Academic journal article American Journal of Law & Medicine

Interrogational Neuroimaging in Counterterrorism: A "No-Brainer" or a Human Rights Hazard?

Academic journal article American Journal of Law & Medicine

Interrogational Neuroimaging in Counterterrorism: A "No-Brainer" or a Human Rights Hazard?

Article excerpt

We neither invented lie detection technology nor can do much about the need for it, we have just devised a more reliable version . . . Of course, if the public and its representatives believe that there is a threshold beyond which this technology should not progress, I am ready to stop and focus my energy in other directions. I can understand the ethical revulsion against a 'truth-telling machine. '. . . Every technology can bring good or bad results, depending on who uses it.... It's the scientist's job to try to push the envelope, and it is the job of. . . the public and its representatives to help gauge when we are approaching a danger zone .... As a researcher, more than anything, I for one need some guidance.

-Ruben C. Gur, Director of the Brain Behavior Center at the University of Pennsylvania (on fMRI lie-detection)1


There is nothing novel about American interrogators seeking the aid of medical science. Intelligence operatives have long held out hope that the application of scientific expertise would compel the most stubborn interrogation subjects to open up magically before them. Congressional testimony records how, more than a century ago, American interrogators in the war in the Philippines sought the aid of a physician to administer the 'water cure.'2 When an American soldier siphoned water into the nose of a local "insurgent," and the water failed to make him talk, the physician directed that salt be added to the water, knowing full well the further irritation and discomfort that this would cause.3 During the Cold War, psychiatrists and psychologists also helped the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-sometimes willingly, other times unwittingly-to develop aggressive approaches to interrogation that drew heavily on physical and psychological stressors.4 The role of psychological research in the development of these approaches is clear from the CIA's 1963 interrogation guide, the KUBARK manual, which contains an extensive thirteen-page bibliography of predominantly scientific publications.5

More recently, in "the War on Terror,"6 several military psychologists and psychiatrists have been designated "behavioral science consultants" and tasked with helping interrogators develop interrogation strategies tailored for individual detainees.7 Convincing reports indicate that these consultants advised interrogators how to ramp up interrogation stressors by, for example, exploiting detainees' fears, including fear of the dark, or playing on their emotional vulnerabilities.8 In addition, there are reports that interrogators have administered psychotropic drugs-'truth serums'-to detainees to make them talk.9 Although drugs such as sodium amytal, sodium pentathol and scopolamine may well make an interrogatee more talkative,10 they cannot ensure the accuracy or utility of the words spoken.11 Despite this problem, the urban myth of the drugged detainee imparting pristine nuggets of intelligence is firmly rooted and hard to dispel.

Recently, however, the intelligence community has recognized that medical science-in particular, neuroimaging-may also play a role in assessing the veracity of interrogation responses.12 Traditional approaches to lie-detection rely on a number of techniques, including the observation of verbal and nonverbal behavioral cues, analysis of the content of verbal responses, and the measurement of physiological responses to questioning.13 Although a small number of people have proven exceptionally prodigious at detecting deception,14 most people-including professional interrogators-are unable to detect lies from demeanor when they rely solely on their own senses and intuition.15 In controlled studies, accuracy generally appears close to chance.16 Bearing this in mind, the persistent attraction of the polygraph is readily apparent. However, the device relies on physiological manifestations of anxiety-changes in skin conductance, heart rate, and respiration-to flag deception. …

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