Recent disclosures have confirmed the use of enhanced interrogation techniques against enemy combatants detained in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, the program has existed in some form since the first radical fundamentalist groups arrived in America from Europe. This white paper traces the historical backgrounds of the use of enhanced interrogation techniques and prospects for their future application.
Enhanced interrogation was first self-administered by European arrivals through a range of techniques, including sequestration in harsh winter climates without adequate supplies, food, or housing. One technique, applied exclusively to a radical religious female population in one New England detention center, utilized combustion for investigative purposes. From these beginnings, the program expanded its scope and was applied to other population groups. It was implemented so successfully among the various indigenous American detainee populations that the program was nearly shelved for lack of participants. This in part led to the most ambitious undertaking in the program’s history: the transoceanic interrogation administered to detainees captured in various nation-states along the western coast of Africa.
Initially, these detainees were captive combatants from conflict areas made available to the program for political and economic expediency. Some sixty million detainees were interrogated in the program over the course of this period, though many were never admitted into the national detention center. Setbacks such as the elimination of transoceanic interrogation were offset by the natural reproductive growth of the existing detainee population.
But by the mid-19th century, a shift in thinking about enhanced interrogation seemed to indicate that the program might be abandoned altogether. In response, an unauthorized spin-off program dedicated to preexisting enhanced interrogation techniques was initiated in the Southern detention centers. Through a considerable amount of debate over the program, it was decided to sunset some techniques—most notably the use of free market transaction interrogations—and to also allow for the legal definition of “detainee” to be expanded. Other techniques remained in practice without being publicly acknowledged, and were handed off to certain non-governmental organizations and independent agencies such as the Ku Klux Klan.
As a result of this policy shift, new detention centers were created in major cities throughout the program. By offering detainees only limited financial, educational, and civic opportunities in these places, the ideal conditions were created for interrogators to conduct their investigations. In many respects, these new enhanced interrogation techniques were even more effective than those they had replaced. Despite some token easing of enhance interrogation techniques—most notably after the large-scale, organized protests among the detainee population during the 1950s and 60s—this situation remains largely unchanged.
In large urban detention areas around the country, local law enforcement personnel have been instrumental in administering the program, and have contributed many of the program’s most innovative techniques: toilet plunger introduction, airway restrictions, neglecting to properly restrain detainees in rapidly accelerating and decelerating vehicles, withholding medical assistance, and indiscriminate use of firearms to name just a few. While the goal of the program is for subjects to experience a sense of “learned helplessness”—a state of depressed, coericble, passivity—an added benefit of the program is that once detainees are aware that they can be subject to an enhanced interrogation at any time or place, many of them effectively begin to self-interrogate.
Despite these successes, detainees continue to present challenges to national security and to the pursuit of enhanced interrogation techniques. Though the focus of the program remains on the national security threat posed by the existing detainee community, new detainees arrive from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and elsewhere on a near daily basis, stretching resources thin. The growing availability of video recording devices and rapid message disseminating platforms have reduced the efficacy of the inconspicuous application of these techniques. Questions as to the benefits of enhanced interrogation continue to put the future of the program in doubt; however, as long as the national security priority of continued revenue growth is being met, cessation of the program is not advised.
Anthony Michael Morena is a writer from New York so when he sees something, he says something. His book The Voyager Record: A Transmission will be published in the spring of 2016. Other things he’s written have appeared in The Normal School, Flapperhouse, and The Ilanot Review. Follow him on Twitter @anphimimor, if you want, he might like that.