US History of Torture
- CIA HAS BEEN DOING THIS FOR FIFTY YEARS
The U.S. Has a History of Using Torture
By Alfred W. McCoy
In April 2004, Americans were stunned when CBS broadcast those
now-notorious photographs from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, showing
hooded Iraqis stripped naked while U.S. soldiers stood by smiling. As
this scandal grabbed headlines around the globe, Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld insisted that the abuses were "perpetrated by a small
number of U.S. military," whom New York Times' columnist William
Safire soon branded "creeps"--a line that few in the press had reason
When I looked at these photos, I did not see snapshots of simple
brutality or a breakdown in military discipline. After more than a
decade of studying the Philippine military's torture techniques for a
monograph published by Yale back 1999, I could see the tell-tale signs
of the CIA's psychological methods. For example, that iconic photo of
a hooded Iraqi with fake electrical wires hanging from his extended
arms shows, not the sadism of a few "creeps," but instead the two key
trademark's of the CIA's psychological torture. The hood was for
sensory disorientation. The arms were extended for self-inflicted
pain. It was that simple; it was that obvious.
After making that argument in an op-ed for the Boston Globe two weeks
after CBS published the photos, I began exploring the historical
continuity, the connections, between the CIA torture research back in
the 1950s and Abu Ghraib in 2004. By using the past to interrogate the
present, I published a book titled A Question of Torture last January
that tracks the trail of an extraordinary historical and institutional
continuity through countless pages of declassified documents. The
findings are disturbing and bear directly upon the ongoing bitter
debate over torture that culminated in the enactment of the Military
Commissions law just last October.
From 1950 to 1962, the CIA led a secret research effort to crack the
code of human consciousness, a veritable Manhattan project of the mind
with costs that reached a billion dollars a year. Many have heard
about the most outlandish and least successful aspect of this research
-- the testing of LSD on unsuspecting subjects and the tragic death of
a CIA employee, Dr. Frank Olson, who jumped to his death from a New
York hotel after a dose of this drug. This Agency drug testing, the
focus of countless sensational press accounts and a half-dozen major
books, led nowhere.
But obscure CIA-funded behavioral experiments, outsourced to the
country's leading universities, produced two key findings, both duly
and dully reported in scientific journals, that contributed to the
discovery of a distinctly American form of torture: psychological
torture. With funding from Canada's Defense Research Board, famed
Canadian psychologist Dr. Donald O. Hebb found that he could induce a
state akin to psychosis in just 48 hours. What had the doctor
donedrugs, hypnosis, electroshock? No, none of the above.
For two days, student volunteers at McGill University, where Dr. Hebb
was chair of Psychology, simply sat in comfortable cubicles deprived
of sensory stimulation by goggles, gloves, and ear muffs. One of
Hebb's subjects, University of California-Berkeley English professor
Peter Dale Scott, has described the impact of this experience in his
1992 epic poem, "Listening to the Candle":
nothing in those weeks added up
yet the very aimlessness
preconditioning my mind
of sensory deprivation
as a paid volunteer
in the McGill experiment
for the US Air Force
(two CIA reps at the meeting)
my ears sore from their earphones'
amniotic hum my eyes
under two bulging halves of ping pong balls
arms covered to the tips with cardboard tubes
those familiar hallucination
I was the first to report
as for example the string
of cut-out paper men
emerging from a manhole
in the side of a snow-white hill
Dr. Hebb himself reported that after just two to three days of such
isolation "the subject's very identity had begun to disintegrate." If
you compare a drawing of Dr. Hebb's student volunteers published in
"Scientific American" with later photos of Guantanamo detainees, the
similarity is, for good reason, striking.
During the 1950s as well, two eminent neurologists at Cornell Medical
Center working for the CIA found that the KGB's most devastating
torture technique involved, not crude physical beatings, but simply
forcing the victim to stand for days at timewhile the legs swelled,
the skin erupted in suppurating lesions, the kidneys shut down,
hallucinations began. Again, it you look at those hundreds of photos
from Abu Ghraib you will see repeated use of this method, now called
After codification in its 1963 KUBARK manual, the CIA spent the next
thirty years propagating these torture techniques within the US
intelligence community and among anti-communist allies across Asia and
Although the Agency trained military interrogators from across Latin
America, our knowledge of the actual torture techniques comes from a
single handbook for a Honduran training session, the CIA's "Human
Resources Exploitation Manual 1983." To establish control at the
outset the questioner should, the CIA instructor tells his Honduran
trainees, "manipulate the subject's environment, to create unpleasant
or intolerable situations, to disrupt patterns of time, space, and
sensory perception." To effect this psychological disruption, this
1983 handbook specified techniques that seem strikingly similar to
those outlined 20 years earlier in the Kubark Manual and those that
would be used 20 years later at Abu Ghraib.
After the Cold War
When the Cold War came to a close, Washington resumed its advocacy of
human rights, ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture in 1994 that
banned the infliction of "severe" psychological and physical pain. On
the surface, the United States had apparently resolved the tension
between its anti-torture principles and its torture practices.
Yet when President William Clinton sent this UN Convention to Congress
for ratification in 1994, he included language drafted six years
earlier by the Reagan administrationwith four detailed diplomatic
"reservations" focused on just one word in the convention's 26-printed
pages. That word was "mental."
Significantly, these intricately-constructed diplomatic reservations
re-defined torture, as interpreted by the United States, to exclude
sensory deprivation and self-inflicted painthe very techniques the
CIA had refined at such great cost. Of equal import, this definition
was reproduced verbatim in domestic legislation enacted to give legal
force to the UN Convention--first in Section 2340 of the US Federal
Code and then in the War Crimes Act of 1996.
Remember that obscure number--Section 2340for, as we will see, it is
the key to unlocking the meaning of the controversial Military
Commissions Law enacted by the US Congress just last September.
In effect, Washington had split the UN Convention down the middle,
banning physical torture but exempting psychological abuse. By failing
to repudiate the CIA's use 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, just 10 years later, in the Abu Ghraib scandal.
War on Terror
Right after his public address to a shaken nation on September 11,
2001, President Bush gave his White House staff wide secret orders,
saying, "I don't care what the international lawyers say, we are going
to kick some ass."
In the months that followed, Administration attorneys translated their
president's otherwise unlawful orders into U.S. policy into three
controversial, neo-conservative legal doctrines: (1.) the president is
above the law, (2.) torture is legally acceptable, and (3.) the US
Navy base at Guantanamo Bay is not US territory.
To focus on the single doctrine most germane to the history of
psychological torture, Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee found
grounds, in his now notorious August 2002 memo, for exculpating any
CIA interrogators who tortured, but later claimed their intention was
information instead of pain. Moreover, by parsing the UN and US
definitions of torture as "severe" physical or mental pain, Bybee
concluded that pain equivalent to "organ failure" was
legaleffectively allowing torture right up to the point of death.
Less visibly, the administration began building a global gulag for
torture at Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo, and a half-dozen additional
sites worldwide. In February 2002, the White House assured the CIA
that the administration's public pledge to abide by spirit of the
Geneva Conventions did not apply to its operatives; and,
significantly, it allowed the Agency ten "enhanced" interrogation
methods designed by Agency psychologists that included "water boarding."
Over the past three years, this term "water boarding" has surfaced
periodically in press accounts of CIA interrogation without any real
understanding of psychologically devastating impact of this seemingly
benign method. It has a venerable lineage, first appearing in a 1541
French judicial handbook, where it was called "Torturae Gallicae
Ordinariae" or "Standard Gallic Torture." But it would now become,
under the War on Terror, what CIA director Porter Goss called, in
March 2005 congressional testimony, a "professional interrogation
There are several methods for achieving water boarding's perverse
effect of drowning in open air: most frequently, by making the victim
lie prone and then constricting breathing with a wet cloth, a
technique favored by both the French Inquisition and the CIA; or,
alternatively, by forcing water directly and deeply into the lungs, as
French paratroopers did during the Algerian War.
After French soldiers used the technique on Henri Alleg during the
Battle for Algiers in 1957, this journalist wrote a moving description
that turned the French people against both torture and the Algerian
War. "I tried," Alleg wrote, "by contracting my throat, to take in as
little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in
my lungs for as long as I could. But I couldn't hold on for more than
a few moments. I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony,
that of death itself, took possession of me."
Let us think about the deeper meaning of Alleg's sparse words--"a
terrible agony, that of death itself." As the water blocks air to the
lungs, the human organism's powerful mammalian diving reflex kicks in,
and the brain is wracked by horrifically painful panic signals--death,
death, death. After a few endless minutes, the victim vomits out the
water, the lungs suck air, and panic subsides. And then it happens
again, and again, and again--each time inscribing the searing trauma
of near death in human memory.
In late 2002, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld appointed General Geoffrey
Miller to command Guantanamo with wide latitude for interrogation,
making this prison an ad hoc behavioral laboratory. Moving beyond the
CIA's original attack on sensory receptors universal to all humans,
Guantanamo's interrogators stiffened the psychological assault by
exploring Arab "cultural sensitivity" to sexuality, gender identity,
and fear of dogs. General Miller also formed Behavioral Science
Consultation teams of military psychologists who probed each detainee
for individual phobias, such as fear of dark or attachment to mother.
Through this total three-phase attack on sensory receptors, cultural
identity, and individual psyche, Guantanamo perfected the CIA's
psychological paradigm. Significantly, after regular inspections of
Guantanamo from 2002 the 2004, the Red Cross reported: "The
construction of such a system cannot be considered other than an
intentional system of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and a
form of torture."
These enhanced interrogation policies, originally used only against
top Al Qaeda operatives, soon proliferated to involve thousands of
ordinary Iraqis when Baghdad erupted in a wave of terror bombings
during mid 2003 that launched the resistance to the US occupation.
After a visit from the Guantanamo chief General Miller in September
2003, the U.S. commander for Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez, issued
orders for sophisticated psychological torture.
As you read the following extract from those orders, please look for
the defining attributes of psychological torture--specifically,
sensory disorientation, self-inflicted pain, and that recent
innovation, attacks on Arab cultural sensitivities.
U. Environmental Manipulation: Altering the environment to create
moderate discomfort (e.g. adjusting temperatures or introducing an
V. Sleep Adjustment: Adjusting the sleeping times of the detainee
(e.g. reversing the sleeping cycles from night to day).
X. Isolation: Isolating the detainee from other detainees ... [for] 30
Y. Presence of Military Working Dogs: Exploits Arab fear of dogs while
maintaining security during interrogations
AA. Yelling, Loud Music, and Light Control: Used to create fear,
disorient detainee and prolong capture shock...
CC. Stress Positions: Use of physical posturing (sitting, standing,
kneeling, prone, etc.
Indeed, my review of the hundreds of still-classified photos taken by
soldiers at Abu Ghraib reveals, not random, idiosyncratic acts from
separate, sadistic minds, but just three psychological torture
techniques repeated over and over ad nauseum: hooding for sensory
deprivation; short shackling, long shackling, and enforced standing
for self inflicted pain; and dogs, total nudity, and sexual
humiliation for that recent innovation, exploitation of Arab cultural
sensitivity. It is no accident that Private Lynndie England was
photographed leading an Iraqi detainee leashed like a dog.
After Abu Ghraib
Let's look at the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal, seeing how
America moved by degrees to legalization of these CIA psychological
torture techniques. Confronted by public anger over detainee abuse at
Abu Ghraib, the Bush White House has fought back by defending torture
as a presidential prerogative. By contrast, an ad hoc civil society
coalition of courts, press, and human rights groups has mobilized to
stop the abuse.
In a dramatic denouement of June 2006, the US Supreme Court decided in
Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that Bush's military commissions were illegal
because they did not meet the requirement, under common Article 3 of
the Geneva Conventions, that Guantanamo detainees be tried with "all
the judicial guarantees recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples."
Then on September 6, in a dramatic bid to legalize his now-illegal
policies in the aftermath of the Hamdan decision, President Bush
announced he was transferring fourteen top Al Qaeda captives from
secret CIA prisons to Guantanamo Bay. At once both repudiating and
legitimating past abuses, Bush denied that he had authorized "torture"
while simultaneously defending the CIA's use of a tough "alternative
set of procedures" to extract "vital information." To allow what he
called the "CIA program" to go forward, President Bush announced that
he was sending legislation to Congress that would legalize the same
presidential prerogatives in treating detainees that had been
challenged by the Supreme Court.
At first, Bush's bill seemed to arouse strong opposition by three
Republican veterans on the Senate Armed Services Committee--Senators
Graham, McCain, and Warner. But after tense, daylong negotiations
inside Vice President Cheney's Senate office on September 21, these
Republican partisans reached a compromise that sailed through Congress
within a week, and without any amendments, to become the Military
Commissions Law 2006.
Among its many objectionable features, this law strips detainees of
their habeas corpus rights, sanctions endless detention without trial,
and allows the use of tortured testimony before Guantanamo's Military
Commissions. Most significantly, this law allows future CIA
interrogators ample latitude for use of psychological torture by
using, verbatim, the narrow definition of "severe mental pain" the
U.S. first adopted back in 1994 when it ratified the UN Convention
Against Torture and enacted a complementary Federal law, Section 2340
of the US code, to give force to this treaty.
The current law's elusive definition of "severe mental pain" is
concealed under Para. 950 V, Part B, Sub-Section B on page 70 of the
96-page "Military Commissions Law 2006" that reads: "Severe Mental
Pain or Suffering Defined: In this section, this term `severe mental
pain ' has the meaning given that term in Sect. 2340 (2) of Title 18
[of the Federal code]."
And what is that definition in section 2340? This is, of course, the
same highly limiting definition the US first adopted back in 1994-95
when it ratified the UN Anti-Torture Convention.
Simply put, this legislation's highly restricted standard for severe
mental suffering does not prohibit any aspect of the sophisticated
torture techniques that the CIA has refined, over the past
half-century, into a total assault on the human psyche.
To make this point clear, let us compare the law's very narrow,
four-part standard for "severe mental suffering" with the CIA's
psychological techniques to see which, if any, of the agency's actual
methods are banned. Under this law, Section 2340, there are only four
practices that constitute, in any way, "severe mental pain,"
including: drug injection; death threats; threats against another; and
extreme physical pain.
In actual practice, this definition does not ban any of the dozens of
CIA psychological methods developed over five decades, which include:
--First, self-inflicted pain, via enforced standing and so-called
"stress positions" which are cruel contortions enforced by shackling.
--Second, sensory disorientation through temporal and environmental
manipulation exemplified sleep deprivation, protracted isolation, and
extremes of heat and cold, light and dark, noise and silence,
isolation and intensive interrogation.
--Third, attacks on cultural identity through sexual humiliation and
use of dogs.
--Fourth, attacks on individual psyche by exploiting fears and phobias.
--Fifth, hybrid methods such as water boarding.
--Sixth and most importantly, creative combinations of all these
methods which otherwise might seem, individually, banal if not benign.
If you wish an analogy to make the curious exclusionary logic of this
legislation perfectly clear, it would be as if US homicide law had
taken a leaf from the popular board game "Clue" and defined murder as
only those killings "done by Mrs. White, in the Conservatory, with the
Candlestick"thus, by its omissions, legalizing all murders done by
more conventional means such as poison, pistols, rifles, knives,
ropes, clubs, or bombs.
To test my critical, perhaps overly cynical assessment of this new
law, let us ask whether this new law bans the most extreme of the
CIA's "enhanced" methods--water boarding. While the White House has
refused comment, Vice President Cheney stated recently that using "a
dunk in water" to extract information was "a no-brainer for me." As
the administration's leader on interrogation policy, Cheney's words
make clear, despite White House denials, that water boarding is legal
under the new law.
By its omissions, this legislation has effectively legalized the CIA's
right to use methods that the international community, embodied in the
Red Cross and the UN Human Rights Committee, considers psychological
torture. For the first time in the 200 years since 1791 when United
States ratified the Fifth Amendment banning self-incrimination,
Congress has passed a law allowing coerced testimony into US courts.
The implications of this Military Commissions Law are profound and
will most certainly face legal challenge. Indeed, just a few weeks ago
seven retired Federal judges challenged this law before the US Court
of Appeals in Washington, DC, saying that it has "one specific and
fundamental flaw": i.e., it allows the military tribunals to accept
evidence obtained by torture. But when this case reaches the Supreme
Court, we cannot expect that a more conservative Roberts court will
overturn this law with the same ringing rhetoric that we have seen in
two recent landmark decisions, Rasul v. Bush and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.
If this law stands, with its provisions for torture and drumhead
justice, then the United States will suffer continuing damage to its
moral leadership in the international community. Looking through a
glass darkly into the future, Washington may try to return to that
convenient contradiction that marked US policy during the Cold War:
public compliance with human rights treaties and secret torture in
contravention of those same diplomatic conventions.
Yet the world is no longer blind to these once-clandestine CIA methods
and this attempt at secrecy will likely produce another scandal
similar to Abu Ghraib. But next time our protestations of innocence
will ring hollow and the damage to US prestige will be even greater.
Mr. McCoy is J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison and the author of A Question of Torture: CIA
Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York:
Metropolitan Books, 2006).
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