Personality Disruption as Mental Torture: The CIA, Interrogational Abuse, and the U.S. Torture Act

56 Pages Posted: 31 Jan 2020

See all articles by David Luban

David Luban

Georgetown University Law Center

Katherine S. Newell

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: 2019


This Article is a contribution to the torture debate. It argues that the abusive interrogation tactics used by the United States in what was then called the “global war on terrorism” are, unequivocally, torture under U.S. law. To some readers, this might sound like déjà vu all over again. Hasn’t this issue been picked over for nearly fifteen years? It has, but we think the legal analysis we offer has been mostly overlooked. We argue that the basic character of the CIA’s interrogation of so-called “high-value detainees” has been misunderstood: both lawyers and commentators have placed far too much emphasis on the dozen or so “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) short-listed in government “torture memos,” and far too little emphasis on other forms of physical violence, psychological stressors, environmental manipulations, and abusive conditions of confinement that are crucial to the question of whether the detainees were tortured. Furthermore, we dispute one of the standard narratives about the origins of the program: that it was the brainchild of civilian contractor psychologists because — in the CIA’s words — “[n]on-standard interrogation methodologies were not an area of expertise of CIA officers or of the US Government generally.”

This narrative ignores the CIA’s role in devising these methods, in spite of the decades of prior CIA research and doctrine about forcing interrogation subjects into a state of extreme psychological debilitation, and about how to do so — by making them physically weak, intensely fearful and anxious, and helplessly dependent. By neglecting this history and focusing on the contractors and the EITs they devised, this narrative contributes to the misunderstanding that the torture debate is about EITs and nothing else. In effect, a “torture debate” about EITs and the torture memos neglects the purloined letter in front of our eyes: the abusive conditions the CIA inflicted on prisoners even when they were not subject to EITs, including abuses that the torture memos never bothered to discuss. Unpacking what this debate is really about turns out to be crucial to understanding that such interrogation methods are torture under existing U.S. law. The U.S. Torture Act includes a clause in its definition of mental torture that was intended to ban exactly the kind of interrogation methods the CIA had researched, out of concern that our Cold War adversaries were using them: mind-altering procedures “calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality.” That is precisely the “non-standard interrogation methodology” the CIA employed after 9/11.

Keywords: torture, national security, interrogation

Suggested Citation

Luban, David and Newell, Katherine S., Personality Disruption as Mental Torture: The CIA, Interrogational Abuse, and the U.S. Torture Act (2019). Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 108, No. 2, 2019, Available at SSRN:

David Luban (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

Katherine S. Newell

affiliation not provided to SSRN

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