videotape destruction

The CIA destroyed nearly a hundred videotapes that may have shown torture. Does hair represent another potential "record" of prisoner treatment? (photo: M-j-H on Flickr)

I read with great interest a story published on Friday by LiveScience.com. In the story we learned that scientists have discovered that the stress hormone cortisol becomes incorporated into hair, where it remains stably for a very long time, even being detected in mummies over 1500 years old.

Most striking about this discovery is that hair becomes a "recording" of stress levels:

"[Hair] tells me what happened to you in the last 10 months," study researcher Gideon Koren, a professor of pediatric medicine and toxicology at the University of Western Ontario, told LiveScience. "I can even see how things change monthly."

For those who follow the issue of US torture of prisoners in the "War on Terror", this finding is particularly significant in light of information uncovered by Jeffrey Kaye and published at Truthout:

The Navy SERE school in Brunswick, Maine, discontinued the use of waterboarding in its training curriculum after a SERE psychologist found via "empirical medical data … elevated levels of cortisol in the brain stem caused by stress levels incurred during water boarding." Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands as part of the body’s fight-or-flight mechanisms. Excess cortisol can lead to chronic stress, impaired cognitive abilities, thyroid problems, suppressed immune functioning, high blood pressure, and other health problems.

Intrigued by the possibility that hair cortisol levels could be a record of prisoner abuse that has outlived videotape destruction, I went to the original research article on which the LiveScience article was based. The study aimed to determine whether ongoing chronic stress over the previous three months, as measured by the cortisol content of hair in the three centimeters closest to the scalp [hair grows at about one centimeter per month], was correlated with whether a patient suffered a heart attack. Fifty six men suffering heart attacks and fifty six men admitted to the hospital for other reasons were subjected to the study.

The study found higher hair cortisol measurements in the heart attack group when compared to those not suffering heart attacks, confirming their hypothesis that chronic stress contributes to the risk of heart attack. Here is their Figure 1 summarizing the results, where "MI" stands for myocardial infarction, or heart attack:

The caption supplied for the figure reads:

Figure 1. The proportions of case (acute MI) and control (no acute MI) patients per quartile of hair cortisol concentration (x-axis; ng of cortisol/g of hair) are displayed in percentage (y-axis). Patients were divided into quartiles according to increasing hair cortisol content. This resulted in four quartiles of 28 participants each. The range of cortisol for each quartile is as follows: first (76.6–195.6 ng/g), second (197.0–252.9 ng/g), third (254.4–358.3 ng/g), and fourth (359.6–949.9 ng/g; p less than 0.01, Fisher’s exact test)

The results clearly show us that as hair cortisol concentration increases, the proportion of patients in that concentration range suffering heart attacks increases. Note that the highest cortisol concentration measured was over twelve times as high as the lowest concentration measured, so the patients’ hair cortisol concentrations varied over quite a large range.

Armed with this information, I began to wonder whether the long hair and beards of prisoners at Guantanamo represent a "recording" of their treatment. Note that the scientific article emphasizes that this analysis is a measurement of chronic rather than acute stress:

Traditionally, cortisol has been measured in serum, urine, and saliva. All of these matrices measure cortisol levels in the last few hours to days and, therefore, do not reflect the stress response over prolonged periods of time. Recently, the validity of measuring cortisol in hair as a biomarker of chronic stress has been documented.

However, for someone who is undergoing torture such as waterboarding, it would seem that chronic stress would be a natural outcome of wondering when the next acutely stressing event will take place.

In light of the possibility that hair could be a record of prisoner treatment, it is informative next to proceed to the question of what records may now exist among the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo. After looking at a number of photos and especially at many courtroom artists’ renderings (such as the one here), it seems that perhaps only Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s beard is long enough to have a record of his treatment that is longer than one year. If his beard is twelve inches long, that would represent approximately the most recent thirty months of his captivity. That would make his beard one of the few remaining records of prisoner treatment extending back in time to the Bush administration, meaning that it could provide evidence on whether his treatment conditions changed when the Obama administration issued new rules for prisoner treatment.

I have noted previously that with the fate of his children still unknown since they were last known to be in US custody a couple of months prior to his own capture in 2003, torture of a sort continues for him, so KSM would seem to be under at least one form of chronic stress in addition to the stress of being a prisoner.

Note that the reports of the worst torture of American prisoners related to their treatment at overseas facilities before transfer to Guantanamo. It is known that transfer to Guantanamo often was associated with forced shaving and haircuts, to the point that the "Guantanamo haircut" became a commonly used descriptive term. The motivations for the haircuts seem multiple and complex. It seems that there was a strong anti-Muslim component, since the long hair and beards are seen as part of the prisoners’ faith. This is especially driven home by the reports that some prisoners had crosses shaved into their hair. On the other hand, the foreign prisons also were known to be filthy and lice-infested, so an argument could be made that removing hair was a move for greater hygiene. With those two plausible explanations being present, there is no way to know whether there was an understanding at some level that hair might have been a record of the worst abuses of these prisoners.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to wonder whether hair and beards are long enough on enough prisoners at Guantanamo to make it worthwhile to put out a call for hair and beards to be preserved long enough for samples to be taken and independent analyses performed.  Should all the prisoners suddenly get new shaves and haircuts now that this information has been made public, we can only assume that our government is once again taking steps to assure that no evidence of torture is ever allowed to see the light of day.

[Note: I am indebted to Marcy Wheeler who first pointed out to me in an email that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's beard is likely the only hair at Guantanamo with a long record.]