Justice Department Interrogation Memos Abuse Sleep Deprivation Research

Published Nov 10, 2009

NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.

In 2005, the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) within the Department of Justice misused sleep deprivation research in memorandums sent to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The memorandums helped justify that the CIA’s use of sleep deprivation, along with additional CIA interrogation techniques used on "high value" detainees, did not constitute torture as defined by the law.  Three European scientists objected to the way in which their research was represented in the memorandums. 

The OLC is the office within the Department of Justice responsible for providing authoritative legal advice and legal interpretations to the Executive branch.1 The Obama administration declassified the OLC memos in April 2009.2  Signed by Steven Bradbury, the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the OLC, the memos were responses to Senior Deputy General Counsel of the CIA John Rizzo’s request that the OLC determine whether the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques were considered torture under the law.3,4

The memos describe in detail many coercive techniques, such as sleep deprivation, stress positions, slamming detainees against flexible walls, forced nudity, water dousing, slaps, reduced calorie diets, shackling and waterboarding (a technique used to make a detainee feel that he is drowning).5  The maximum allowable limit of sleep deprivation was 180 consecutive hours, or 7.5 days.6  The memos also describe sleep deprivation used in conjunction with many additional harsh interrogation techniques as listed above.7

The research conclusions of Professor James Horne, Dr. Bernd Kundermann, and Dr. S. Hakki Onen were based on controlled experiments examining the effects of only sleep deprivation on healthy volunteers.  The researchers claim their findings are not applicable to the CIA’s stressful and harsh interrogation regime.8

In the memos, Bradbury uses the book entitled Why We Sleep by Professor Horne, a researcher at the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University in the U.K., to support his statement that "even very extended sleep deprivation does not cause physical pain, let alone severe physical pain."9 Bradbury quotes the following passage from Horne’s book: "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."10 Bradbury asserts that "the aspects of sleep deprivation that might result in substantial physical discomfort, therefore, are limited in scope…"11 Bradbury also goes on state that shackling and the use of an adult diaper would not change this conclusion and that medical staff would closely monitor the detainees.12

In an email posted on the blog Obsidian Wings, Professor Horne emphasized that the conclusions of his book are not applicable to the CIA’s coercive techniques. His book is based upon research into "'pure sleep deprivation' without additional stresses" with healthy volunteers who were relaxed and cared for.13  Horne points out that with additional stresses, long term sleep deprivation "will lead to a physiological exhaustion of the body’s defense mechanisms, physical collapse, and the potential for various ensuing illnesses." Horne states that in the context of the CIA’s interrogation regime, "to claim that 180 hours is safe…is nonsense." Horne goes on to assert that "the mental pain would be all too evident and arguably worse than physical pain."14

Though Bradbury noted in the memos that there are differences between controlled experiments where subjects lead a "tranquil existence" and the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques,15 Horne pointed out that "this key point was understated."16

Bradbury also cites the work of Dr. Bernd Kundermann, a German professor, and Dr. S. Hakki Onen, a French sleep scientist, when stating that sleep deprivation "may be associated with a reduced tolerance for some forms of pain."17 He goes on to describe how sleep deprivation used along with facial and abdominal slaps, slamming a detainee against a flexible wall, stress positions, and water dousing would not cause "severe physical pain" because "…sleep deprivation appears to cause at most only relatively moderate decreases in pain tolerance…"18 In interviews with Time magazine, Kundermann and Onen spoke out against their research being used for Bradbury’s conclusions.19

Kundermann stated that "It is total nonsense to cite our study in this context." He asserted that the conditions of his study were drastically different than the conditions of the CIA interrogation; his study used healthy volunteers in a controlled, safe environment.20 He went on to state that "It would never be possible in Germany to deprive a person of sleep for several days because this can have serious effects…it can result in psychosis, for instance."

Dr. Onen echoed the concerns of Horne and Kundermann. He asserted that the conditions of CIA deprivation "have little in common with the open, controlled, and comfortable setting of our study."21  His study also used healthy volunteers and set strict ethical guidelines. He pointed out that the CIA discussed "starting the sleep deprivation process at nearly double the maximum we set for ethical reasons."  In addition, the objectives of Onen’s study and the CIA’s interrogation practices were at odds, as Onen studied sleep deprivation to determine whether patients had increased tolerance to pain after recovering from sleep deprivation. Onen noted that at times clinical findings "can be read and even abused by people who may have other objectives in mind."22

Directly after taking office in January 2009, President Obama outlawed the use of harsh interrogation techniques.23

1. U.S. Department of Justice. Office of Legal Counsel.

2. Mazzetti, M. & Shane, S. 2009. Interrogation memos detail harsh tactics by the C.I.A. New York Times, April 16.

3. Bradbury, S., Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel. 2005. "Re: Application of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2340-2340A to Certain Techniques That May Be Used in the Interrogation of a High Value al Qaeda Detainee" Memorandum for John A. Rizzo, Senior Deputy General Counsel, Central Intelligence Agency, May 10. 

4. Bradbury, S., Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel. 2005b. "Re: Application of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2340-2340A to the Combined Use of Certain Techniques in the Interrogation of a High Value al Qaeda Detainee" Memorandum for John A. Rizzo, Senior Deputy General Counsel, Central Intelligence Agency, May 10.

5. Bradbury 2005; Bradbury 2005b.

6. Bradbury 2005.

7. Bradbury 2005b.

8. Scherer, M. 2009. Scientists claim CIA misused work on sleep deprivation. Time, April 21.

9. Bradbury 2005.

10. Bradbury 2005; Bradbury 2005b.

11. Bradbury 2005b.

12. Bradbury 2005b.

13. Horne, J. 2009. Comment by Professor Jim Horne on the citation of selected extracts of his book ‘Why We Sleep’, in apparently justifying sleep deprivation as a ‘safe coercive technique’. Obsidian Wings, April 20. 14. Horne 2009.

15. Bradbury 2005.

16. Horne 2009.

17. Bradbury 2005b.

18. Bradbury 2005b.

19. Scherer 2009.

20. Scherer 2009.

21. Scherer, M. 2009b. A third doctor objects to CIA misuse of science. Swampland Blog, Time.com, April 21.

22. Scherer 2009b.

23. Mazzetti & Shane 2009.


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