On Tuesday, the Senate released a long-awaited report detailing the CIA’s use of torture during the Bush administration. The investigative summary of their methods has been in the works for over six years and describes physical torture like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and sexual assault. But it also contains a surprising section about their use of “sound disorientation techniques,” in which they blasted the same song on repeat for 24 hours a day to break the detainees down. The specific song mentioned in the report was the Blues Brothers’ rendition of “Rawhide.”
A footnote describes how the classic Western theme, which was originally recorded by Frankie Laine, was used to create a Pavlovian association with the physical pain of an oncoming interrogation. “CIA records indicate that in the CIA interrogation of Ramzi bin al-Shibh… the Blues Brothers rendition of ‘Rawhide’ [was] played. CIA records state that bin al-Shibh’s reaction to hearing the song was evidence of his conditioning, as bin al-Shibh knows when he heard the music where he is going and what is going to happen.”
According to the report, detainees at the COBALT detention facility “were kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste.” Past torture reports dating back to 2008 revealed that the same methods were used at Guantanamo Bay to deprive prisoners of sleep for hours on end, as well as to create fear, disorient, and “prolong capture shock.”
Though “Rawhide” was the only song explicitly mentioned in this recent report, other songs that have been used by the CIA for past tortures include “White America” and “Kim” by Eminem, “Die Mother F***er Die” and “Take Your Best Shot” by Dope, “Bodies” by Drowning Pool, “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, the Meow Mix commercial jingle, and even the Barney & Friends theme song. So while prisoners awaited a violent interrogation, they may have heard Barney sing “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family” at full volume on a relentless loop.
Two of the most common genres of music utilized were metal and country, because they are distinctly American. The idea was that foreign music would sever them from their cultures and heighten their feelings of isolation.
A British man named Moazzam Begg, who was arrested by the CIA in Pakistan in 2002, wrote about this effect in his memoir. “In a sense the music didn’t bother me,” he explained. “I’d grown up in Britain, I knew what it was But Afghan villagers, Yemenis, these guys were dazed, dazzled and confused, bewildered, completely out of it.”
Although the report did name several detainees who were “broken” by the music, the Senate investigation found that the torture did not lead to any actionable intelligence. Therefore, it seems that the only thing the CIA accomplished with this method was literally driving people insane.
“Our brains automatically process music and try to figure out what comes next,” said Daniel Levitin, a McGill psychology professor and author. “Any Western music would have done the trick. These were tonal structures the detainees’ brains can’t figure out. They kept trying, and they kept failing. Just as if I made you listen to Chinese opera, it’d probably drive you crazy.”