How technology will eliminate torture.

The future of technology.
Aug. 18 2004 4:42 PM

Technology vs. Torture

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

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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?

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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.)

Harvey Rishikof, professor of law and former dean of Roger Williams University School of Law, and former legal counsel to the deputy director of the FBI.

Michael Schrage is a senior adviser to the MIT Security Studies Program.