Thursday, December 04, 2008

Tormentum insomniae

From The Dark Side by Jane Mayer

The effects of sleep deprivation ... were well known to be serious. Menachem Begin, the Israeli Prime Minister from 1977 to 1982, who was tortured by the KGB as a young man, described it as so difficult to withstand that it led quickly to false confessions. In his book White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia, he wrote, "In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep. Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it.

"I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what the interrogator promised them. He did not promise them their liberty; he did not promise them food to sate themselves. He promised them - if they signed - uninterrupted sleep! And, having signed, there was nothing in the world that could move them to risk again such nights and such days."

A former CIA officer, knowledgeable and supportive of the terrorist interrogation program, said simply, "Sleep deprivation works. Your electrolyte balance changes. You lose all balance and ability to think rationally. Stuff comes out." But even in the Middle Ages, when it was called tormentum insomniae, professional torturers eschewed sleep deprivation, recognizing that the illusions and delusions it caused were more apt to produce false confessions than real ones. Historically, it was the favored choice only of witch hunters, who believed it accurately revealed evidence of pacts with the devil. For decades, it was defined in the United States as an illegal form of torture. An American Bar Association report, published in 1930 and cited in a later U.S. Supreme Court decision, said, "It has been known since 1500 at least that deprivation of sleep is the most effective torture and certain to produce any confession desired." But it became American policy in 2001, and continues to be.

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