The Neuroscience of “Enhanced Interrogation”
Wired reports that studies show that “enhanced interrogation”, far from being a reliable source of information, can actually make someone less of an intelligence asset because the stress involved changes the biochemistry of the brain:
“There is a vast literature on the effects of extreme stress on motivation, mood and memory, using both animals and humans,” writes Shane O’Mara, a stress researcher at Ireland’s Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience. “These techniques cause severe, repeated and prolonged stress, which compromises brain tissue supporting memory and executive function.”
A report published by the Intelligence Science Board in 2007 found that no research existed to support the use of enhanced interrogation. And O’Mara’s review, published Monday in Trends in Cognitive Science, describes a wealth of science that supports ending the practice.
O’Mara derides the belief that extreme stress produces reliable memory as “folk neurobiology” that “is utterly unsupported by scientific evidence.” The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex — the brain’s centers of memory processing, storage and retrieval — are profoundly altered by stress hormones. Keep the stress up long enough, and it will “result in compromised cognitive function and even tissue loss,” warping the minds that interrogators want to read.
What’s more, tortured suspects might not even realize when they’re lying. Frontal lobe damage can produce false memories: As torture is maintained for weeks or months or years, suspects may incorporate their captors’ allegations into their own version of reality.
What’s frustrating about the torture debate to me is that all of the professionals who are experts in the field are routinely ignored by the pro-“enhanced interrogation” side of the debate. Just so we’re clear, in addition to the biochemical evidence above, here’s a few posts and articles that we’ve seen over the past few months:
- We’ve seen that an Air Force officer with counterterrorism experience and experience interrogating al-Qaeda members opposes enhanced interrogation on the grounds that it doesn’t gather effective intelligence.
- We’ve had military psychologists who work on the SERE program, which trains soldiers to resist “enhanced interrogation,” claim that the use of same on detainees to be counterproductive.
- We’ve seen an FBI counterintelligence agent who specialize in counterterrorism and also had experience interrogating al-Qaeda members find no evidence of the effectiveness of “enhanced interrogation.”
- We’ve seen another FBI counterintelligence agent explain that the use of “enhanced interrogation” makes it much harder to recruit reliable intelligence assets.
- We’ve seen a Marine Corps interrogator point out the uselessness of such techniques even if there’s a “ticking time bomb” scenario.
Against this, we mostly have the claims of Dick Cheney who says that the 2004 CIA Inspector General’s report demonstrates that the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” enabled the United States to gain significant amounts of intelligence, particularly from the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed. The problem is, of course, is that this claim doesn’t survive scrutiny. Most of Cheney’s claims involve intelligence that was already known prior to KSMs capture, or organizational information that was obtained from KSM’s computer and paper files–not his actual interrogation. Indeed, most of what KSM said under “enhanced interrogation” was useless. It wasn’t until it stopped and the traditional American methods of interrogation employed instead that he actually provided anything of value.
The pro-“enhanced interrogation” side of the house loves to throw out hypotheticals and vague claims that these techniques are valuable, but the evidence doesn’t bear this claim out. These techniques do not provide any signficant or usable intelligence; they make useless people who might be turned into valuable intelligence assets, as noted above; they provide a powerful rallying cry for the recruitment of people into our enemies’ cause; they make it less likely that our enemies will surrender to our troops, which exposes them to unnecessary risk of harm; they make it more likely that our soldiers, when captured, will be tortured; they make it harder to recruit counterintelligence assets; they force us to waste time and resources in following false leads and finally, they undermine the moral authority of the United States.
What’s the upside?
(cross-posted to Heretical Ideas)