Brave New World

Technology vs. Torture

Psychopharmaceuticals and brain imaging could make prisoner interrogation more humane. Should we use them?

The Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal won’t be lawyered or PR-ed away. Pvt. Lynddie England faced a pre-court martial hearing last week. Four other defendants face similar hearings next week. They’ll likely claim a Nuremberg defense and argue they were “just following orders” when they humiliated and abused their Iraqi charges.

Their legal maneuverings and public protests of innocence highlight America’s ambivalence over how to balance the rights of detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo with the nation’s legitimate security concerns. Who knows precisely when “pressure” and “discomfort” actually become “abuse”? Don’t America’s military and intelligence communities have a sworn obligation to obtain information from detainees that can save the lives of innocents? How far can they go to get it?

Abu Ghraib represents far more than disgraceful lapses in military supervision and honor. Its all-too-graphic institutional excesses signal that America must consider different ways to procure valuable information from terrorists, unlawful combatants, and insurgents.

The good news is those ways exist, or will soon. Interrogators will soon be able to secure reasonably reliable information from their detainees without harsh sleep deprivation, physical threats, or sexual humiliations. The rationale—and the rationalizations—for outrageous abuse will dissolve.

The tools for radically transforming tomorrow’s interrogations can be found in hospitals worldwide. They’re helping to painlessly diagnose Alzheimer’s, dyslexia, epilepsy, schizophrenia, insomnia, and brain tumors. The past decade has seen revolutions both in brain-scanning technologies and in drugs that affect the brain’s functions. Like personal computers and digital camcorders, these technologies are getting faster, better, and cheaper. And they may have uses in the interrogation room that will render moot debates about the excesses of Abu Ghraib-style treatment of prisoners.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging brain scans, for example, have improved so dramatically that they can now produce high-resolution movies of brain activity. Functional MRIs can measure how the brain reacts when asked certain questions, such as, “Do you know Mr. X?” or, “Have you seen this man?”When you ask someone a question, the parts of the brain responsible for answering will cause certain neurons to fire, drawing blood flow. The oxygen in the blood then changes the brain’s magnetic field so that a neural radio signal emitted becomes more intense. Functional MRI scanners detect and calibrate these changes. And by comparing the resulting images to those of the brain at rest, a computer can produce detailed pictures of the part of the brain answering or not answering the question—in essence, creating a kind of high-tech lie detector. Indeed, a Pentagon agency is already funding Functional MRI research for such purposes.

Engineers are also using less-expensive technologies such as infrared * to track blood flow in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the region associated with decision-making and social inhibition. Electroencephalography, which is painless and noninvasive, has dramatically improved in the last 10 years so that it is now able to detect, for example, where the ability to speak a second language resides in the brain. And when electroencephalography data are read alongside Functional MRI scans, we can gain even richer insight into how the brain is functioning.

Concurrent with these strides in brain-imaging, scientists are learning more about how drugs influence the brain. Pharmaceuticals like Paxil, Zoloft, and Prozac have now been in general use long enough that neuroscientists are beginning to observe how they affect brain behavior and individual responses to conversation and questions. It now appears that there are safe drugs that reduce conversational inhibitions and the urge to deceive.

In many obvious ways, these pharmaceutical and imaging methods would represent a vast improvement—both morally and practically—over those traditional interrogation techniques that have become so distasteful to us today. The traditional techniques depend overwhelmingly on coercive combinations of fear, disorientation, and pain. The technological approach doesn’t and is inherently more humane.

More important, these new technologies may also prove more effective than traditional interrogation techniques. In addition to the obvious moral and political arguments against torture, it is commonly acknowledged that torture victims sometimes confess to whatever accusations are leveled at them and even fabricate facts to end the pain. New technologies may minimize these problems by monitoring involuntary responses and indicating when such fabrications occur.

The new methods also would reflect better on us. The outrage attending the news about Abu Ghraib probably wouldn’t have arisen if the images featured detainees who weren’t naked, hooded, or sexually posed as preludes to hostile interrogation. If prisoners instead had been wired to electroencephalographs or noninvasively examined by Functional MRI scanners to see whether they were telling the truth, the images would not have turned into emblems of degradation and humiliation. Would most Americans honestly consider this torture or abuse?

Of course, the advent of these new drugs and brain-scanning techniques doesn’t remove the moral questions about whether they should be used on detainees. Consider a hypothetical pill, whose only side effect is slight nausea and a headache, that makes anyone who takes it tell the truth for 90 minutes. Should military and intelligence interrogators be able to force POWs or unlawful combatants to take the pill?

It’s still a hard call. Critics always envision Manchurian Candidate-like brainwashing scenarios. Human rights advocates constantly worry that forcing the pill on prisoners would violate their rights to be free from self-incrimination. But it’s not clear that these minimally invasive interrogation options would cross a hallowed legal line. After all, even in American criminal proceedings, the state can legally draw blood, take fingerprints, and obtain DNA for testing. And POWs and unlawful combatants are not in a criminal system but one where less-stringent protections are typically afforded. At the least, public policy debates should explore the possibility that the new interrogation techniques, if conducted appropriately, aren’t inherently torture or abuse.

It isn’t obvious, for example, that being attached to a Functional MRI scanner is the moral equivalent of being deprived of sleep for 36 hours in a cold cell. Being made to take a Paxil-like derivative isn’t necessarily the legal equivalent of being forced to strip naked and simulate sex with another inmate. Interrogation methods based on non-consensual and passive medical interventions would give rise to criticism, but it’s certainly plausible that in the eyes of international law they would be less objectionable than methods based on the threat and reality of physical beatings.

The goal here wouldn’t be to update the CIA’s notorious MK-Ultra “mind control” experiments of the 1950s, which administered LSD and performed other experiments on unwitting prisoners. Rather, the point would be to declare that, just as America’s armed forces use precision-guided munitions and “smart bombs” to minimize civilian casualties, America’s interrogation methods rely upon new technologies to decrease the risk of illegal abuse.

Even if torture and abuse were effective interrogation tactics, they intrinsically undermine the values American society says it stands for. By contrast, using minimally invasive technologies explicitly designed not to be harmful represents values that can be defended both at home and abroad.

Correction, Aug. 19: The article originally described electroencephalography as an infrared-based technology. It is not. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)