The US psychological torture system is finally on trial
America has deliberately driven hundreds, perhaps
thousands, of prisoners insane. Now it is being
held to account in a Miami court
Friday February 23, 2007
Something remarkable is going on in a Miami courtroom.
The cruel methods US interrogators have used since
September 11 to "break" prisoners are finally being put
on trial. This was not supposed to happen. The Bush
administration's plan was to put Jos√É¬© Padilla on trial
for allegedly being part of a network linked to
international terrorists. But Padilla's lawyers are
arguing that he is not fit to stand trial because he has
been driven insane by the government.
Arrested in May 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare airport,
Padilla, a Brooklyn-born former gang member, was
classified as an "enemy combatant" and taken to a navy
prison in Charleston, South Carolina. He was kept in a
cell 9ft by 7ft, with no natural light, no clock and no
calendar. Whenever Padilla left the cell, he was
shackled and suited in heavy goggles and headphones.
Padilla was kept under these conditions for 1,307 days.
He was forbidden contact with anyone but his
interrogators, who punctured the extreme sensory
deprivation with sensory overload, blasting him with
harsh lights and pounding sounds. Padilla also says he
was injected with a "truth serum", a substance his
lawyers believe was LSD or PCP.
According to his lawyers and two mental health
specialists who examined him, Padilla has been so
shattered that he lacks the ability to assist in his own
defence. He is convinced that his lawyers are "part of a
continuing interrogation program" and sees his captors
as protectors. In order to prove that "the extended
torture visited upon Mr Padilla has left him damaged",
his lawyers want to tell the court what happened during
those years in the navy brig. The prosecution
strenuously objects, maintaining that "Padilla is
competent" and that his treatment is irrelevant.
The US district judge Marcia Cooke disagrees. "It's not
like Mr Padilla was living in a box. He was at a place.
Things happened to him at that place." The judge has
ordered several prison employees to testify on Padilla's
mental state at the hearings, which began yesterday.
They will be asked how a man who is alleged to have
engaged in elaborate anti-government plots now acts, in
the words of brig staff, "like a piece of furniture".
It's difficult to overstate the significance of these
hearings. The techniques used to break Padilla have been
standard operating procedure at Guant√É¬°namo Bay since the
first prisoners arrived five years ago. They wore
blackout goggles and sound-blocking headphones and were
placed in extended isolation, interrupted by strobe
lights and heavy metal music. These same practices have
been documented in dozens of cases of "extraordinary
rendition" carried out by the CIA, as well as in prisons
in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many have suffered the same symptoms as Padilla.
According to James Yee, a former army Muslim chaplain at
Guant√É¬°namo, there is an entire section of the prison
called Delta Block for detainees who have been reduced
to a delusional state. "They would respond to me in a
childlike voice, talking complete nonsense. Many of them
would loudly sing childish songs, repeating the song
over and over." All the inmates of Delta Block were on
24-hour suicide watch.
Human Rights Watch has exposed a US-run detention
facility near Kabul known as the "prison of darkness" -
tiny pitch-black cells, strange blaring sounds. "Plenty
lost their minds," one former inmate recalled. "I could
hear people knocking their heads against the walls and
These standard mind-breaking techniques have never faced
scrutiny in an American court because the prisoners in
the jails are foreigners and have been stripped of the
right of habeas corpus - a denial that, scandalously,
was just upheld by a federal appeals court in Washington
DC. There is only one reason Padilla's case is different
- he is a US citizen. The administration did not
originally intend to bring Padilla to trial, but when
his status as an enemy combatant faced a supreme court
challenge, the administration abruptly changed course,
charging Padilla and transferring him to civilian
custody. That makes Padilla's case unique - he is the
only victim of the post-9/11 legal netherworld to face
an ordinary US trial.
Now that Padilla's mental state is the central issue in
the case, the government prosecutors are presented with
a problem. The CIA and the military have known since the
early 1960s that extreme sensory deprivation and sensory
overload cause personality disintegration - that's the
whole point. "The deprivation of stimuli induces
regression by depriving the subject's mind of contact
with an outer world and thus forcing it in upon itself.
At the same time, the calculated provision of stimuli
during interrogation tends to make the regressed subject
view the interrogator as a father-figure." That comes
from Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation, a
declassified 1963 CIA manual for interrogating
The manual was based on the findings of the agency's
notorious MK-ULTRA programme, which in the 1950s
funnelled about $25m to scientists to carry out research
into "unusual techniques of interrogation". One of the
psychiatrists who received CIA funding was the infamous
Ewen Cameron, of Montreal's McGill University. Cameron
subjected hundreds of psychiatric patients to large
doses of electroshock and total sensory isolation, and
drugged them with LSD and PCP. In 1960 Cameron gave a
lecture at the Brooks air force base in Texas, in which
he stated that sensory deprivation "produces the primary
symptoms of schizophrenia".
There is no need to go so far back to prove that the US
military knew full well that it was driving Padilla mad.
The army's field manual, reissued just last year,
states: "Sensory deprivation may result in extreme
anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, depression,
and antisocial behaviour" - as well as "significant
If these techniques drove Padilla insane, that means the
US government has been deliberately driving hundreds,
possibly thousands, of prisoners insane around the
world. What is on trial in Florida is not one man's
mental state. It is the whole system of US psychological
√ā¬∑ Naomi Klein's book on disaster capitalism will be
published this spring; a version of this article appears
in the Nation www.nologo.org