A British academic’s work was used by the Bush Administration in the US to support the use of sleep deprivation as an interrogation technique.
Previously top-secret documents published by President Barack Obama cite a book by Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University.
A 48-page Justice Department memo, written in 2005 by Steven Bradbury, principal deputy assistant attorney-general, and sent to John A. Rizzo, senior deputy-general counsel at the Central Intelligence Agency, addresses “whether certain specified interrogation techniques designed to be used on a high-value al-Qaeda detainee in the War on Terror comply with the federal prohibition on torture”.
Discussing the CIA technique of depriving suspects of sleep for up to 180 hours, the memo says literature on the physiology of sleep suggested that “even very extended sleep deprivation does not cause physical pain”.
It quotes Why we Sleep, a book written by Professor Horne 20 years ago, as saying: “The longest studies of sleep deprivation in humans… [involved] volunteers who were deprived of sleep for eight to 11 days… Surprisingly little seemed to go wrong with the subjects physically. The main effects lay with sleepiness and impaired brain functioning, but even these were no great cause for concern.”
While the memo notes that there are “important differences” between sleep deprivation as an instrument of interrogation and its use in controlled experiments on volunteers, it concludes that “the authorised use of extended sleep deprivation by adequately trained interrogators would not be expected to cause… severe physical pain”.
Professor Horne told Times Higher Education that the memo understates the differences and he labelled its conclusions “nonsense”.
His experiments were conducted on “happy, healthy volunteers” who were “cosseted by their experimenters”, he said.
“Volunteers typically lead a tranquil existence, are fed very well and, except for having periodically to undergo various harmless tests, have plenty of time for relaxation, reading and watching TV.”
But if a person is deprived of sleep while undergoing additional stresses, the situation is totally different, he added.
Professor Horne said: “Prolonged stress with sleep deprivation will lead to a physiological exhaustion of the body’s defence mechanisms and physical collapse, with the potential for various ensuing illnesses.
“We don’t know at what point this latter phase would be reached with ‘coercive techniques’, but to claim that 180 hours is safe in these respects is nonsense.
“Moreover, whereas physical pain may not be particularly apparent even at this stage, the mental pain would be all too evident, and arguably worse.”
He also pointed out that a person subjected to this level of sleep deprivation would be unlikely to produce credible information “unaffected by delusion, fantasy or suggestibility”.
“I had no knowledge of this memo or its contents until a few days ago, and am both saddened and appalled that my book has been used in this way,” he said.