Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The Hidden History of CIA Torture: America's Road to Abu Ghraib
By Alfred W. McCoy

From ancient Rome's red-hot irons and lacerating hooks to medieval
Europe's thumbscrews, rack, and wheel, for over 2,000 years anyone
interrogated in a court of law could expect to suffer unspeakable
tortures. For the last 200 years, humanist intellectuals from
Voltaire to members of Amnesty International have led a sustained
campaign against the horrors of state-sponsored cruelty, culminating
in the United Nation's 1985 Convention Against Torture, ratified by
the Clinton administration in 1994.

Then came 9/11. When the Twin Towers collapsed killing thousands,
influential "pro-pain pundits" promptly repudiated those
Enlightenment ideals and began publicly discussing whether torture
might be an appropriate, even necessary weapon in George Bush's war
on terror. The most persuasive among them, Harvard academic Alan M.
Dershowitz, advocated giving courts the right to issue "torture
warrants," ensuring that needed information could be prized from
unwilling Arab subjects with steel needles.

Despite torture's appeal as a "lesser evil," a necessary expedient in
dangerous times, those who favor it ignore its recent, problematic
history in America. They also seem ignorant of a perverse pathology
that allows the practice of torture, once begun, to spread
uncontrollably in crisis situations, destroying the legitimacy of the
perpetrator nation. As past perpetrators could have told today's
pundits, torture plumbs the recesses of human consciousness,
unleashing an unfathomable capacity for cruelty as well as seductive
illusions of potency. Even as pundits and professors fantasized about
"limited, surgical torture," the Bush administration, following the
President's orders to "kick some ass," was testing and disproving
their theories by secretly sanctioning brutal interrogation that
spread quickly from use against a few "high target value" Al Qaeda
suspects to scores of ordinary Afghans and then hundreds of innocent
Iraqis.

As we learned from France's battle for Algiers in the 1950s,
Argentina's dirty war in the 1970s, and Britain's Northern Ireland
conflict in the 1970s, a nation that harbors torture in defiance of
its democratic principles pays a terrible price. Its officials must
spin an ever more complex web of lies that, in the end, weakens the
bonds of trust that are the sine qua non of any modern society. Most
surprisingly, our own pro-pain pundits seemed, in those heady early
days of the war on terror, unaware of a fifty-year history of torture
by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), nor were they aware that
their enthusiastic proposals gave cover to those in the Bush
Administration intent on reactivating a ruthless apparatus.

Torture's Perverse Pathology

In April 2004, the American public was stunned by televised
photographs from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison showing hooded Iraqis
stripped naked, posed in contorted positions, and visibly suffering
humiliating abuse while U.S. soldiers stood by smiling. As the
scandal grabbed headlines around the globe, Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld quickly assured Congress that the abuses were
"perpetrated by a small number of U.S. military," whom New York Times
columnist William Safire soon branded "creeps."

These photos, however, are snapshots not of simple brutality or even
evidence of a breakdown in "military discipline." What they record
are CIA torture techniques that have metastasized like an undetected
cancer inside the U.S. intelligence community over the past half
century. A survey of this history shows that the CIA was, in fact,
the lead agency at Abu Ghraib, enlisting Army intelligence to support
its mission. These photographs from Iraq also illustrate standard
interrogation procedures inside the gulag of secret CIA prisons that
have operated globally, on executive authority, since the start of
the President's war on terror.

Looked at historically, the Abu Ghraib scandal is the product of a
deeply contradictory U.S. policy toward torture since the start of
the Cold War. At the UN and other international forums, Washington
has long officially opposed torture and advocated a universal
standard for human rights. Simultaneously, the CIA has propagated
ingenious new torture techniques in contravention of these same
international conventions, a number of which the U.S has ratified. In
battling communism, the United States adopted some of its most
objectionable practices -- subversion abroad, repression at home, and
most significantly torture itself.

From 1950 to 1962, the CIA conducted massive, secret research into
coercion and the malleability of human consciousness which, by the
late fifties, was costing a billion dollars a year. Many Americans
have heard about the most outlandish and least successful aspect of
this research -- the testing of LSD on unsuspecting subjects. While
these CIA drug experiments led nowhere and the testing of electric
shock as a technique led only to lawsuits, research into sensory
deprivation proved fruitful indeed. In fact, this research produced a
new psychological rather than physical method of torture, perhaps
best described as "no-touch" torture.

The Agency's discovery was a counterintuitive breakthrough, the first
real revolution in this cruel science since the seventeenth century
-- and thanks to recent revelations from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo,
we are now all too familiar with these methods, even if many
Americans still have no idea of their history. Upon careful
examination, those photographs of nude bodies expose the CIA's most
basic torture techniques -- stress positions, sensory deprivation,
and sexual humiliation.

For over 2,000 years, from ancient Athens through the Inquisition,
interrogators found that the infliction of physical pain often
produced heightened resistance or unreliable information -- the
strong defied pain while the weak blurted out whatever was necessary
to stop it. By contrast, the CIA's psychological torture paradigm
used two new methods, sensory disorientation and "self-inflicted
pain," both of which were aimed at causing victims to feel
responsible for their own suffering and so to capitulate more readily
to their torturers. A week after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke,
General Geoffrey Miller, U.S. prison commander in Iraq (and formerly
in Guantanamo), offered an unwitting summary of 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. And we will no longer use sleep
deprivation in any of our interrogations."

Under field conditions since the start of the Afghan War, Agency and
allied interrogators have often added to their no-touch repertoire
physical methods reminiscent of the Inquisition's trademark tortures
-- strappado, question de l'eau, "crippling stork," and "masks of
mockery." At the CIA's center near Kabul in 2002, for instance,
American interrogators forced prisoners "to stand with their hands
chained to the ceiling and their feet shackled," an effect similar to
the strappado. Instead of the Inquisition's iron-framed "crippling
stork" to contort the victim's body, CIA interrogators made their
victims assume similar "stress positions" without any external
mechanism, aiming again for the psychological effect of self-induced
pain

Although seemingly less brutal than physical methods, the CIA's "no
touch" torture actually leaves deep, searing psychological scars on
both victims and -- something seldom noted -- their interrogators.
Victims often need long treatment to recover from a trauma many
experts consider more crippling than physical pain. Perpetrators can
suffer a dangerous expansion of ego, leading to escalating acts of
cruelty and lasting emotional disorders. When applied in actual
operations, the CIA's psychological procedures have frequently led to
unimaginable cruelties, physical and sexual, by individual
perpetrators whose improvisations are often horrific and only
occasionally effective.

Just as interrogators are often seduced by a dark, empowering sense
of dominance over victims, so their superiors, even at the highest
level, can succumb to fantasies of torture as an all-powerful weapon.
Our contemporary view of torture as aberrant and its perpetrators as
abhorrent ignores both its pervasiveness as a Western practice for
two millennia and its perverse appeal. Once torture begins, its
perpetrators, plunging into uncharted recesses of consciousness, are
often swept away by dark reveries, by frenzies of power and potency,
mastery and control -- particularly in times of crisis. "When
feelings of insecurity develop within those holding power," reads one
CIA analysis of the Soviet state applicable to post-9/11 America,
"they become increasingly suspicious and put great pressures on the
secret police to obtain arrests and confessions. At such times police
officials are inclined to condone anything which produces a speedy
'confession' and brutality may become widespread."

Enraptured by this illusory power, modern states that sanction
torture usually allow it to spread uncontrollably. By 1967, just four
years after compiling a torture manual for use against a few top
Soviet targets, the CIA was operating forty interrogation centers in
South Vietnam as part of its Phoenix Program that killed over 20,000
Viet Cong suspects. In the centers themselves, countless thousands
were tortured for information that led to these assassinations.
Similarly, just a few months after CIA interrogators first tortured
top Al Qaeda suspects at Kabul in 2002, its agents were involved in
the brutal interrogation of hundreds of Iraqi prisoners. As its most
troubling legacy, the CIA's psychological method, with its
legitimating scientific patina and its avoidance of obvious physical
brutality, has provided a pretext for the preservation of torture as
an acceptable practice within the U.S. intelligence community.

Once adopted, torture offers such a powerful illusion of efficient
information extraction that its perpetrators, high and low, remain
wedded to its use. They regularly refuse to recognize its limited
utility and high political cost. At least twice during the Cold War,
the CIA's torture training contributed to the destabilization of two
key American allies, Iran's Shah and the Philippines' Ferdinand
Marcos. Yet even after their spectacular falls, the Agency remained
blind to the way its torture training was destroying the allies it
was designed to defend.

CIA Torture Research

The CIA's torture experimentation of the 1950s and early 1960s was
codified in 1963 in a succinct, secret instructional booklet on
torture -- the "KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation" manual,
which would become the basis for a new method of torture disseminated
globally over the next three decades. These techniques were first
spread through the U.S. Agency for International Development's Public
Safety program to train police forces in Asia and Latin America as
the front line of defense against communists and other
revolutionaries. After an angry Congress abolished the Public Safety
program in 1975, the CIA worked through U.S. Army Mobile Training
Teams to instruct military interrogators, mainly in Central America.

At the Cold War's end, Washington resumed its advocacy of universal
principles, denouncing regimes for torture, participating in the
World Conference on Human Rights at Vienna in 1993 and, a year later,
ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture. On the surface, the
United States had resolved the tension between its anti-torture
principles and its torture practices. Yet even when Congress finally
ratified this UN convention it did so with intricately-constructed
reservations that cleverly exempted the CIA's psychological torture
method. While other covert agencies synonymous with Cold War
repression such as Romania's Securitate, East Germany's Stasi, and
the Soviet Union's KGB have disappeared, the CIA survives -- its
archives sealed, its officers decorated, and its Cold War crimes
forgotten. By failing to repudiate the Agency'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 ready to detonate with such phenomenal force in the Abu
Ghraib scandal.

Memory and Forgetting

Today the American public has only a vague understanding of these CIA
excesses and the scale of its massive mind-control project. Yet
almost every adult American carries fragmentary memories of this past
-- of LSD experiments, the CIA's Phoenix program in Vietnam, the
murder of a kidnapped American police adviser in Montevideo who was
teaching CIA techniques to the Uruguayan police, and of course the
Abu Ghraib photographs. But few are able to fit these fragments
together and so grasp the larger picture. There is, in sum, an
ignorance, a studied avoidance of a deeply troubling topic, akin to
that which shrouds this subject in post-authoritarian societies.

With the controversy over Abu Ghraib, incidents that once seemed but
fragments should now be coming together to form a mosaic of a
clandestine agency manipulating its government and deceiving its
citizens to probe the cruel underside of human consciousness, and
then propagating its discoveries throughout the Third World.

Strong democracies have difficulty dealing with torture. In the
months following the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, the United
States moved quickly through the same stages (as defined by author
John Conroy) that the United Kingdom experienced after revelations of
British army torture in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s -- first,
minimizing the torture with euphemisms such as "interrogation in
depth"; next, justifying it on grounds that it was necessary or
effective; and finally, attempting to bury the issue by blaming "a
few bad apples."

Indeed, since last April, the Bush administration and much of the
media have studiously avoided the word "torture" and instead blamed
our own bad apples, those seven Military Police. In July, the Army's
Inspector General Paul T. Mikolashek delivered his report blaming 94
incidents of "abuse" on "an individual failure to uphold Army
Values." Although the New York Times called his conclusions
"comical," the general's views seem to resonate with an emerging
conservative consensus. "Interrogation is not a Sunday-school class,"
said Republican Senator Trent Lott. "You don't get information that
will save American lives by withholding pancakes." In June, an ABC
News/Washington Post poll found that 35% of Americans felt torture
was acceptable in some circumstances.

In August, Major General George R. Fay released his report on the
role of Military Intelligence at Abu Ghraib. Its stunning revelations
about the reasons for this torture were, however, obscured in opaque
military prose. After interviewing 170 personnel and reviewing 9,000
documents, the general intimated that this abuse was the product of
an interrogation policy shaped, in both design and application, by
the CIA.

Significantly, General Fay blamed not the "seven bad apples," but the
Abu Ghraib interrogation procedures themselves. Of the 44 verifiable
incidents of abuse, one-third occurred during actual interrogation.
Moreover, these "routine" interrogation procedures "contributed to an
escalating 'de-humanization' of the detainees and set the stage for
additional and severe abuses to occur."

After finding standard Army interrogation doctrine sound, General Fay
was forced to confront a single, central, uncomfortable question:
what was the source of the aberrant, "non-doctrinal" practices that
led to torture during interrogation at Abu Ghraib? Scattered
throughout his report are the dots, politely unconnected, that lead
from the White House to the Iraqi prison cell block: President Bush
gave his defense secretary broad powers over prisoners in November
2001; Secretary Rumsfeld authorized harsh "Counter-Resistance
Techniques" for Afghanistan and Guantanamo in December 2002; hardened
Military Intelligence units brought these methods to Iraq in July
2003; and General Ricardo Sanchez in Baghdad authorized these extreme
measures for Abu Ghraib in September 2003.

In its short answer to this uncomfortable question, General Fay's
report, when read closely, traced the source of these harsh
"non-doctrinal methods" at Abu Ghraib to the CIA. He charged that a
flouting of military procedures by CIA interrogators "eroded the
necessity in the minds of soldiers and civilians for them to follow
Army rules." Specifically, the Army "allowed CIA to house 'Ghost
Detainees' who were unidentified and unaccounted for in Abu Ghraib,"
thus encouraging violations of "reporting requirements under the
Geneva Conventions." Moreover, the interrogation of CIA detainees
"occurred under different practices and procedures which were absent
any DoD visibility, control, or oversight and created a perception
that OGA [CIA] techniques and practices were suitable and authorized
for DoD operations." With their exemption from military regulations,
CIA interrogators moved about Abu Ghraib with a corrupting "mystique"
and extreme methods that "fascinated" some Army interrogators. In
sum, General Fay seems to say that the CIA has compromised the
integrity and effectiveness of the U.S. military.

Had he gone further, General Fay might have mentioned that the 519th
Military Intelligence, the Army unit that set interrogation
guidelines for Abu Ghraib, had just come from Kabul where it worked
closely with the CIA, learning torture techniques that left at least
one Afghani prisoner dead. Had he gone further still, the general
could have added that the sensory deprivation techniques, stress
positions, and cultural shock of dogs and nudity that we saw in those
photos from Abu Ghraib were plucked from the pages of past CIA
torture manuals.

American Prestige

This is not, of course, the first American debate over torture in
recent memory. From 1970 to 1988, the Congress tried unsuccessfully,
in four major investigations, to expose elements of this CIA torture
paradigm. But on each occasion the public showed little concern, and
the practice, never fully acknowledged, persisted inside the
intelligence community.

Now, in these photographs from Abu Ghraib, ordinary Americans have
seen the reality and the results of interrogation techniques the CIA
has propagated and practiced for nearly half a century. The American
public can join the international community in repudiating a practice
that, more than any other, represents a denial of democracy; or in
its desperate search for security, the United States can continue its
clandestine torture of terror suspects in the hope of gaining good
intelligence without negative publicity.

In the likely event that Washington adopts the latter strategy, it
will be a decision posited on two false assumptions: that torturers
can be controlled and that news of their work can be contained. Once
torture begins, its use seems to spread uncontrollably in a downward
spiral of fear and empowerment. With the proliferation of digital
imaging we can anticipate, in five or ten years, yet more chilling
images and devastating blows to America's international standing.
Next time, however, the American public's moral concern and
Washington's apologies will ring even more hollowly, producing even
greater damage to U.S. prestige.

Alfred W. McCoy is professor of History at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Politics of Heroin, CIA
Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, an examination of the CIA's
alliances with drug lords, and Closer Than Brothers, a study of the
impact of the CIA's psychological torture method upon the Philippine
military. He will publish a fuller version of this essay in The New
England Journal of Public Policy (Volume 19, No. 2, 2004).

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Roberto Iza said...
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