Sleep Expert “Surprised And Saddened” To Find Research Twisted In Torture Memo

A British professor whose research on sleep was cited in one of the just-released Bush administration torture memos has expressed outrage that his work was used to justify extreme sleep deprivation, including keeping subjects awake for up to 11 days.

In an interview with TPMmuckraker, James Horne, a leading authority in the field of sleep research, said he was “surprised and saddened” to see Bush officials “misrepresent” his research to argue that such sleep deprivation does not cause serious harm to its subjects.In one of the Office of Legal Counsel memos released yesterday, authored in May 2005, DOJ official Steven Bradbury wrote:

We understand from OMS, and from our review of the literature on the physiology of sleep, that even very extended sleep deprivation does not cause physical pain, let alone severe physical pain. “The longest studies of sleep deprivation in humans … involved volunteers [who] were deprived of sleep for 8-11 days … Surprisingly little seemed to go wrong with the subjects physically. The main effects lay with sleepiness and impaired brain functioning, but even these were no great cause for concern.” James Horne, Why We Sleep: The Functions Of Sleep in Humans and Other Mammals 23-24 (1988).

Bradbury continues, quoting Horne again:

We note that there are important differences between sleep deprivation as an interrogation technique used by the CIA and the controlled experiments documented in the literature. The subjects of the experiments were free to move about and engage in normal activities and often led a “tranquil existence” with “plenty of time for relaxation” … whereas a detainee in CIA custody would be shackled and prevented from moving freely. Moreover, the subjects in the experiments often increased their food consumption during periods of extended sleep loss … whereas the detainee undergoing interrogation may be placed on a reduced-calorie diet, as discussed above. Nevertheless, we understand that experts who have studied sleep deprivation have concluded that “the most plausible reason for the uneventful physical findings with these human beings is that … sleep loss is not particularly harmful.”

Informed by TPMmuckraker that his work had been put to this use, Horne — who heads the Sleep Research Centre, at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, U.K. — was indignant. He explained the crucial difference between his controlled experiments, in which subjects were under no additional stress, and the CIA’s use of sleep deprivation on interrogation subjects.

“As soon as you add in any other stress, any other psychological stress, then the sleep deprivation feeds on that, and the two compound each other to make things far worse. I made that very, very clear,” he said. “And there’s been a lot of research by others since then to show that this is the case.”

As for whether such stress could be considered “harmful,” Horne was unequivocal. “I thought it was totally inappropriate to cite my book as being evidence that you can do this and there’s not much harm. With additional stress, these people are suffering. It’s obviously traumatic,” he said. “I just find it absurd.”

Further, Horne continued, sleep-deprived subjects become so confused that they’re highly unlikely to offer useful intelligence. “I don’t understand what you’re going to get out of it,” he said. “You can no longer think rationally, you just become more of an automaton … These people will just be spewing nonsense anyway. It’s pointless!”

In sum, said Horne, he feels “saddened” that the memo’s author “didn’t fully interpret what I actually wrote.” The memo “distorts what I really meant, and I never meant for it to be, in any way, indicative that you could start torturing people in this way. That was not the intention at all.”

Bradbury did not respond to an email from TPMmuckraker requesting comment.

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