time [from January 2003 for a an unknown number of months] he was stationed there. The SOP provides additional evidence that Col. James’ command was engaged in routine abuse of detainees. Due to secrecy, we do not know exactly what activities Col. James was involved in. But, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, should the APA have someone who was at Guantanamo during this time represent it’s anti-torture positions? [For the record, Col. James denies that isolation was used for interrogation purposes and stated, in an email, that isolation was only used for medical purposes, to avoid spreading infection.]

In any case, it is time for the APA to stop word parsing and make clear, unequivocal statements about what in their view is and is not ethical. I, for one, feel that the use of isolation, as described in the Guantanamo SOP, is well over the line into unethical territory. Does APA agree?

Beyond the APA and the role of psychologists, we need for Congress to take up the entire range of abusive interrogation techniques, especially including isolation and sensory deprivation. By focusing upon waterboarding as the litmus test abusive technique, the Congress, the press, and some human rights activists are ignoring the extent to which abuse is endemic in the US’ national security detentions. The CIA can continue its “enhanced techniques” without waterboarding; in fact reports say that they are already doing so. But to ban isolation and sensory deprivation would cut to the core of this country’s abusive treatment of detainees. Until the United States government takes this step, the U.S. will remain a torturing society.

STEPHEN SOLDZ is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He maintains the Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice web site and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog.


STEPHEN SOLDZ is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He edits the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. He is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations working to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. He is President-Elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility [PsySR].