Wednesday, August 18, 2010

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.

Zubek’s 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.

Zubek, 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.

I 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.


  1. Hi, I'm not able to email you. I wonder if you could contact me at concerning investigative journalism and the blogpost above.


  2. What an interesting report. It is in keeping with rumors I heard over the years. I was one of the subjects in 1963-4, a first year student quite enamoured with the fact that I earned 10% of the year's costs in one week of sensory deprivation (visual sensation). I hope that the report is somehow wrong.

    Phillip H Wiebe
    Professor of Philosophy