In the early 7th century the Lombard king Adaloald took a bath with some ointment given to him by an ambassador from the Eastern Roman Empire. After that bath, Adaloald was completely under the ambassador’s control and became an enemy of his own people. He put many prominent Lombards to death without reason and allegedly planned to hand his kingdom over to the Empire. Finally the Lombards rose up and deposed him.
This example shows that mind alteration for political purposes is not a new idea, although it might seem to be. The modern term “brain washing” is a translation of a Chinese term that first became known in the west during the Korean War (1950-53). Communist China had already applied mind altering techniques on its own people as part of re-educating Taoists away from their old religious ideas. Taoism includes the concept of purification known as “soul washing”, so “brain washing” was conceived as its modern successor.
Many American soldiers who had been imprisoned during the Korean War seemed very changed in terms of personality and beliefs after they were released. However, these changes usually disappeared fairly quickly once the soldier was free from the environment that had caused them. Until now, that remains the major weakness of brainwashing, whether in the context of war or of new religious cults: it is largely dependent on keeping the victim in controlled conditions far away from their usual psychological supports, such as military discipline or family.
The full “Adaloald” effect would be much more powerful. The victim of such a level of mind control would not only voluntarily reveal any important information they possessed, but would remain controlled even in their normal environment, as the Lombard king was. Permanent or long-lasting mind control of that kind is currently difficult to obtain, but the information component of mind control remains an important part of military and security considerations. Put simply, even without full lasting control over somebody, fear and the natural desire for survival can temporarily overcome loyalty, discipline and other values and induce someone to reveal information. The necessary pressure can be applied by incentives, psychological stress or torture.
Today there are many different opinions about the extent to which nations should spend on defence of the air, sea, land and space. However, there are very few opinions about defence-related investment in the areas of brainwashing and interrogation. These are both very sensitive topics, particularly after the scandal of America’s Guantanamo Bay camp for terrorism suspects. However, while some nations might refuse for whatever reason to invest the necessary money, technology and effort in the battle to conquer enemy minds, others will increasingly take the arms race inside the brain.
US President Obama has recently recognised the importance of mind weapons. Obama delivered an executive order limiting some of the more extreme forms of interrogation used during the George W Bush presidency. The CIA and similar agencies may now use only techniques allowed in relation to normal prisoners of war, as set out in the Army Field Manual. At the same time, though, Obama established a committee to examine whether more coercive techniques might be necessary in certain cases. This leaves open the possibility of officially allowing more freedom in interrogation when public opinion becomes more favourable to such a move.
The USA’s continuing need for flexibility on interrogation is not surprising. As the continuing war in Afghanistan shows, enemies like Al-Qaeda are very resistant to sophisticated military technology. Since September 11, 2001, the USA and other countries have limited major terrorist incidents by obtaining information in advance about planned attacks and the people involved. Unpleasant though the topic is, part of that information was gained through interrogation, some of it involving coercive techniques or “torture”.
America is the superpower whose extreme interrogation techniques in recent years are best known, or at least best guessed at. These methods are believed to have included sleep deprivation, prolonged confinement in uncomfortable positions and exposure to extreme heat and cold. “Waterboarding” – a method of simulated drowning – has allegedly not been used by the USA since 2003 and even then only against three senior al-Qaeda members.
While the torture debate continues, there are suggestions that sufficient investment in interrogation research could lead to the creation of techniques that are not only less coercive but also more effective. The Army Field Manual itself puts the emphasis on encouraging people to talk rather than torturing them, and lists many simple methods similar to those used by police. However, these general methods have not been significantly updated for decades and do not take account of recent research in psychology, politics, economics and other behavioural sciences in relation to persuasion and influence. President Obama’s policy of limiting the CIA and others agencies to outdated and relatively gentle techniques would leave the United States – and any other country that follows a similar path – with ineffective tools when faced with tough, trained and determined opponents like terrorists.
Some American interrogators would like to see the establishment of a new intelligence agency devoted to interrogation. The agency could include a dedicated interrogation centre with the resources to construct the prisoner’s surroundings in the way most likely to make them feel like talking, perhaps by putting them at ease in a hotel suite.
Some of these ideas probably arise from the desire to present a softer side of intelligence gathering after the heavy criticisms of Guantanamo Bay. Nevertheless, in the current political climate and given the great demands for public money caused by the financial crisis, it is difficult to see support or investment being made available in the USA for such research at the moment.
As in any field, though, things can change quickly due to circumstances. By its own admission, the CIA was waterboarding detainees less than ten years ago. Up until the 1970s, the US government was conducting experiments on mind control with hallucinogenic drugs. Once those experiments were made public, opposition caused the research programme to close. Probably in various parts of the world, the dream remains alive of being able to convert someone – by whatever means – to radically different beliefs and to then maintain control of them after they are returned to their natural environment.
And Adaloald? After being deposed by his own people, he committed suicide by taking poison. We’ll never know whether he did that to escape punishment as a traitor or whether he “became himself” again at the end and couldn’t face the horror of what he’d done.