As American as Torture

By Donald Gutierrez

A recent book entitled A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism by Alfred W. McCoy gives the lie to Bush administration hypocrisy that the United States does not torture. Question, which concerns the development of psychological torture by the CIA from the 1950s to Abu Ghraib, establishes that the agency investigated, experimented with and applied methods of psychological torture for decades, that indispensable aspects of this enterprise were performed with the assistance of psychologists, psychiatrists, universities and hospitals, and that it led to the widespread practice of torture in Latin America, Southeast Asia, later in Vietnam, then Central America, and, more recently, in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram and in secret "black cells" around the world. Moreover, psychological torture, McCoy emphasizes, is far more harrowing, according to victims, than physical torture.

McCoy makes it clear that his account of CIA research into and use of psychological torture hardly depicts a marginal responsibility: "... a search for the roots of Abu Ghraib in the development and propagation of a distinctive American form of torture will ... implicate almost all of our society ... the brilliant scholars who did the psychological research, the august legislators who voted funds, and the good Americans who ... by their silence ... allow[ed] the process to continue."

Formed in 1947 under President Truman's National Security Act, the CIA, being attached to the executive branch, gave it cover from Congressional oversight. This was the beginning of a covert character for the agency that allowed it to hide enormously criminal conduct for decades, whether its extremely secretive MK-Ultra program involving research into mind control, its work within the deceptively innocuous USAID and Office of Public Safety programs in South America, the mass-murdering Phoenix program in Vietnam or the 1980s proxy genocide campaigns in Central America.

The well-financed MK-Ultra operation involved the research of eminent psychologists and psychiatrists at major universities from 1953 to 1963. Academic research on the psychological effects of isolation revealed formidable ways of devastating prisoners. Just four hours of isolation under special conditions of sensory deprivation could seriously disorient a subject, even leading to psychosis. "No-touch" changes of a subject's environment, involving heat, sound, sight and touch, could result in shocking dehumanization.

The CIA's MK-Ultra program was published in 1963 in its Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation handbook. This handbook was used to transmit the agency's questioning and training programs in Third-World nations for the next 40 years. Polygraph and electroshock machines were transported to public safety offices in nations like Brazil and Uruguay. Washington's claim of the spreading Communism in Central America initiated a Project X. This secret program transferred counterinsurgency torture methods learned in Vietnam to Latin American nations from the 1960s to the 1990s, sending torture manuals and Army trainers south. Two other major regions of CIA plotting were Iran and the Philippines. Up to one-half million Iranians were beaten or psychologically tortured by the Shah's secret police, and an estimated 35,000 Filipinos were tortured, possibly, according to McCoy, with CIA training.

Materials instructing Latin American police and military officers in psychological torture were distributed from 1966 to 1996. Available knowledge about actual techniques used then and now in Guantanamo, Iraq and elsewhere were compiled in the CIA's 1983 Honduras Human Resources Exploitation Training Manual. A comparison of the Kubark and Honduran manuals reveals almost identical language concerning "a disorienting arrest, isolation, manipulation of time, threats of physical pain or drugs injection ...".These "no-touch" (also including "touch") methods seem rather general and abstract until one considers the actual application. One example (of many) must suffice: detainees of low as well as "high interest" were beaten and kicked savagely every time they collapsed from forced standing.

The Bush administration's secret foreign policy, according to McCoy, is torture. A few days after 9/11, Bush enlarged the CIA's capacity for dealing with terrorists, including sending them to nations notorious for practicing torture. The White House buttressed this decision through various legal maneuvers, providing Defense Secretary Rumsfeld free rein to develop Special Access Programs which gave elite troops prior permission for kidnapping, assassination and torture as well as to develop secret CIA prisons globally, holding up to 3000 terrorist suspects.

McCoy argues cogently that Rumsfeld's CIA plan was extremely ill-advised, in part because the CIA "had little legal training and less experience in taking custody of suspects with procedures that would allow their later prosecution." Moreover, the Justice Department's narrow definition of torture ("pain equal in nature to organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death"), though increasing the torture that could be applied to terrorist suspects, expanded the criminal liability of military personnel from top to (especially) bottom.

That definition of torture resulted in 14,000 Iraqi detainees being very harshly treated, occasionally tortured, and 1,100 "high value" suspects systematically tortured at Guantanamo and Bagram, plus 36 tortured for years "and 26 detainees murdered under questioning, at least four of them by the CIA." Many of the techniques employed at Guantanamo, for example, had a pronounced CIA stamp in combining sensory dislocation with self-inflicted pain. The latter included extremely painful stress positions, long-term isolation (30 days), hooding, wet towels and water suffocation.

An irony behind all this brutal increase of psychological and physical torture is that 70% to 90 % of Iraqi detainees had been arrested by mistake. What comes across in this massive injustice is the culpability of a chain of command, from the White House lawyers to Rumsfeld to senior military officers like Gens. Miller and Sanchez. Determining blame for all this torture leads McCoy to the crucial issue of impunity.

9/11 provided the Bush administration with a powerful rationalization for justifying "depth questioning," amplified by the concept of a unitary executive giving himself unlimited powers by claiming to protect the country. One tactic employed by the White House and Rumsfeld to continue torturing detainees was to urge that psychological interrogation was not torture. Another is to insist that detainees are really "bad guys," and thus don't deserve legal rights. As for holding senior military officials responsible, all but the innocent Gen. Janis Karpinski were exempted.

McCoy urges that torture is not effective against terrorism, citing the very high number of innocent detainees from whom meager intelligence was coerced at Guantanamo. Moreover, the torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib did the US enormous damage internationally.

The racism implicit in the CIA's torture programs is one significant area Question doesn't address. As the large majority of the victims of CIA and American military torture are non-White, Third-World peoples, the issue deserved consideration.

Ultimately, CIA torture is terrorism, state terrorism. Having a prime intelligence service of the White House directly and indirectly kidnapping, imprisoning, torturing, or even murdering hundreds of thousands of suspects over decades is an act of institutional terrorism far more pervasive, massive and morally horrifying than the terrorism of guerrilla terrorist cells. McCoy has performed a noble service in convincingly informing us of this grave corruption in our government and society.

Donald K. Gutierrez is professor emeritus of English at Western New Mexico University. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2007

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