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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.

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"These are interrogations, they are not job interviews. So there has to be a certain amount of unpleasantness about it," says David DeBatto, a retired Army counter-intelligence agent and former interrogator. "You have to set the tone and the atmosphere. Some of that can include sensory deprivation, which means [the subject] is in a closed room, there is no sound, and he stays in there for various amounts of time." At that point, the interrogator must make a crucial judgment. "The question is: How long is too long? Is it a day? Is it a week? Is it a month?" Mr. DeBatto says.

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When then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved isolation as an aggressive interrogation technique for use at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Defense Department lawyers included a warning. "This technique is not known to have been generally used for interrogation purposes for longer than 30 days," the April 2003 memo reads in part. Longer than that required Mr. Rumsfeld's approval.

By April 2003, Padilla had already spent 10 months in isolation at the brig. Ultimately, he was housed in the same cell, alone in his wing, for three years and seven months, according to court documents.

"I'm not a psychologist, but if he is not profoundly psychologically disturbed from that experience then he is a stronger man than me," says Steven Kleinman, a retired US Air Force Reserve colonel and former interrogator.

Padilla was visited by a military psychologist upon his arrival at the Charleston brig in early June 2002. The brief screening report says Padilla was not experiencing any mental-health concerns. But he didn't see another psychologist again for nearly two years, according to a report filed by psychologist Patricia Zapf of New York, who examined Padilla and his brig records at the request of Padilla's lawyers in his ongoing trial.

When the screening reports resumed in mid-2004, Padilla's mood is described as "anxious" and later as "elevated." There is no indication that he was given a full psychological evaluation, Ms. Zapf's report says. "In my opinion, it appears unusual that someone held in solitary confinement for upwards of three years would not have undergone a more thorough and regular evaluation of [his] mental state." The new Army Field Manual bars the use of isolation to achieve psychological disorientation through sensory deprivation. "Sensory deprivation is defined as an arranged situation causing significant psychological distress due to a prolonged absence, or significant reduction, of the usual external stimuli and perceptual opportunities," the manual states. "Sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, depression, and anti-social behavior. Detainees will not be subject to sensory deprivation."

Despite the tough words, the field manual offers only a general prohibition. So-called coercive interrogation methods – including isolation – have been specially authorized for certain units in the military and the Central Intelligence Agency.

The technique is not new. The Soviets used isolation and sensory deprivation to identify and discredit political dissidents. US prisoners of war confessed to nonexistent war crimes in the Korean War after similar treatment.

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.