American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond

American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond

by Michael Otterman


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745326702
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 03/20/2007
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.91(w) x 9.06(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Michael Otterman is an award-winning freelance journalist and human rights consultant. He was a recent visiting scholar at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. He is the author of American Torture (Pluto, 2007).

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'I am guilty in principle and in detail of most of the accusations made', said the cardinal in a low, stammering voice.

On 27 December 1948, József Cardinal Mindszenty was arrested on charges of treason and attempting to overthrow the Hungarian government. Mindszenty, the first prelate tried on civil charges since the days of Napoleon, was a vocal critic of the newly installed Communist regime. Earlier that year he had called for a general amnesty for all political prisoners and threatened to excommunicate any Catholic who supported government plans to nationalise religious schools. One month before his arrest, the Hungarian Premier branded Mindszenty a 'reactionary'. The 'liquidation of clerical reaction' was imminent, warned another government official.

Mindszenty penned a statement to his supporters prior to his arrest. Any confession he made, it said, would either be 'forged or false'. Two months later, a public trial began. On the first day of the hearings Mindszenty retracted the letter. In a quiet voice the cardinal confessed his guilt and stated that the letter was simply 'outdated'. Days after his confession, the Hungarian court sentenced Mindszenty to life imprisonment.

World reaction was fierce. 'May the mock trial ... arouse all Christians, all Americans, all believers in God and human freedom, all civilized men and women, to realize the meaning of the cruel, inhuman and godless creed of Marxian communism and totalitarian despotism', urged New York Bishop William Thomas Manning. A resolution introduced in the US Senate condemned the verdict and the Vatican affirmed that the cardinal was 'morally and civilly innocent'. President Harry Truman weighed in, agreeing that the trial was 'a sickening sham'.

During Mindszenty's trial, The Tablet, a Roman Catholic newspaper, published an article written 'by a priest who has been very close to the Cardinal'. It insisted that Hungarians used 'a tablet of the potent nerve-destroying Actedron' to secure the confession. The effects of Actedron were profound:

It begins with a strong headache and vertigo. Then a steadily increasing sense of uncertainty overcomes him. Then the prisoner begins to feel frightened. Finally he becomes semiconscious. He is paralyzed as though in a hypnotic trance. Neither his judgment nor his memory functions any more. He has the impression of having a deadly paralyzed vacuum in his head. He has the urge blindly to obey the slightest orders and is psychologically incapable of saying no to anything. Victims are led to trial in this condition.

The notion that a simple drug could enslave the mind was alluring in the fevered anti-Communist atmosphere of the postwar era. Today, the Mindszenty episode represents a bizarre but often neglected chapter in Cold War history. The cardinal's trial kick-started fears in the USA that the 'Reds' had mastered the art of mind control — paranoid suspicions that only grew in the years that followed.

In 1949 — the same year the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb and Communists seized control in China — the Hungarian government announced the arrest of another 'enemy of the state'. This time it was not a Hungarian, but an American: Robert Vogeler of Jackson Heights, New York. Vogeler, an Assistant Vice President of the International Telephone and Telegraph Company (ITT), was seized on 18 November 1949 en route to Vienna from Budapest. According to the Hungarian government, upon arrest Vogeler 'confessed to having committed sabotage and espionage against the Hungarian people's republic for a considerable time'. Using the arrest as a pretext, four weeks later the Hungarian government nationalised all ITT holdings.

Vogeler's crimes were clearly imagined. According to the Hungarians, Vogeler initiated a plot against the Hungarian government in 1942 — a dubious claim given that he joined the company in 1943 and didn't visit Hungary until 1948. But despite the discrepancy, on 19 February 1950 Vogeler appeared in a Hungarian court and testified: 'I used my business activities only as a cover for my espionage work ... I am sorry for the detrimental deed I committed against this country and I ask for a mild sentence.' According to the Associated Press, Vogeler spoke 'without a show of emotion or strain'.

It was suggested that Vogeler was not in control of his own mind. 'Mrs Vogeler tells me her husband used phrases in his confession he never employed in his life — the kind of phrases in which Communists express themselves', said Morris Ernst, the family's New York lawyer. The US State Department didn't accept Mr Vogeler's 'so-called confession nor his self-incriminating testimony', adding that 'his behavior was clearly not that of a man free to speak in his own defense'. The New York Times labelled the trial a 'diabolical puppet show'. The editorial continued: 'Some terrible thing has taken place behind the scenes of this Budapest spectacle and we are right in feeling horror and loathing when we are confronted by it ... It is natural that we should suspect that behind these sinister trappings is some method even more hellish than anything we know.'

The Vogeler trial spurred speculation about communist interrogation methods. The State Department suggested that he had been 'subjected to coercion by intimidation, lack of food, drugging, or other forms of mistreatment'. The New York Times Magazine featured a five-page spread on the topic, headlined 'Why Do They Confess — A Communist Enigma'. The article suggested three alternatives: 'black psychiatry', drugs, or physical torture. W. H. Lawrence, the author of the piece, was quick to discount the last option. The theory of physical torture 'hardly explains the conduct of men like Mindszenty', he wrote. 'Physical torture, presumably, would only strengthen their will as it had some of the early martyrs. Yet they, too, confessed.' Lawrence gave credence to the possibility of black psychiatry — Communist psychiatrists deliberately weakening the human mind to the point that a victim 'reverses his scale of values and becomes subservient to their will'. The final possibility involved drugs. 'One man who lived to tell of his examination said he thought they gave him morphine', Lawrence wrote. 'Another drug mentioned is mescaline [which is] said to produce a depersonalization effect, giving the subject the feeling of being someone else.'

In 1950, Edward Hunter of the Miami Daily News coined the word 'brainwashing' to describe communist mind perversion. 'The intent is to change a mind radically so that its owner becomes a living puppet — a human robot — without the atrocity being visible from the outside', wrote Hunter in Brainwashing (1960), one of several books on the subject that he authored. Hunter, later exposed as being on the CIA's payroll, carved out a lucrative career writing about the cruel dangers of the practice — fanning the flames of popular outrage along the way. By the early 1950s, the concept of brainwashing had quickly evolved into a 'lurid mythology', noted psychiatrist Dr Robert Jay Lifton. Brainwashing became 'a rallying point for fear, resentment, urges toward submission, justification for failure, irresponsible accusation, and for a wide gamut of emotional extremism', he said.

In late April 1951, Communist police seized another American — this time in Czechoslovakia. Three Czech agents arrested William Oatis, an Associated Press bureau chief, as he parked his car. Seventy-two hours after he disappeared the government formally charged Oatis with 'hostile activities' and spreading 'secret information'. His arrest and confession followed a similar pattern: taken in April, confessed in July, sentenced to ten years. Harry Martin, President of the American Newspaper Guild, protested the arrest in a letter he hand-delivered to the Czech embassy in Washington, DC. Oatis' statement, wrote Martin, is 'merely one more in a series of phony confessions forced from helpless victims by methods that outdo barbarism even in the historic terrors of the Spanish Inquisition'. The arrest was 'a hoax', said Lincoln White, US State Department spokesperson. 'I hope and trust that the American people will understand the absolute worthlessness of any alleged confession or "revelation" beaten out or otherwise obtained from anyone who is held incommunicado for seventy days or more', added the official. A New York Times editorial cautioned: 'Surely we have reached a point where helpless acceptance of barbarity against American citizens is becoming unbearable ... [But] we must be careful not to commit the same type of judicial iniquity of which we accuse the Reds. To descend into their mire would be to lose the ideals for which we strive.'

Discussions at the highest levels of government reached a markedly different conclusion. A secret panel appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, chaired by Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle, found that the Cold War represented a new paradigm where 'acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply'. The panel advised the president to take an aggressive stance against communism on all fronts. It concluded that:

It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever costs. There are no rules in such a game ... If the US is to survive, longstanding American concepts of 'fair play' must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated means than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.

To combat the so-called scourge of communist brainwashing, America looked to her enemies for insight into their methods: first to the Nazis, then to the Soviet Union and China. Although public outrage against communist coercion peaked in the early 1950s, select agencies in the US government had set to work on discovering the key to mind control soon after World War II.

In 1945, the US Naval Technical Mission swept across Europe in search of useful scientific data from the Third Reich. In addition to uncovering valuable information about German V2 rockets, the Naval mission found documentation of Nazi human experimentation. At the Dachau concentration camp inmates were injected with gasoline, frozen to death in vats of ice water, and crushed in pressure chambers in a series of trials designed to test the limits of human endurance. In addition to the twisted 'aviation medicine' trials, the mission found evidence documenting interrogation-related research. At Dachau, thirty inmates were injected with mescaline to see if they would reveal their innermost thoughts. The results were mixed. While one Nazi study noted that it was 'impossible to impose one's will on another person as in hypnosis even when the strongest dose of mescaline had been given', another report found that interrogators were able to obtain 'even the most intimate secrets from the [subject] when questions were cleverly put'.

Under Operation Paperclip, the Navy recruited Dr Kurt Plotner, who directly oversaw human experimentation at Dachau, to continue his interrogation research within the USA. Nazi doctors for whom the United States had no use were tried at Nuremburg. For the trials, a new code of ethics was produced, known today as the Nuremburg Code. Among others, Article 1 declares that 'the voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential'; Article 4 states that 'the experiment should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury'; and Article 9 instructs that 'during the course of the experiment the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end if he has reached the physical or mental state where continuation of the experiment seems to him to be impossible'. Sixteen of the doctors charged were found guilty of violating these basic principles. Seven were executed.

Unaffected by the lessons of Nuremburg, the US government pushed ahead with human experimentation in the name of national security. In 1947, the US Navy launched Operation Chatter after receiving reports citing 'amazing results' of Soviet drug research. Under this program, mescaline was tested upon volunteers at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, and on unwitting subjects in western Europe. Like the Nazis, the Navy doctors sought a fail-safe 'truth drug'. According to Dr Samuel Thompson, Operation Chatter's director, the program was 'unethical' but 'we felt we had to do it for the good of the country'.

The scope of US military mind control research pales in comparison with work undertaken by the CIA. The agency was better suited than the military to conduct unsavoury research given its broad mandate, secret budget and insulation from congressional oversight. Established by an Act of Congress in 1947, the agency, in the words of CIA framer William Donovan, was envisioned as an 'organization which will procure intelligence both by overt and covert methods and will at the same time provide intelligence guidance, determine national intelligence objectives, and correlate the intelligence material collected by all government agencies'. In reality, the CIA's powers are far greater.

In 1947, the National Security Act reorganised the armed forces and established both the National Security Council (NSC) and the CIA. The NSC is an executive body chaired by the president, which coordinates national security issues and directs foreign policy. The same fears that consumed mainstream media and the general public during the Red Scare are reflected in NSC reports of the time. According to one 1950 directive: 'the Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world'. These fears trickled down to CIA agents in the field. Hugh Cunningham, an early agency official, later recalled: 'What you were made to feel was that the country was in desperate peril and we had to do whatever it took to save it.' According to Harry Rositzke, ex-head of the Soviet Division, agents felt they were 'the first line of defense in the anticommunist crusade'.

The CIA was granted extra-legal powers in this new 'crusade'. The 1947 Act contained a small clause granting the CIA the power to 'perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the President or the National Security Council may direct'. From the agency's inception, this clause has been used to justify covert action, as directed by the president, outside the bounds of conventional law. For example, NSC 1/1, the NSC's first action, ordered covert manipulation of the Italian elections. To achieve this aim, the CIA transferred millions of dollars to anti-Communist political parties and produced anonymous pamphlets describing in lurid detail the sex lives of Communist candidates. On 9 December 1947, the NSC met again to discuss anti-Soviet propaganda efforts. This time the NSC directed that 'in the interests of world peace and US national security, the foreign information activities of the US Government must be supplemented by covert psychological operations'. The need to keep these activities secret, stated the directive, 'renders the Central Intelligence Agency the logical agency to conduct such operations'.

The Central Intelligence Act, passed two years later, exempted the agency from normal financial controls regulating the expenditure of public funds. In order to protect the details of its programs, the agency was not required to disclose to Congress its 'organization, functions, names, officials, titles, salaries, or numbers of personnel employed'. In addition to having extra-legal powers, the CIA was to operate under a veil of secrecy.

Given its unique status, the CIA was the primary agency charged with mind control research during the Cold War. Although two congressional inquests — the Rockefeller Commission and the Church Committee — revealed many vital clues, the bulk of what is known today about the CIA's quest for mind control stems from a 1975 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by American journalist John Marks for documents relating to agency-sponsored human experimentation. After nearly three years of delays, the CIA delivered to Marks more than 16 000 pages of documents concerning various top secret CIA behavioural control programs. Today, these files are on view at the National Security Archive in Washington, DC.


Excerpted from "American Torture"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Michael Otterman.
Excerpted by permission of Melbourne University Publishing Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Acronyms     viii
In Their Own Words     1
A Climate of Fear     14
Stress Inoculation     28
Codifying Cruelty     42
The Phoenix Factor     59
In America's Backyard     73
The Human Cost     88
Alive and Legal     99
The Gloves Come Off, Part I     117
Guantanamo     137
The Gloves Come Off, Part II     161
The Dual State     181
Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual - 1983     200
Notes     216
Bibliography     249
Index     273
Acknowledgments     286

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