(update below)

A “primer” from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) seems to encourage the use of isolation to break down prisoners in overseas prisons. Published in 2011, it advocates the use of this coercive measure to break detainees ahead of interrogations, which violates or runs contrary to FBI policy.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) obtained the “primer” through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Devon Chaffee, Legislative Council for the ACLU, says it is the first document she has seen “that’s written by an FBI agent” and “explicitly recommends that FBI agents recommend that detainees be put in isolation.”

Here is part of the primer that led the ACLU to be concerned:

…For the safety of other detainees in the facility, detainees fresh from the battlefield should be detained in individual cells until complete assessment can be made. The assessment can be considered to be complete when the decision has been made whether to release the detainee or send him to long term detention facility. Additionally, access to anything above the baseline level of treatment provided to all detainees should be strictly controlled by the assigned Interrogator. Granting this authority and control to the Interrogator places the Interrogator in a position of power that can provide an advantage when crafting an approach strategy.

Isolation of the detainee not only ensures the safety of other detainees but also prevents the individual detainee from drawing strength from the support and companionship of other detainees It also prevents collusion on cover stories between detainees. A large part of the Interrogators advantage is the natural fear of the unknown that the detainee will be experiencing. Exposure to other detainees will mitigate that fear. You may not be in a position to influence how your subject is held, but at a minimum you should know if he has been held in a communal cell prior to interrogation…

Chaffee considers this to be problematic because “isolation was component of many of the abusive interrogations that took place” after the September 11th attacks. Isolation can lead to serious abuses in interrogation. The FBI also has a policy that prohibits the “use of coercion in interrogation” and the FBI and Supreme Court have recognized that “isolation in interrogation is an indication of coercion.” [For these reasons, the ACLU sent a letter to FBI director Robert Mueller.]

The FBI would presumably contend the isolation is only done for so-called security purposes, however, additional language in the “primer” makes it clear the isolation is intended to inflict a psychological impact on detainees so they are essentially in a state of “learned helplessness” (like what the CIA has done to detainees in their custody whom they’ve tortured).

…[D]etainees should not be held in the clothing they are captured in. Detaining a subject in his own clothing could impact negatively on the health and safety of detention facility personnel and other detainees in the facility. Having the detainee change into hospital pajamas, or some other generic clothing, and flip flops has the added benefit of removing a potential source of comfort and an anchor to the world outside the detention facility. This is an important step in the process of detaching the detainee from the outside world and replacing his concern for his cause and his colleagues with a concern for his own fate

…In order to create the optimum conditions for a productive interview, if the policy of the facility permits, consider having your detainee placed in an individual cell several days before you begin interrogation. If you are conducting law enforcement interviews in a DOD facility, a formal request from the FBI must be made to isolate a detainee. This request must be approved by the first O-6 in the chain of command.

Keep in mind that a thorough interrogation may be a multi-session, multi-day process. Having your subject return to a communal cell between sessions is completely counterproductive. A subject returning to a communal cell will feel pressure from fellow detainees based on the duration of his absence from the cell and the knowledge that he will be questioned by his peers upon his return. Isolation of your subject removes this intangible, but extremely powerful, influence from your subject. [emphasis added]

Chaffee notes, ”There are some legitimate administrative reasons why a detainee for a limited amount of time would need to be isolated, potentially at his request or for his protection from other detainees in the facility, for instance.” But, “the way that it is described and the language that is being used” suggests the isolation is being employed to “break a detainee’s will” and that to the ACLU “seems inherently coercive.”

Also, there is no need to “separate the detainee from the entire population” if collusion is suspected. Just separate the detainee from the detainee(s) he is suspected of colluding with. And, if a decision to separate detainees needs to be made, the head of the facility should make that decision. Why should an FBI interrogator be in a position to make this decision?

It is unclear if this encouragement for isolation is re-emerging in policy. However, Chaffee argues the FBI should not be asking foreign governments or other agencies to engage in conduct that the FBI agents are prohibited from engaging in, especially when this conduct could potentially lead to human rights abuses.

A final note: creating a state of “learned helplessness” in a prisoner, a concept developed by positive psychologist Martin Seligman, can deliberately make that prisoner ill.

This post by David Dobbs over at ScienceBlogs.com (a partner with National Geographic) explains that “some studies have shown ‘learned helplessness’ to be an apt model for major depression from both a behavioral and even a neurological perspective. In a sense, then, to intentionally produce it in someone by causing them pain and distress in a situation they are powerless to change is to inflict on them a mental illness.” Inducing a state of helplessness or depression in a person through isolation—which is torture—will likely make a human very ill.

Given this scientific reality, the FBI’s ‘primer’ unmistakably encourages the cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners.

Update 1 

Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who the United States government had rendered to Syria, where he was tortured, forced to make a false confession and held without charge for a year before finally being released, tweeted this as a reaction to this story about isolation:

He added, “I am not saying this to gain sympathy but rather to counter the arguments that don’t consider isolation as torture.”