The release of Bush-era memos and the declassification of a Senate Armed Services Committee report has brought to light more lurid details of the interrogation techniques – waterboarding, sleep deprivation, forced nudity - used on U.S. detainees. Writer David Peisner describes another all too common interrogation tool - popular music.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Due to illness, travel and jury duty, the rest of the hour is repurposed material. But trust us, it’s still relevant.
BARNEY SINGING: I love you, you love me. We're a happy family.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Barney is one of many performers whose music has been used by the U.S. government to break down detainees at Gitmo and elsewhere. For an article in Spin Magazine, David Peisner interviewed several former detainees and interrogators about the use of music on detainees. When we spoke to him in the fall of 2007, he said it wasn't clear where the idea for this particular enhanced interrogation technique came from, but it might have arisen from the interrogators’ own experience acquired during a part of their training, called SERE, where they learn what to do should they ever become prisoners of war.
DAVID PEISNER: SERE is basically a POW school for soldiers when they get captured to resist interrogation. I think the acronym is "Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape." One of the things that was used at SERE, and I spoke to two different guys who were instructors there and who had also been through the program, all the tactics at SERE are based on what foreign governments do, because this is, you know, for our soldiers when they get captured. And one of the things that was very prominent is the use of loud music. And the theory is a lot of soldiers who had been through SERE and then were interrogators decided to simply flip the tactic. The problem is, as one SERE instructor told me, this was never intended as interrogation school, and just because somebody does that to you doesn't mean that you understand how to do it to somebody else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, as you note in your article, it isn't the first time that music's been used as a PSYOPS tool. You reference Joshua [LAUGHS] and the seas of Jericho -
DAVID PEISNER: [LAUGHS] Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - as a Biblical precedent, but also more recently it was used in Vietnam, at least fictitiously when -
DAVID PEISNER: [LAUGHS] Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - we heard Wagner playing and the helicopters came in under Robert Duvall.
DAVID PEISNER: Sure. My primary source on the Vietnam stuff was a guy who was in a PSYOP unit in Vietnam who later became a PSYOP historian. He actually brought up the Wagner Apocalypse Now example and said that didn't happen. That said, he did give me an example of something that was called "The Wandering Soul" tape. Apparently it was a Vietnamese fable telling the Viet Cong you're going to die and your soul is going to walk the earth forever, and it was backed by these sort of creepy atonal sounds.
[CREEPY ATONAL SOUNDS] This was played from boats going up rivers when they were trying to flush the Viet Cong out of the jungles. Whether it was successful, I think it's one of those things that's extremely hard to measure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I wonder whether you could find any rhyme or reason to the kind of music that you know has been chosen in Guantanamo and in Iraq. DAVID PEISNER: One thing that is fairly certain is the music that was picked was picked partially because it was aggressive and loud, and it was also meant to be insulting to a Muslim. A lot of very devout Muslims don't believe they, you know, are allowed to listen to music at all, let alone sort of Western music. And there are a huge number of cases of pro-American songs. Neil Diamond's song America.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
NEIL DIAMOND [SINGING]: On the boats and on the planes, they're coming to America. Never looking back again, they're coming to America.
DAVID PEISNER: Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., and Eminem's White America. You could make the case that some of those aren't exactly, you know, pro-American songs, but probably to somebody who, you know, doesn't speak great English and all they're hearing is the loud chorus, the message comes through loud and clear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've spoken to artists whose music has been used in this way. What's their reaction been?
DAVID PEISNER: I spoke to two artists specifically whose music came up frequently in my research. One was the bassist for a band called Drowning Pool, whose song, Bodies, was mentioned by just about every single person I talked to. They're kind of a very aggressive metal band.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
DROWNING POOL [SINGING]: Let the bodies hit the floor. Let the bodies hit the floor. Let the bodies hit the floor.
DAVID PEISNER: And his take was, I think, fairly in line with probably the general public's take, which was that, hey, kids in America pay to listen to music. You know, if the worst thing that happens to these guys who are detained that, you know, that they get blasted with loud music for a few hours, I don't see what the harm is, especially if we might be able to prevent a future terrorist attack. I also spoke to Tom Morello, whose former band, Rage Against the Machine, was also used frequently.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE [CHANTING]: It has to start somewhere. It has start sometime. What better place than here. What better time than now.
DAVID PEISNER: And he's a very outspoken liberal activist. He had actually told me that the band had sent letters to the State Department and the Armed Forces to try and stop this from happening, but so far to no avail.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David, thank you very much.
DAVID PEISNER: Oh, no problem. I really appreciate you guys being interested.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We spoke to David Peisner in September, 2007.