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US Gov't broke Padilla through intense isolation, say experts

Despite warnings, officials used 43 months of severe isolation to force Jose Padilla to tell all he knew about Al Qaeda.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 14, 2007


When suspected Al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla was whisked from the criminal justice system to military custody in June 2002, it was done for a key purpose – to break his will to remain silent.

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As a US citizen, Mr. Padilla enjoyed a right against forced self-incrimination. But this constitutional guarantee vanished the instant President Bush declared him an enemy combatant.

For a month, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been questioning Padilla in New York City under the rules of the criminal justice system. They wanted to know about his alleged involvement in a plot to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb" in the US. Padilla had nothing to say. Now, military interrogators were about to turn up the heat.

Padilla was delivered to the US Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., where he was held not only in solitary confinement but as the sole detainee in a high-security wing of the prison. Fifteen other cells sat empty around him.

The purpose of the extraordinary privacy, according to experts familiar with the technique, was to eliminate the possibility of human contact. No voices in the hallway. No conversations with other prisoners. No tapping out messages on the walls. No ability to maintain a sense of human connection, a sense of place or time.

In essence, experts say, the US government was trying to break Padilla's silence by plunging him into a mental twilight zone. Padilla was not the only Al Qaeda suspect locked away in isolation. Although harsh interrogation methods such as water-boarding, forced hypothermia, sleep deprivation, and stress positions draw more media attention, use of isolation to "soften up" detainees for questioning is much more common.

"It is clear that the intent of this isolation was to break Padilla for the purpose of the interrogations that were to follow," says Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist and nationally recognized expert on the debilitating effects of solitary confinement. Dr. Grassian conducted a detailed examination of Padilla for his lawyers.

Padilla is on trial in Miami on charges that he became a willing recruit and attended an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. Padilla denies the allegations. Jury deliberations in the three-month trial are expected to begin this week.

Although the issue of Padilla's treatment in the brig arose briefly in the Miami case, no judge has ruled on its legality.

According to defense motions on file in the case, Padilla's cell measured nine feet by seven feet. The windows were covered over. There was a toilet and sink. The steel bunk was missing its mattress.

He had no pillow. No sheet. No clock. No calendar. No radio. No television. No telephone calls. No visitors. Even Padilla's lawyer was prevented from seeing him for nearly two years.

For significant periods of time the Muslim convert was denied any reading material, including the Koran. The mirror on the wall was confiscated. Meals were slid through a slot in the door. The light in his cell was always on.

Those who haven't experienced solitary confinement can imagine that life locked in a small space would be inconvenient and boring. But according to a broad range of experts who have studied the issue, isolation can be psychologically devastating. Extreme isolation, in concert with other coercive techniques, can literally drive a person insane, these experts say. And that makes it a potential instrument of torture, they add.

Interrogators say the whole point of an interrogation is to overcome a detainee's will to resist. Some try to build rapport. Others prefer a tougher approach.

How a Cold War program inspired terror war interrogations

Many of the harsh interrogation techniques now used in the war on terror bear a striking resemblance to tactics of the former Soviet KGB.

There is a reason. After the 9/11 attacks, US forces put a premium on getting actionable intelligence from suspected terrorists. But most of them refused to talk. Some interrogators complained that traditional techniques that complied fully with the Geneva Conventions weren't working.

So the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency reached back to a military training program with roots in the cold war. The program was originally designed to prepare downed American pilots and special-operations soldiers for capture during a war with the Soviet Union. The Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) school mimicked the anticipated Soviet interrogation techniques. According to former SERE instructors, the grueling program subjects trainees to aggressive questioning, isolation, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and simulated drowning (water-boarding). Soon, the coercive techniques were being used on detainees in Afghanistan; Iraq; Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; and the US Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C.

"An almost invariable feature of the management of any important suspect under detention is a period of total isolation in a detention cell," wrote Lawrence Hinkle and Harold Wolff, researchers funded by the Defense Department, in a 1956 article. "At all times except when he is eating, sleeping, exercising, or being interrogated, the prisoner is left strictly alone in his cell."

The article continues: "He gradually gives up all spontaneous activity within his cell, and ceases to care about his personal appearance and actions."

These tactics appear to have been used in Jose Padilla's case by American military officials against an American citizen in a US military prison.

According to Mr. Hinkle and Mr. Wolff, the Soviets expected their isolation technique to break a man in four to six weeks. The prolonged isolation creates in the subject a powerful desire to talk to anyone about anything. This sets the stage for the interrogation.

If isolation wasn't enough to adequately prepare the subject, the Soviets would ramp up the psychological pressure by adding sleep deprivation, stress positions, or temperature adjustments to make the cell either too hot or too cold, the article says.

The president and members of his administration have stressed that tough interrogation methods (which are similar but not identical to the old Soviet practices) are necessary to protect the country and prevail against Al Qaeda.

Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the CIA, recently highlighted the importance of this approach in a statement to CIA workers. "The information developed by our program has been irreplaceable," he said. It "revealed priceless insights on Al Qaeda's operations and organization, foiled plots, and saved innocent lives."

Many members of the military say US interrogation policy isn't tough enough.

"There's something to be said for sending the message that the gloves are coming off," says Capt. Bryce Lefever, a Navy psychologist and former SERE school instructor. "You don't take a knife to a gunfight."

Captain Lefever says it is unfair to compare US antiterror interrogations with Soviet interrogation techniques. "Their abuse was a systematic practice to conceal the truth," he says. "If Padilla was abused, then it was for a righteous purpose – to reveal the truth."

Lefever opposes the use of torture because in most instances it is ineffective. But sometimes, harsh and brutal tactics can produce results, he adds. The key is that interrogators must be careful in their questions not to telegraph an agenda to the subject, because if the technique is coercive enough, the subject will say anything to make it stop.

Others argue that isolation and coercive interrogation methods are counterproductive. "In interrogation, what we are trying to capture is somebody's accurate and complete memory of an event, or a person, or a discussion," says Steven Kleinman, an Air Force Reserve colonel and former interrogator who taught in the SERE program. But Soviet methods will produce unreliable Soviet-like results. "That is not an intelligence process. That is the antithesis of an intelligence process," he adds.