The CIA and Questions of Torture

Against the Current, No. 131, November/December 2007

George Fish

A Question of Torture:
CIA Interrogation from the Cold War
to the War on Terror
By Alfred W. McCoy
New York: Metropolitan Books,
Henry Holt and Co., 2006, $15 paper.

ALFRED W. McCOY’S A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror is a chilling, eerily fascinating account of how the CIA used physical and psychological torture as a method of interrogation.

Torture was conducted semi-clandestinely from the early days of the Cold War, through the notorious Phoenix program during the Vietnam War, and in training military operatives in the Third World in the 1970s and 1980s, then openly as direct U.S. policy in the War on Terror after 9/11. McCoy’s compelling, thoroughly documented book explores the seamy underside of U.S. foreign policy from the Cold War onward, when the twisted moral logic that anything is permissible against an “inhuman” enemy became enshrined as law and policy.

Ironically, it was the “success” of Stalinism, as evinced, for example, in the 1937 show trial of Old Bolsheviks, who confessed robot-like to the most unbelievable crimes and conspiracies, that fueled the CIA’s fascination with psychological torture and other extraordinary means of interrogation, a fascination dating from its founding in 1947 under “liberal” President Harry Truman. This led to experiments, frequently unethical, with hallucinatory drugs, sensory deprivation and other non-traditional methods, often against unwitting and unknowing hospital patients, GIs and government employees in the 1950s and early 1960s.

This research, both by the agency and by respectable academics, had by 1963 been codified as a battery of psychological and sensory deprivation techniques, frequently supplemented by physical brutality, for breaking a prisoner psychologically, soon widespread as “standard operating procedure,” with notorious results.

For example, in the Phoenix program in Vietnam during the 1ate 1960s, tens of thousands of Vietnamese were tortured for interrogation purposes, then murdered. The CIA’s British counterparts used torture in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, and the CIA widely disseminated these techniques of torture to the militaries of Latin American and other Third Word pro-Western dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s.

From Cold War to Abu Ghraib

As is well known, these techniques of torture and brutalizing, outlawed under international law, United Nations declarations and even the United States Uniform Code of Military Justice, became public policy under the Bush Administration after 9/11, when the armed forces also embraced these very methods with all the sickening results that soon became public, creating new buzzwords of notoriety such as “Guantanamo,” “Abu Ghraib” and “extraordinary rendition.”

McCoy tells this story well and in detail, noting both the activity of conservatives in promoting this, and the direct and indirect complicity through silence of “liberals” in allowing its perpetuation.  For example, the torture that took place at Abu Ghraib in 2004, although widely publicized, never became a campaign issue for the Democrats, and John Kerry remained noticeably silent on it throughout the Presidential campaign.

McCoy also cites a CIA study of the Soviet leadership from 1961 that noted the leadership of the U.S.S.R. had embraced torture not from a sense of invincibility, but from insecurity and fear.  He pointedly notes the contrast between the visibly fearful George W. Bush hearing of the attack on the World Trade Center in the grade-school classroom, and the swaggering braggadocio of President Bush that evening, after he’d decided on the all-out use of torture as U.S. policy in his War on Terror.

The all-embracing justification of torture in interrogation of suspected “terrorists” is its supposed efficacy.” But McCoy properly cites here the Roman jurist Ulpian (3rd century A.D.), who noted that “the strong can resist torture and the weak will say anything to end their pain.” (203) U.S. officials since the beginning of the War on Terror have claimed great but unspecified intelligence coups from the use of torture, yet as McCoy rightly notes, nothing in our world gives indication of any such success.

McCoy had earlier written a book, Closer than Brothers, on military torture in the Philippines under the Marcos dictatorship, and found two distinctive contrasts among those who were tortured. Leading cadres of the Philippine Communist Party, as Ulpian’s “strong,” steeled themselves in almost superhuman ways to resist torture; but Maria Elena Ang, a young university research assistant abducted and tortured by the Philippine military in 1976, was still deeply scarred by the ordeal when McCoy met her in 1989.

Indeed, medical and psychiatric studies of torture victims in Ireland, Argentina and elsewhere found that torture frequently led to lifetime mental health disorders among its victims. Similarly, the very act of torturing over and over again dulled human sensitivity and produced callous and sadistic human beings among the torturers. Torture, McCoy concludes, is nothing less than the very destruction of the human spirit.

from ATC 131 (November/December 2007)