The “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” Used by the CIA


In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration and the Department of Justice devised an extensive counter-intelligence program to be carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The plan included several coded, misleading, and euphemistic terms such as “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” “Increased Pressure Phase,” and “Persistent Conditioning.” However, the actions all shared one common denominator: torture

A bounty of recently released declassified documents, including a 535-page study conducted by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), has revealed a startling account of how the CIA executed a largely ineffective campaign intended to gather information from suspected terrorists. Additionally, Mark P. Denbeaux, the lawyer of Guantanamo Bay detainee Abu Zubaydah, published a highly graphic report that details the abuses his client suffered in ‘black site’ secret prisons.

Following their brutal capture and rendition, here’s what lay in store for the average “terror suspect”—regardless of their innocence and without, in fact, any kind of trial whatsoever.

10. Sleep Deprivation

The CIA’s stated purpose for sleep deprivation aims to “reduce the individual’s ability to think on his feet and, through the discomfort associated with lack of sleep, to motivate him to cooperate.” The practice varied from 7 days of continued wakefulness to intermittent sleep deprivation lasting up to three months.

Throughout 2003, prisoners were subjected to the “frequent flyer program” in which they were moved to different cells every few hours to disrupt sleep patterns and hinder the ability to resist interrogation. Various tactics involved the use of cold water, bright flashing lights, and starvation. Sleep deprivation would also combine with other interrogation techniques such as loud music. 

9. Loud Music

Compared to the more physical torture techniques used in the government’s torture program, loud music (not to exceed 79 decibels) would seem relatively benign. However, Sgt. Mark Hadsell, a member of the U.S. Psychological Operations team, described a far more sinister side to the tactic: “If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That’s when we come in and talk to them.”

Detainees were forced to listen to an assortment of songs continuously for several days that included “The Real Slim Shady” by Eminem, “Saturday Night Fever” by the Bee Gees, and “We Are the Champions” by Queen. But the selection also featured blaring, non-stop tracks such as Barney’s “I Love You” and the Meow Mix theme—with the sole purpose of creating madness. 

Furthermore, to show contempt for Muslim culture and faith, guards would play Arab music during the first day of Ramadan—a blatant disregard of Islamic law. 

8. Cramped Confinement

The CIA frequently placed detainees in the dark and confined spaces for lengthy periods of time. The coffined body would experience excruciating physical pain from muscle contractions as well as desensitization from being isolated in the dark.  

Zubaydah later described his time in what he called ‘the dog box’ for countless hours. “As soon as they locked me up inside the box, I tried my best to sit up, but in vain, for the box was too short. I tried to take a curled position but to no vain, for it was too tight.” 

Cramped confinement would later add another layer of psychological torture by adding insects inside the box. Although only harmless insects were used, the victim wouldn’t have the ability to discern what had been dropped until he was released.

7. Waterboarding

Much as been written and discussed in the media about the controversial use of waterboarding. According to Malcolm Nance, a former U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer and counter-terrorism expert, the assertion that being waterboarded is not torture, is simply a lie. 

“Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.”

In short, waterboarding is a controlled drowning. The detainee’s face is covered with a towel and strapped to a board. He is then lowered on an angle so that the head is closer to the ground than the rest of the body. The steepness of the angle directly correlates to the severity of the exercise. Water is then slowly poured around the nose and mouth, making breathing more difficult that causes perceptions of “suffocation and incident panic.

Waterboarding, among other techniques on this list, was practiced on American servicemen as part of the US military’s controversial SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) program. Ostensibly, this was to harden them up to enemy capture. But there’s a lack of evidence that America’s “enemies” ever subject prisoners to waterboarding. Hence some think the only thing this program’s torture component was designed to harden soldiers to was the act of torturing others. 

6. Facial Hold

The facial hold calls for an interrogator to put at least one hand (usually both) firmly on both sides of a detainee’s face from behind to immobilize the head. This technique creates an environment designed to “correct the detainee in a way that demonstrates the interrogator’s control.”

Unhampered by any procedural limits, the enforcer had free reign to apply unlimited pressure to squeeze the detainee’s head. Similar to other methods, the facial hold is often employed as a supplemental technique and combined with other torture methods to intensify the torture.

5. Walling

The CIA defined ‘walling’ as “firmly pushing individuals into a fake, flexible wall so that their shoulder blades make contact while the head and neck are supported with a rolled hood or towel.” The idea was, purportedly, to intimidate more than to hurt. However, the SSCI was more accurate in its own description of the practice as “slamming detainees against a wall.” 

Official CIA guidelines were basically non-existent, which meant the amount of force used—and the number of repetitions—was entirely up to interrogators. Zubaydah recounts how detainees, dragged naked and hooded in chains, were slammed head first into concrete walls. The “fake, flexible” plywood walls were not routinely used. And when they were, their sole purpose seemed to be to minimize evidence of abuse (bruises, wounds, etc.).

There was seemingly no regard for the rule of law, let alone for human compassion. In fact, the interrogators subjected two detainees with broken feet to ‘walling’ despite CIA cables telling them not to. There also seems to have been little regard for the quality of information obtained. Given the high potential for brain injury, confessions can’t have been that reliable.

4. Sexual abuse

This one was strictly off the books. Sexual abuse as an “interrogation” technique wasn’t described in any official memo, let alone guidelines—so torturers could do what they wished. Sexual molestation, coerced performance of sexual acts, electric shocks to genitals, and rape were all employed to “humiliate the victim.”   

And the CIA did all this with religion in mind. Subverting taboos to cause emotional distress, female personnel would, for example, take their shirts off during interrogations or give forced lap dances to men. At least one woman wiped “menstrual blood” (really just red ink) onto a male detainee’s body. And female detainees were raped in front of men.

In light of these revelations, the sexual abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib seems far less anomalous. In fact, it’s apparently so rife that many people in nations occupied by the U.S. believe rape is the standard treatment in U.S. detention centers

3. Threats

Far from seeking to rehabilitate this negative perception of the U.S. military, interrogators used it to their advantage. It made their threats more credible. Interrogators could threaten to rape and kill a detainee’s mother or family knowing they would probably believe it.

Threats on detainees’ own lives were also issued. To lend credibility to these, mock executions were sometimes staged. On one occasion, guards started yelling outside an interrogation room before firing a handgun. Then, when the detainee was led out of the room, they passed one of the guards, hooded and dressed as a detainee, lying motionless on the ground. 

While threats weren’t officially approved for use, interrogators were apparently advised that conditional threats were okay. In other words, they couldn’t say “we’ll rape and murder your children,” but they could say “we’ll rape and murder your children if [such-and-such].” 

2. Drugs

The CIA has a terrifying history of weaponizing mind-altering drugs. And one type in particular—quinolone antibiotics—is apparently still used for torture. 

Mefloquine, an antimalarial, is associated with severe neuropsychological effects, including paranoia, aggression, hallucinations, ataxia, convulsions, and suicidal ideation. It can also lead to permanent brain damage, long-term seizures, and, notably, memory impairment. These symptoms affect a massive 25% of patients.

Needless to say, it’s not the first drug you’d choose if you wanted reliable intel. Yet every single Guantanamo detainee, upon arrival, was given 1,250 mg (five times the recommended dose) with the intention of inducing these symptoms.

1. Rectal rehydration

The nutrient enema, i.e. feeding by the backside, is rare in medicine nowadays. Dating back to the Middle Ages, it went out of fashion well over a century ago. IV infusions are both safer and more effective, avoiding the potential for damage, inflammation, prolapse, and food rotting in the digestive tract. The colon isn’t capable of breaking down whole meals’ worth of fats and proteins anyway. 

Still, the CIA described rectal rehydration or rectal feeding as a “well acknowledged medical technique” (you know, like leeches and lobotomies). It didn’t matter that few of those they subjected to it had anything resembling a “medical need.” That was besides the point. According to the chief of interrogations, the idea was to gain “total control over the detainee.”

One detainee’s lunch tray of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins was liquefied and administered rectally. According to the descriptions of those involved, “you get a tube up as far as you can” and “the flow will self regulate, sloshing up the large intestines.” 

Meanwhile, detainees were forced to wear diapers for extended periods—hours or days—so they overflowed and dried on their bodies.

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