Interrogation, sensory deprivation and the CIA: A Canadian connection

Thirty-six years ago, Donald Capri was driving across the Redwood Bridge
in Winnipeg when he spotted a body floating in the Red River. Police
later identified the victim as Prof. John Zubek, a distinguished
psychologist at the University of Manitoba. Cause of death was
determined to be suicide by drowning. Zubek was 49.

mysterious life and death has a direct and largely unexplored
relationship with the CIA’s methodology of interrogation. Zubek devoted
his life’s work to researching sensory deprivation. In a special
isolation chamber at the University of Manitoba, he conducted
experiments on more than 500 people over 15 years, depriving them of all
sensations for up to two weeks. The research was begun at a time when
the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program was spending millions to understand how
manipulating human behaviour could assist interrogations.

who was funded by the Canadian defence department and the US government,
was considered a world leader in sensory deprivation research,
elaborating the covert work begun by colleague Donald Hebb at McGill
University — work he assisted, according to documents in Zubek’s
personal papers.

Despite his death in 1974, Zubek’s legacy
endures in the methods used at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other
detention centres. The notorious photo of a hooded prisoner in Abu
Ghraib, standing on a box with arms extended, shows the importance of
sensory deprivation in the CIA’s methods. So does the declassified
Foreign Affairs document that reveals how Omar Khadr was placed on the
“frequent flyer” program at Guantanamo, constantly moved from cell to
cell and denied uninterrupted sleep. “He will soon be placed in
isolation for up to three weeks and then he will be interviewed again,”
says the once-secret 2004 memo. In his influential book A Question of
Torture, Alfred McCoy argues that the “no-touch torture” technique of
sensory deprivation is critical to the US interrogation paradigm.

have examined Zubek’s archives at the University of Manitoba and
written a lengthy article about his activities for the current issue of Canada’s History magazine.