Music As Torture: War Is Loud

[This story was originally published in the December 2006 issue of SPIN. In honor of SPIN’s 30th anniversary, we’ve republished this piece as part of our ongoing “30 Years, 30 Stories” series.]

Writer’s note, 2009: When I was researching this story on the U.S. military and intelligence agencies’ use of music as an interrogation tool back in 2006, I spoke to A. John Radsan, who had been assistant general counsel at the CIA from 2002 to 2004. I was specifically interested in trying to nail down exactly who had authorized the use of music in this manner. I asked Radsan whether the CIA had authorized the use of music in interrogations. For obvious reasons, he could only discuss information that had been declassified and was in the public record. He pointed me to an obscure footnote in a memo issued by the Office of Legal Counsel in late 2004 that referred obliquely to the idea that there were other memos that were still classified that detailed exactly what interrogation methods could and couldn’t be used by the CIA. “That footnote is as much confirmation as I could give you,” he told me.

So when the Obama administration declassified this latest batch of “torture memos” on April 16, I expected a treasure trove of information on music’s place in the CIA’s interrogation program. In fact, there’s no mentions of music at all. There is, however, a footnote in one of the memos, originally written in 2005, that notes that, “The CIA maintains ‘detention conditions’ at all of its detention facilities,” that include exposure to “white noise/loud sounds (not to exceed 79 decibels)” during portions of the interrogation. But because the CIA didn’t classify these as “interrogation techniques,” this particular memo doesn’t assess their lawfulness (though it does note that according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration there is “no risk of permanent hearing loss from continuous 24-hour-per-day exposure to noise of up to 82 decibels.”) Notwithstanding the fact that it takes an Orwellian linguistic backflip to avoid characterizing noise blasted during interrogations (and perhaps, for 24 hours straight) as an “interrogation technique,” I read this footnote to mean that the use of music is likely authorized in a different, still classified memo that judges the lawfulness of the CIA’s “detention conditions.” As Radsan told me back then, CIA officers had been burned in the past and it’s unlikely they would simply be improvising, blasting an Eminem album at a detainee without first receiving written, legal authorization to do so. “If I were an interrogator,” Radsan said, “I would make sure I had some guidance and approval before I did something like that.”

What these new “torture memos” do make clear, though, is that Greg Hartley, the former SERE instructor and interrogation trainer whom I spoke to for the story, was exactly right when he surmised that the way all these new “enhanced interrogation” techniques ended up in the arsenals of American interrogators was through SERE, the Special Forces school that trains American military personal to resist interrogation by foreign governments. As he said back then, “a lot of what’s happening, a lot of the stuff you see that has gone wrong” — everything from loud music to stress positions to waterboarding — “I think is someone trying to overlay SERE techniques to interrogation.” This, as it turns out, is exactly what happened. (It’s worth pointing out that with regards to the most controversial interrogation technique authorized in these memos — waterboarding — Hartley, who had both been on giving and receiving end of this tactic at SERE said, “That’s a horrible thing — I can’t imagine they ever approved that.”) He also said that SERE was never intended to be interrogation training. It was meant to mimic the brutal tactics of our enemies, which were known to produce false confessions. As he put it in what is probably my favorite quote in the story, “Just because someone gives you a good blowjob doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to give one too.”

SPIN‘s Original 2006 Story:

In May 2003, Shafiq Rasul was led from his cell at the Camp Delta detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a small, drab interrogation booth. He sat down and a military police officer chained his leg irons to a metal ring in the center of the linoleum floor. Rasul had grown accustomed to this procedure since his arrival in Cuba nearly 18 months earlier. Every few weeks he’d be brought into the booth and questioned about people he knew, places he’d been, and what he and two friends, Ruhal Ahmed and Asif Iqbal — all English citizens in their 20s — were doing in Afghanistan in late 2001. This time was different. An interrogator walked into the booth, pressed play on a nearby stereo, and walked out. Rasul immediately recognized the sound coming from the speakers: It was Eminem’s “Kim.” “It was weird because I’d heard it before,” he says. “I’ve probably got the album at home somewhere. [They] just put Eminem on and left, and I thought, ‘What the hell is going on here?'”

Rasul sat in the room with “Kim” on repeat. He wasn’t particularly bothered (“It was just like playing music at home, but chained to the floor”), and after a few hours MPs returned him to his cell.

It wasn’t long before he was back in the booth. This time, the room was pitch black except for the irregular flashes of a strobe light. Eminem had been replaced by loud, menacing heavy metal. The air-conditioning had been cranked way up, and Rasul was short-shackled — his wrists fastened to his ankles, then shackled to the ring in the floor in what is known as a “stress position.” He was left there for hours. “Being in that position is really stressful on your back,” he says. “If you try to move, the chains start digging into your feet and wrists.”

Rasul endured such “interrogation sessions” every day, sometimes twice a day, for nearly three weeks. Often, there was little or no interrogation taking place. After up to 12 hours in the booth with raging metal as his only companion, he’d just be marched back to his cell-now on the prison’s isolation block.

Rasul, Ahmed, and Iqbal had been captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 by a Northern Alliance militia, and then transferred to U.S. custody. U.S. intelligence seemed to lose interest in Rasul after his first few months in Guantanamo. Even if they doubted his story — that he and his friends had traveled to Pakistan for a wedding, then entered Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion to do humanitarian work — he seemed to know next to nothing about Al Qaeda and was interrogated infrequently. But in 2003, U.S. agents found what they believed was a smoking gun: a videotape apparently showing the three men sitting in on an August 2000 meeting with Osama bin Laden and lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta. The increasing harshness of Rasul’s treatment directly corresponded to this discovery and soon began having its desired effect. “It just starts playing with you,” he says. “Even if you were shouting, the music was too loud — nobody would be able to hear you. You’re there for hours and hours, and they’re constantly playing the same music. All that builds up. You start hallucinating.”

Rasul’s interrogators showed him the video and pressed him to admit he was at the meeting. After he initially denied the charge, the weeks-long barrage of metal, extreme cold, and strobe lights did its job and Rasul confessed.

There was only one problem: In August 2000, Shafiq Rasul couldn’t have been breaking bread with bin Laden because, as investigators would soon confirm, he was attending university and working at the electronics store Curry’s back in England. In early 2004, Rasul, Ahmed, and Iqbal were released without charges.

Music As Torture: War Is Loud

Rasul’s ordeal may seem bizarre and disturbing, but it’s hardly unique. Over the last five years, loud music has quietly become a valued tool in the Bush administration’s war on terror. The list of artists reportedly drafted to help break down prisoners for interrogation reads like an eclectic iPod playlist, heavy on rap (2Pac, Dr. Dre) and hard rock and metal (Metallica, Marilyn Manson, Rage Against the Machine), but also sprinkled with pop (Britney Spears, Matchbox Twenty), classic rock (Aerosmith, Meat Loaf), and the odd head-scratcher (Stanley Brothers, Barney the dinosaur).

Music isn’t a new military weapon. Probably the first commander to order its use was, perhaps not coincidentally, the same one often viewed as the architect of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy. According to the Old Testament, during the siege of Jericho by the Israelites, God tells Joshua to have priests march around the city blowing trumpets for seven days. On the seventh day, “at the blast of the rams’ horns, when you hear the trumpet sound…the city wall will collapse, and the army will advance” (Joshua 6:5). Joshua follows his orders, Jericho’s walls crumble, and the Israelites rush in to slaughter every single resident, save a prostitute and her family.

The Jericho model has more or less persevered into modern times. U.S. psychological operations (PsyOp) units began experimenting with blasting music at enemies in Vietnam and infamously rocked a 1989 standoff with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. But it’s only been in the past few decades that music and other sounds began turning up during interrogations. The British blared white noise at Irish Republican Army suspects in the ’70s but swore off the practice after the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 1977 that it was “degrading and inhuman.” Israel’s military employed loud music until 1999, when an Israeli Supreme Court judged that this exposure “causes the suspect suffering. It does not fall within the scope of…a fair and effective interrogation.”

Perhaps the first example of music being used by the U.S. for interrogations came post-9/11, in spring 2002, during the questioning of suspected Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah. According to The New York Times, while in custody at a secret CIA facility in Thailand, Zubaydah was subjected to “deafening blasts of music by groups like Red Hot Chili Peppers.”

Nobody in the U.S. government seems eager to take credit for this innovation. Loud music isn’t among the standard interrogation tactics described in the Army Field Manual. It’s never mentioned in any of the declassified memos to and from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s office concerning the authorization of special “enhanced” techniques for use against particularly resistant detainees. It’s not taught at the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where military interrogators are trained. And the CIA refuses to comment at all on its interrogation practices.

Yet it’s clear that music has been employed repeatedly to help set conditions for fruitful interrogations. What’s far less clear is how it came to be used, if it’s legal, if it’s effective, and whether the practice will continue. The answers to those questions are hardly straightforward but offer a window into the kind of war we’ve been fighting since 9/11 and the kind of war we’re willing to continue fighting five years after.

Mamdouh Habib, an Egypt-born Australian citizen, was hauled off a bus by Pakistani police in Karachi in early October 2001, weeks before the U.S. invasion of neighboring Afghanistan. He was soon transferred, allegedly by U.S. agents, to Egypt, where he endured beatings, electric shock, and sonically enhanced interrogation methods. “What surprised me is they used English[-language] music,” Habib says. “They put headphones on me, then put on the music very loud.” After six months in Egypt, Habib was transferred to a U.S. facility in Afghanistan, then flown to Guantanamo. He was in such bad shape at that point that he has almost no memory of his first year in Cuba. Habib says his interrogators asked him about his treatment in Egypt, and after learning the things that troubled him most (threats to his family, loud music), they proceeded to apply them themselves. “They were trying to make me crazy,” he says. “They try to take your mind away from you.” To some extent it worked. “Even today, when I hear any loud noise, I get disturbed.”

Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist, retired brigadier general, and former commander of the Southeast Regional Army Medical Command, says this sort of musical bombardment can indeed cause permanent damage. “It’s really traumatizing to the brain,” he says. “It will lead to anxiety and the kind of symptoms you get with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Habib, who the U.S. had said admitted to having prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks and training some of the hijackers-confessions Habib says were made only under duress — was released without charges in January 2005.

Music As Torture: War Is Loud

Tom, who requested his last name be withheld for security reasons, began working as an interrogator in the late ’80s. He served in a senior position at Guantanamo in early 2002 and in a similar capacity in Afghanistan. After leaving the military, he worked for a government agency he’s not permitted to name, both in Iraq and at secret prisons around the world, often dealing with those considered “high value” prisoners. He cautions against taking ex-detainees at their word, noting that they’ve learned to “exploit the media.” In particular, he calls Shafiq Rasul, whom he interrogated in Guantanamo, “a lying sack of shit.” (The episode Rasul described concerning Eminem and heavy metal occurred more than a year after Tom had left Guantanamo.) It’s nearly impossible to confirm the details of many ex-detainees’ allegations, but the incidents Rasul, Habib, and others describe fit a pattern consistent not only with one another’s stories, but also with the U.S. government’s own investigations into reported abuse.

That said, Tom and other interrogators I spoke to maintain that the use of music in interrogations was anything but standard operating procedure. “It was definitely not part of military doctrine,” Tom says. The music itself would usually be chosen by the interrogators either from CDs or downloaded off a file-sharing service. Boom boxes or iPod speakers might be borrowed from a soldier or purchased at the military PX or in a nearby town. Occasionally, music would be broadcast over the prison’s public-address system.

Shortly after Tom arrived at Guantanamo, some PsyOp soldiers convinced the guards to play Neil Diamond’s “America” over the loudspeakers. “It was to try to keep the prisoners agitated and from talking to one another,” he explains. “We wanted to prevent them from keeping each others’ spirits up and emboldening one another to resist interrogation.” The results were disastrous. “It just about caused an all-out riot. Strict interpreters of Islam are forbidden from listening to music. The whole place basically erupted.”

Tom makes an ethical distinction between blasting music for the purposes of interrogation and using it to disorient a recent capture. “If [the detainee] is accustomed to his surroundings and you force him to listen to Limp Bizkit, that’s clearly an interrogation tactic,” he says. “That would only be used in very rare situations, to annoy someone to the point where their only way out is you. To me, the only purpose of that is to drive somebody nuts, and that constitutes torture.

“When we use it at remote facilities, it’s to maintain what we call ‘the shock of capture,'” Tom continues. “The hardest cases to break are those guys that sit there and smugly smile because they know we’re not going to beat them up or rip their fingernails out. So we use music to keep them from knowing what time it is, from communicating with others or hearing sounds that would help orient them.”

For better or worse, these were distinctions Tom and others made on the fly. The agency had trained him in the use of white noise on prisoners. Switching to music was simply an innovation made on the ground. He also says the agency authorized all the techniques he employed at these secret sites. But the standard often used to determine how far interrogators could go was rather haphazard. “You couldn’t keep somebody up while you went to bed,” he explains. “If you can stay up, they can stay up. If you could take the music, they can take the music.”

Music As Torture: War Is Loud

Mark Hadsell is a 41-year-old mechanical engineer and, until recently, an Army Reservist with the 361st Psychological Operations Unit. From February 2003 until April 2004, he led a mobile, three-man PsyOp team in Iraq. He says he blasted music when assisting interrogators in the questioning of insurgents in al-Qa’im, a town near the Syrian border. “We had key prisoners that had information we knew would be useful in finding their counterparts who were ambushing us,” he explains. “So we [played] Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ on repeat for a 24-hour period as sleep deprivation. You wanted to get [the prisoners] emotionally exhausted. Say you’re up for 24 hours straight, music pounding in the background — nine times out of ten you’ll just answer a question without thinking.”

Hadsell says he had authorization to try this technique from his commanders but claims the idea was his own, as were the details of its use: “I wanted to see if it would actually work. I just picked music I knew they didn’t like.”

One interrogator who served in several prisons in Iraq, and spoke on the condition of anonymity, says the commanding officer at one facility ordered the use of music on some prisoners along with other techniques, including strobe lights, stress positions, and air-conditioning set to hypothermia-inducing levels. The choice of songs, though, was the interrogator’s. “I was the guy out there all night, sitting with the [detainee], so I was the DJ,” he says. “We started out playing stuff we’d gotten from the MPs, which was, like, unlistenable death metal. But we had to sit there and listen, too, so after a while, I’d play whatever I wanted.” That included James Taylor, and Janeane Garofalo and Ben Stiller reading an audiobook about their friendship. “They hated Janeane Garofalo.”

The purpose, he confirms, was to keep detainees from thinking. “The way we talked about it was ‘prolonging the shock of capture,'” he says. “Frankly, it wasn’t terribly effective, but that’s what our leaders were coming up with over there.” This interrogator says he’d heard about such techniques at the Army Intelligence School but was never trained to use them. “We were told these methods were illegal because we were following the Geneva Conventions. But when we got to Iraq, it was decided these guys weren’t covered by the Geneva Conventions.”

In actuality, the Bush administration’s selective interpretation and application of the Geneva Conventions makes it less than clear if, when, and for whom the rules’ protections against abusive treatment and torture were deemed applicable in Iraq. From the beginning of the conflict, the administration asserted that the Geneva Conventions would apply to all Iraqi detainees but left a loophole open for foreigners captured on Iraqi soil. In this obtuse legal environment — an environment, it’s worth noting, in which MPs at a prison in Abu Ghraib would brazenly photograph prisoners being sexually humiliated and threatened with dogs — it’s hardly surprising interrogators would assume playing Metallica at ear-splitting volume would be inbounds. And a September 14, 2003, memo from the commander in Iraq, Lieutenant Genera