A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terrorby Alfred McCoy
A startling exposé of the CIA's development and spread of psychological torture, from the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and beyond
In this revelatory account of the CIA's secret, fifty-year effort to develop new forms of torture, historian Alfred W. McCoy uncovers the deep, disturbing roots of recent scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Far/p>/b>
A startling exposé of the CIA's development and spread of psychological torture, from the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and beyond
In this revelatory account of the CIA's secret, fifty-year effort to develop new forms of torture, historian Alfred W. McCoy uncovers the deep, disturbing roots of recent scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Far from aberrations, as the White House has claimed, A Question of Torture shows that these abuses are the product of a long-standing covert program of interrogation.
Developed at the cost of billions of dollars, the CIA's method combined "sensory deprivation" and "self-inflicted pain" to create a revolutionary psychological approach—the first innovation in torture in centuries. The simple techniques—involving isolation, hooding, hours of standing, extremes of hot and cold, and manipulation of time—constitute an all-out assault on the victim's senses, destroying the basis of personal identity. McCoy follows the years of research—which, he reveals, compromised universities and the U.S. Army—and the method's dissemination, from Vietnam through Iran to Central America. He traces how after 9/11 torture became Washington's weapon of choice in both the CIA's global prisons and in "torture-friendly" countries to which detainees are dispatched. Finally McCoy argues that information extracted by coercion is worthless, making a case for the legal approach favored by the FBI.
Scrupulously documented and grippingly told, A Question of Torture is a devastating indictment of inhumane practices that have spread throughout the intelligence system, damaging American's laws, military, and international standing.
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Chapter One Two Thousand Years of Torture
In April 2004, the American public was stunned when CBS Television broadcast photographs from Abu Ghraib prison, showing Iraqis naked, hooded, and contorted in humiliating positions while U.S. soldiers stood over them, smiling.1 As the scandal grabbed headlines around the globe, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld assured Congress that the abuse was “perpetrated by a small number of U.S. military,” whom columnist William Safire branded as “creeps.”2 Other commentators—citing the famous Stanford prison experiment in which ordinary students role-playing the “guards” soon became brutal—attributed the abuse to a collapse of discipline by overstretched American soldiers in overcrowded prisons.3
But these photos are not, in fact, snapshots of simple sadism or a breakdown in military discipline. Rather, they show CIA torture methods that have metastasized like an undetected cancer inside the U.S. intelligence community over the past half century. If we look closely at these grainy images, we can see the genealogy of CIA torture techniques, from their origins in 1950 to their present-day perfection. Indeed, the photographs from Iraq illustrate standard interrogation practice inside the global gulag of secret CIA prisons that have operated, on executive authority, since the start of the war on terror. These photos, and the later investigations they prompted, offer telltale signs that the CIA was both the lead agency at Abu Ghraib and the source of systematic tortures practiced in Guantánamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In this light, the nine soldiers court-martialed for the abuse at Abu Ghraib were simply following orders. Responsibility for their actions lies higher, much higher, up the chain of command.
In this heated controversy, all of us, proponents and opponents of torture alike, have been acting out a script written over fifty years ago during the depths of the Cold War. Indeed, a search for the roots of Abu Ghraib in the development and propagation of a distinctive American form of torture will, in some way, implicate almost all of our society—the brilliant scholars who did the psychological research, the distinguished professors who advocated its use, the great universities that hosted them, the august legislators who voted funds, and the good Americans who acquiesced, by their silence, whenever media or congressional critics risked their careers for exposés that found little citizen support, allowing the process to continue.
What began as an isolated incident of abuse by a few “bad apples,” “sadistic” soldiers on the “night shift,” or some “recycled hillbillies from Cumberland, Maryland” would grow, in just six months, into a great political scandal that diminished the majesty of the American state, the world’s preeminent power. As the U.S. press probed and Washington’s bureaucracy hemorrhaged documents, revelations of abuse spread from Abu Ghraib to American military prisons worldwide. Despite eleven military investigations, twelve congressional hearings, and forty White House briefings all designed to bury the scandal, responsibility climbed, by degrees, from the handful of prison guards to the Pentagon and, ultimately, the president.4 What started as an examination of the night shift in one cell block ramified into an inquiry, first into the Bush administration’s interrogation policy, and then into the inner workings of the national-security state, the constitutional restraints on executive powers, and the limits of civil liberties—making other recent American political scandals appear, if not petty or parochial, at least somewhat more limited in their implications. Compared to weighty matters of state raised by Abu Ghraib, Watergate, narrowly construed, seems little more than the failure of one man’s character; Iran-Contra an isolated albeit intriguing incident at the sunset of the Cold War; and, above all, l’affaire Monica Lewinsky sad, sordid, and forgettably partisan. At last, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, America’s century, the United States had a crisis worthy of its grandeur as a global power, one revealing of the most profound ambiguities of our age—the tensions between security and freedom, morality and expediency, sovereignty and internationalism, the rule of law and the imperatives of covert operations, democracy at home and dominion abroad. Yet, ironically, the gravity of the scandal has discouraged television coverage, defied close analysis, and may ultimately drive Abu Ghraib from America’s collective memory.
More deeply, this controversy is the product of a contradictory U.S. policy toward torture evident since the start of the Cold War. At the UN and other international forums, Washington opposed torture and advocated a universal standard for human rights. But, in contravention of these diplomatic conventions, the CIA propagated torture during those same decades. Several scholarly essays have noted this conflict in U.S. human rights policy without understanding the reason: notably, the persistence of torture techniques and the prerogative of their use within the intelligence community.5
At the deepest level, the abuse at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and Kabul are manifestations of a long history of a distinctive U.S. covert-warfare doctrine developed since World War II, in which psychological torture has emerged as a central if clandestine facet of American foreign policy. Thus, this book does not focus primarily on particular incidents, even important ones such as the events at Abu Ghraib, but instead examines these events as expressions of how American power has been brought to bear upon the world—so strong, so forceful, and so misapplied.
From 1950 to 1962, the CIA became involved in torture through a massive mind-control effort, with psychological warfare and secret research into human consciousness that reached a cost of a billion dollars annually—a veritable Manhattan Project of the mind.6 After experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, electric shock, and sensory deprivation, this work then produced a new approach to torture that was psychological, not physical, perhaps best described as “no-touch torture.” The agency’s discovery was a counterintuitive breakthrough— indeed, the first real revolution in the cruel science of pain in more than three centuries. To test and then propagate its distinctive form of torture, the CIA operated covertly within its own society, penetrating and compromising key American institutions—universities, hospitals, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the armed forces. As the lead agency within the larger intelligence community, the CIA has long been able to draw upon both military and civil resources to amplify its reach and reduce its responsibility. Moreover, the agency’s attempts to conceal these programs from executive and legislative review have required manipulation of its own government through clandestine techniques, notably disinformation and destruction of incriminating documents.
Still, if genius is the discovery of the obvious, then the CIA’s perfection of psychological torture was a major scientific turning point, albeit unnoticed and unheralded in the world beyond its secret safe houses. For more than two thousand years, interrogators had found that mere physical pain, no matter how extreme, often produced heightened resistance. By contrast, the CIA’s psychological paradigm fused two new methods, “sensory disorientation” and “self-inflicted pain,” whose combination causes victims to feel responsible for their suffering and thus capitulate more readily to their torturers. Although seemingly benign, the term “sensory disorientation” means, in this CIA usage, something far more invasive. Through relentless probing into the essential nature of the human organism to identify its physiological and psychological vulnerabilities, the CIA’s “sensory deprivation” has evolved into a total assault on all senses and sensibilities—auditory, visual, tactile, temporal, temperature, survival, sexual, and cultural. Refined through years of practice, the method relies on simple, even banal procedures—isolation, standing, heat and cold, light and dark, noise and silence—for a systematic attack on all human senses. The fusion of these two techniques, sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain, creates a synergy of physical and psychological trauma whose sum is a hammer-blow to the fundamentals of personal identity.
That notorious photo of a hooded Iraqi on a box, arms extended and wires to his hands, exposes this covert method. The hood is for sensory deprivation, and the arms are extended for self-inflicted pain. A week after the scandal broke, the U.S. prison chief in Iraq summarized this two-phase torture. “We will no longer, in any circumstances, hood any of the detainees,” the general said. “We will no longer use stress positions in any of our interrogations.”7
Although seemingly less brutal than physical methods, no-touch torture leaves deep psychological scars on both victims and interrogators. One British journalist who observed this method’s use in Northern Ireland called sensory deprivation “the worst form of torture” because it “provokes more anxiety among the interrogatees than more traditional tortures, leaves no visible scars and, therefore, is harder to prove, and produces longer lasting effects.”8 Victims often need extensive treatment to recover from injury far more crippling than mere physical pain.9 Perpetrators can suffer a dangerous expansion of ego, leading to escalating cruelty and lasting emotional disorders. Though any ordinary man or woman can be trained to torture, every gulag has a few masters who take to the task with sadistic flair—abhorred by their victims and valued by their superiors. Applied under the pressure of actual field operations after 1963, psychological methods soon gave way to unimaginable cruelties, physical and sexual, by individual perpetrators whose improvisations, plumbing the human capacity for brutality, are often horrifying.
Why, one might ask, is psychological torture so devastating, inflicting harm that is often more lasting than even the most brutal form of physical abuse? Insights from the treatment of Chilean victims tortured under General Augusto Pinochet’s regime offer a point of entry into this complex question. Psychotherapist Otto Doerr-Zegers found that victims suffer “a mistrust bordering on paranoia, and a loss of interest that greatly surpasses anything observed in anxiety disorders.” The subject “does not only react to torture with a tiredness of days, weeks, or months, but remains a tired human being, relatively uninterested and unable to concentrate.”10 These findings led him to a revealing question: “What in torture makes possible a change of such nature that it appears similar to psychotic processes and to disorders of organic origin?”
The answer, Doerr-Zegers argues, lies in the psychological, not physical, “phenomenology of the torture situation”: (1) an asymmetry of power; (2) the anonymity of the torturer to the victim; (3) the “double bind” of either enduring or betraying others; (4) the systematic “falsehood” of trumped-up charges, artificial lighting, cunning deceptions, and “mock executions”; (5) confinement in distinctive spaces signifying “displacement, trapping, narrowness and destruction”; and (6) a temporality “characterized by some unpredictability and much circularity, having no end.” Thus, much of the pain from all forms of torture is psychological, not physical, based upon denying victims any power over their lives. In sum, the torturer strives “through insult and disqualification, by means of threats . . . to break all the victim’s possible existential platforms.” Through this asymmetry, the torturer eventually achieves “complete power” and reduces the victim to “a condition of total or near total defenselessness.”11
As Doerr-Zegers describes it, the psychological component of torture becomes a kind of total theater, a constructed unreality of lies and inversion, in a plot that ends inexorably with the victim’s self-betrayal and destruction. To make their artifice of false charges, fabricated news, and mock executions convincing, interrogators often become inspired thespians. The torture chamber itself thus has the theatricality of a set with special lighting, sound effects, props, and backdrop, all designed with a perverse stagecraft to evoke an aura of fear. Both stage and cell construct their own kind of temporality. While the play both expands and collapses time to carry the audience forward toward denouement, the prison distorts time to disorientate and then entrap the victim. As the torturer manipulates circumstances to “maximize confusion,” the victim feels “prior schemas of the self and the world . . . shattered” and becomes receptive to the “torturer’s construction of reality.” Under the peculiar conditions of psychological torture, victims, isolated from others, form “emotional ties to their tormentors” that make them responsive to a perverse play in which they are both audience and actor, subject and object—in a script that often leaves them not just disoriented but emotionally and psychologically damaged, in some cases for the rest of their lives.12
Once the CIA completed its research into no-touch torture, application of the method was codified in the curiously named Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation manual in 1963. The agency then set about disseminating the new practices worldwide, first through U.S. AID’s Office of Public Safety to police departments in Asia and Latin America and later, after 1975, through U.S. Army Mobile Training Teams active in Central America during the 1980s. In battling communism, the United States thus adopted some of its most objectionable practices—subversion abroad, repression at home, and torture.
Though torture seems so simple, so banally obvious in its brutality, it does have a lineage that allows us to track distinctive methods across time and continents, through agencies and bureaucracies. Much of the abuse synonymous with the era of authoritarian rule in Asia and Latin America seems to have originated in the United States. While dictatorships in those regions would no doubt have tortured on their own, U.S. training programs provided sophisticated techniques, up-to-date equipment, and moral legitimacy for the practice, producing a clear correspondence between U.S. Cold War policy and the extreme state violence of the authoritarian age. Significantly, torture spread around the Third World with the proliferation of these training programs and then receded when America turned resolutely against the practice at the end of the Cold War. In its pursuit of torturers across the globe for the past forty years, Amnesty International has thus been, in a certain sense, following the trail of CIA programs.
In these same troubled decades, U.S. leadership in the global fight against torture and inhumanity has waxed and waned. After World War II, American diplomats played a central role in drafting the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners—documents that ban torture in both principle and practice. During the Cold War, however, Washington withdrew from active support of international human rights, ignoring or rejecting several major conventions. Then, at the Cold War’s close, Washington resumed its advocacy of universal principles, participating in the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 and, a year later, ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture.13 At the same time, CIA counterinsurgency efforts declined, and the agency carried out its comparatively limited interrogations by sending occasional targets overseas to allied agencies still notorious for torture. On the surface, therefore, the United States had, at the end of the Cold War, resolved the tension between its principles and its practices. But by failing to repudiate the CIA’s propagation of torture, while adopting a UN convention that condemned its practice, the United States left this contradiction buried like a political land mine to detonate with phenomenal force, less than ten years later, in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Since the start of the war on terror, the intelligence community, led by the CIA, has revived the use of torture, making it Washington’s weapon of choice. In effect, the development of the agency’s techniques at the height of the Cold War, through a confused, even chaotic process, created a covert interrogation capacity that the White House could deploy at times of extraordinary crisis, whether in South Vietnam in 1968 or Iraq in 2003.
Indeed, the pervasive influence of the agency’s torture paradigm can be seen in the recurrence of the same techniques used by American and allied security agencies in Vietnam during the 1960s, Central America in the 1980s, and Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Across the span of three continents and four decades, there is a striking similarity in U.S. torture techniques—from the CIA’s original Kubark interrogation manual, to the agency’s 1983 Honduras training handbook, all the way to General Ricardo Sanchez’s 2003 orders for interrogation in Iraq. As we will see, these three key documents are almost identical in both conceptual design and specific techniques.
Yet, the American public has only a vague understanding of the scale of the CIA’s massive mind-control project. Almost every adult American carries fragments of this past—LSD drug experiments, the Vietnam Phoenix program, and, of course, the Abu Ghraib photographs. But few are willing to fit these fragments together. There is a wilful blindness, a studied avoidance of this deeply troubling topic, similar to the silence that shrouds this sensitive subject in postauthoritarian societies. With the controversy over Abu Ghraib, however, incidents that once seemed isolated gain renewed significance. They form a clear mosaic of a clandestine agency manipulating its government and deceiving its citizens to propagate a new form of torture throughout the Third World.
Copyright © 2006 by Alfred W. McCoy. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Alfred W. McCoy is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Politics
of Heroin in Southeast Asia and Closer Than Brothers.
Alfred W. McCoy is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia and Closer Than Brothers.
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