72 of 76 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2006
By providing a historical context for understanding recent revelations of U.S. government-perpetrated atrocities, McCoy convincingly unmasks the lie that Abu Ghraib is a mere aberration. In doing so, he shows that those in the United States who are serious about human rights have to address the ugly essence of U.S. foreign policy and practice rather than problems misperceived as short-term and exceptional. The evidence McCoy presents is overwhelming, and his analysis insightful.
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2006
A Question Of Torture is a penetrating study of fifty years of United States involvement in torture research, practice, and propagation. Dr. McCoy, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, isn't neutral on the subject. But his book isn't a doctrinaire rejection of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Nor is it a compendium of tragic personal case studies. Instead, he takes advantage of his misgivings about torture to delve into its history, the whys and wherefores of state-sponsored torture, and the demonstrable results of these practices. The work he has produced is as illuminating as it is easy to read. And, supported by sixty pages of sources and notes, the book should prove useful to readers with academic interests as well.
McCoy, whose previous works include a landmark study of the heroin trade, begins with an overview of torture and its usages through the past two thousand years. Then he takes us to the early days of the Cold War and a concerted US attempt to increase intelligence yields through mind control techniques. Early on, the emphasis was on electroshock, hypnosis, psychosurgery, and drugs, including the infamous use of LSD on unsuspecting soldiers and civilians. But the results were disappointing. Researchers soon learned that sensory disorientation (hooding, manipulation of sleep, etc.) and "self-inflicted pain" (for example forcing an uncooperative subject to stand for many hours with arms outstretched) were more effective means of breaking prisoners. Augmented by fears of physical abuse, sexual humiliation, and other psychological attacks on personal and cultural identity, our government produced exactly the system on display in the Abu Ghraib abuse photographs.
But Iraq is hardly our country's maiden voyage into the application of torture on an industrial scale. During the Vietnam War, Project Phoenix, a joint CIA and Vietnamese counter-insurgency operation, resulted in the torture of tens of thousands of suspected Viet Cong and sympathizers and caused the deaths of more than 26,000 of them. In Latin America, US operatives trained and abetted right-wing military and paramilitary personnel during the dirty wars of the 1970s and 80s. We also shared our expertise with the shah of Iran's secret police and the Filipino military during the Marcos years. McCoy reports that Philippine officers trained in these "extralegal" methods, went on to lead RAM, one of the more persistent groups to seek the violent overthrow of Marcos and also his successor, Corazon Aquino.
McCoy recounts the political moves that paved the way for prisoner abuse to become US policy during the war on terror. And he documents the inability or failure of judicial, military, and congressional authorities to hold high-ranking personnel in the executive branch, CIA, military, or behavioral sciences accountable. In such an environment, he believes we should expect a continuing series of revelations concerning direct and indirect US sponsorship of torture.
Does torture work? McCoy finds little specific factual evidence to suggest the "ticking time bomb" rationale for torture on a small scale has merit. The Manila police learned of a plot to destroy several airliners from Abdul Hakim Murad's laptop computer, not from the sixty-seven days of torture that followed. Israeli claims of many suicide bombings prevented by harsh interrogation techniques boil down to one documented case. Mass torture, such as that practiced by the French in Algeria, Project Phoenix in Vietnam, the right-wing Latin American dictatorships of the Pinochet era, the shah's Iran, and the Marcos Philippines did win battles. But, in each case, the popular reaction to it contributed to losing the war.
If the "ticking time bomb" justification for torture doesn't correspond to experience and mass torture loses wars, why do governments resort to it? The reason, McCoy concludes, is not rational and not very different from kicking the dog after being barked at by the boss. "In sum, the powerful often turn to torture in times of crisis, not because it works but because it salves their fears and insecurities with the psychic balm of empowerment."
A Question Of Torture is a lucid exposure of an evil open secret and of the skeins of denial and justification swaddling it. This book deserves a wide readership and should, but probably won't, stimulate some serious national soul searching.
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2006
Alfred McCoy, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, has long been a thorn in the side of the CIA. In the pages of this brief book McCoy traces the history of modern torture techniques as developed and used by the CIA. The book demonstrates that the Abu Ghraib abuses have roots far beyond the Bush years. The techniques used there are standard operating procedure.
Sensory deprivation, self-infiction of pain, and assault on the cultural mores of the victim are the hallmarks of the techniques. Read this book and then take one look at the infamous Abu Ghraib pictures and you will understand with certainty that the responsibility goes well beyond Lynndie England and the prison guard grunts. They did not come up with these techniques.
McCoy briefly relates that the US historically engaged in systematic torture in the Vietnam Phoenix program and taught Central American governments the CIA methods, to name just two examples. This history was largely ignored in discussions of Abu Ghraib as some commentators simply refused to believe that Americans would do such things.
But does torture work? And if it does, should we use it?
With respect to the efficacy of torture, McCoy quotes a 4th century C.E. Roman legal scholar Ulpian: "the strong will resist and the weak will say anything to end the pain." McCoy also destroys the silly hypotheses about the atomic bomb in Times Square used to justify torture.
McCoy has explained why we, in whose name this torture is performed, should oppose it:
"There's an absolute ban on torture for a very good reason. Torture taps into the deepest recesses, unexplored recesses of human consciousness, where creation and destruction coexist, where the infinite human capacity for kindness and infinite human capacity for cruelty coexist, and it has a powerful perverse appeal, and once it starts, both the perpetrators and the powerful who order them, let it spread, and it spreads out of control."
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 2006
An incredible book I am re-reading right now. The book is written with relative dispassion and with few superlatives relying almost entirely on official reports from independent organizations such as the International Red Cross and Amnesty international as well as declassified U.S. Government archives.
What I found most disturbing is the insight into the reality that almost anyone can be made into a torturer and perhaps even be seduced by its perverse theater of power. There is no such thing as "a little bit of torture". By its very nature torture always gets out of control. Psychological torture is almost always more cruel and more damaging than physical torture. Sen. John McCain himself made this very clear in his own testimony recalling his years in a North Vietnam POW camp stating clearly that if given the choice he would chose physical torture over psychological.
Torture does not produce reliable intelligence but it may very well induce the recipient into saying things the interrogator wants to hear.
The author is Professor of History Dr. Alfred McCoy of the University of Wisconsin at Madison also author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, Closer than Brothers: Manhood at the Philippine Military Academy and A History of the Philippines
Listen/watch interview with Professor McCoy regarding the subject of torture and U.S. foreign policy on Democracy Now - copy and paste web address:
44 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 2006
Alfred McCoy's A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror, is a timely and informative book. The CIA's recent and ongoing use of torture, with George W. Bush's support and encouragement, is one of the most outrageous aspects of the so-called "War on Terror." I assume that much of the book's history of CIA torture techniques and practices is accurate. But I am personally familiar with at least two strands of that "history," and McCoy's discussion of those strands is wildly inaccurate.
The strand I'm most familiar with is Stanley Milgram's famous research on obedience to authority. I was Milgram's first graduate research assistant in those experiments, and more recently I've reviewed the Milgram Archives at Yale University to remind me of the details. Milgram died in 1984, so he cannot respond to McCoy's misstatements concerning the obedience experiments, but I'll give an indication here of their general drift. McCoy asserts (p. 47) that Milgram had "close ties" to the Office of Naval Research, which in turn was involved in a "close collaboration" with the CIA and with the field of experimental psychology (p. 31). I don't know how closely the ONR worked with the CIA (McCoy's evidence on that point is vague at best). Though I think the book exaggerates the CIA's collaboration with experimental psychologists throughout Chapter 2, it is true that some such collaborations have occurred and may still be occurring. But Stanley Milgram never had "close ties" with the ONR, or any ties at all with the CIA. Early in his academic career he wrote simultaneous inquiries to the ONR, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Mental Health, briefly describing his plans for research on obedience to destructive authority and asking whether one of those federal agencies might be interested in funding the research. At that time the ONR supported a wide variety of social-scientific research programs without insisting on any practical Navy components, so young social psychologists often saw it as a potentially soft touch. But the NSF was more encouraging to Milgram, so he didn't pursue ONR or NIMH funding further. When the NSF granted him most of the money he asked for, his obedience research was off and running. McCoy attempts to keep the ONR in the picture via a very shifty sentence: "...the NSF gave Milgram a substantial $24,700 grant - an exceptional mix of caution and largesse that hints at NSF reluctance and possible ONR or CIA pressure." Sorry, but such "reluctance" and "pressure" exist only in McCoy's mind. Milgram asked for $30,348 in direct and indirect costs to cover two years of research on obedience, whereupon the NSF gave him roughly 80% of what he requested - not at all an "exceptional" reduction in a beginning researcher's proposed budget.
McCoy goes ahead to characterize Milgram's research in consistently negative terms, even wondering "why the NSF would have funded an experiment of so little scientific value" (p. 49). He suggests, on the basis of admittedly "circumstantial" evidence, that "Milgram's experiment was a by-product of the larger CIA mind-control project." Though its scientific value was so trivial, according to McCoy, it answered "the key question the agency faced as it began global dissemination of its interrogation [i.e., torture] method": Would "ordinary police officers in Asia and Latin America be willing to practice what they had been taught?" (p. 49). Here I'd like to make several quick points, for which much non-circumstantial evidence is available elsewhere: (1) Plenty of "ordinary police officers" and military personnel around the world have demonstrated over and over again their willingness to torture prisoners on command; the CIA didn't need Milgram's results to be certain of that. (2) Far from being "of so little scientific value," Milgram's research has been recognized from its initial publication as one of the most important social-psychological experiments ever done; it continues to be widely cited more than 40 years after its completion. (3) The most important conclusion to be drawn from Milgram's research is not that most police or military officers in the chain of command will torture prisoners if ordered to do so, but that many ordinary men and women without extensive training will likewise torture fellow humans, if somebody in an even vaguely authoritative position tells them to do so. Milgram did not have the CIA's needs in mind when he conceived and carried out his research. He was instead concerned with why so many ordinary Germans had become (as the title of another book put it) "Hitler's Willing Executioners," and with whether or not (in the title of still another book) "It Can't Happen Here." His grim conclusion was that it CAN happen here. When his research results became widely disseminated, in the mass media and in many psychology textbooks, large numbers of college students and other US citizens became more attentive to the message of a popular post-Milgram bumper sticker: "QUESTION AUTHORITY." Surely that message could not have been popular with the authoritarian CIA types whom McCoy fancies as having plotted to support Milgram's research and his advancement in the academic world.
I'm also very familiar with the research of social psychologist Irving L. Janis, whom McCoy sees as somehow "recommending the sort of experiment Milgram now proposed" (p. 47), and as also somehow furthering the CIA's torture program with his own research on groupthink and other psychological phenomena. I won't take up further space here to discuss McCoy's exaggerations and misinterpretations of Janis's work. Instead I recommend that you read both Milgram's book Obedience to Authority and Janis's book Victims of Groupthink, to get a clearer sense of the anti-authoritarian agenda shared by these extraordinarily creative researchers. Meanwhile I'm left wondering how much I can trust the rest of McCoy's book - the parts that I don't have enough background knowledge to assess. Does anyone care to comment?
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2006
I finished reading A Question of Torture last week and just gave my copy to an old friend who will appreciate it. Here's my take on the book: In systematically placing the relevant facts into their historical context, reaching his conclusions with devastating logic, McCoy unfolded a moral drama worthy of Dostoevsky. If the story reaches enough people, maybe a future edition will be possible, one with a final chapter that can honestly state, as Hugo did, that torture has ceased to exist.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2006
Have you wondered why the USA kept prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo naked and forced them into stress positions for long periods in rooms that were either excessively cold or hot? As Professor Alfred McCoy demonstrates in his book A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror, these and other forms of torture are not new USA interrogation techniques. They date back to the 1950s and have been the subject of "scientific study" and refinement by the CIA and the USA military for decades.
The torture researchers found fairly early on that psychological torture was more effective at gaining reliable information than physical torture. To be more precise, they discovered that sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain produced more "actionable intelligence" than, say, beating someone. McCoy writes:
"Dr. Donald O. Hebb of McGill University [Canada], a brilliant psychologist, had a contract from the Canadian Defense Research Board, which was a partner with the CIA. In this research, he found that he could induce a state of psychosis in an individual within 48 hours. It didn't take electroshock, truth serum, beating or pain. All he did was have student volunteers sit in a cubicle with goggles, gloves and headphones, earmuffs, so that they were cut off from their senses, and within 48 hours, denied sensory stimulation, they would suffer, first hallucinations, then ultimately breakdown. . . .Now, then, the second major breakthrough that the CIA had came here in New York City at Cornell University Medical Center, where two eminent neurologists under contract from the CIA studied Soviet KGB torture techniques, and they found that the most effective KGB technique was self-inflicted pain. You simply make somebody stand for a day or two. And as they stand -- OK, you're not beating them, they have no resentment -- you tell them, "You're doing this to yourself. Cooperate with us, and you can sit down." And so, as they stand, what happens is the fluids flow down to the legs, the legs swell, lesions form, they erupt, they separate, hallucinations start, the kidneys shut down."
Reading these words I saw a black-hooded figure, standing with his arms akimbo, with electrodes dangling from his fingers and I saw orange-suited Guantanamo detainees kneeling in a yard, hunched over because of their chains, wearing "ear muffs," "goggles," and gloves. They are examples of "tried and tested" torture techniques used by the USA that are excruciatingly painful to endure both physically and psychologically and hardly the "torture-lite" depictions one reads from the apologists of the USA's treatment of its "enemy combatants."
Read McCoy's book. It is the smoking gun that demonstrates that the USA has followed a deliberate plan to torture its detainees during the current "war on terror." It's a plan that employs torture techniques that were mastered and honed decades in advance.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2006
The image that comes to mind when torture is mentioned is based (for most of us) on images from the movies. The image comes of bright lights, beatings, electric shocks, or perhaps the scenes of the medievil torture chamber in the dungeon of the castle with thumb screws, the rack and worse. Or perhaps the image of Galileo, sentenced by the Church to be 'shown the implements of torture' before he was sent to his home under house arrest for the remainder of his life.
In this scientific age, the author reports on the development of much more effective psychologically based torture that doesn't leave visible brusies, broken bones, or blood on the floor. He reports on studies funded by the Army and the CIA to develop more sophisticated techniques. These techniques best described as 'no-touch-torture,' beg a better definition between acceptable interrogation techniques and torture.The author reports on the development and then the use of this type of torture by the CIA and the American military.
One major thesis of the author is that the torture at Abu Ghraib prison was CIA directed, not the incidental actions of a few 'bad apples.' I had a discussion with a military policeman who was at Abu Ghraib at the time. He said that the CIA was in control of the prison, and the few 'bad apples' were indeed acting under orders.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2006
"A Question of Torture," by Alfred W. McCoy
I found Alfred McCoy's book about torture fascinating and disgusting, well-researched, well-written, and hard-hitting.
In his first three chapters, McCoy explains the history of U.S. experimentation and development of "effective" methods of torture, including psychological tools of disorientation.
Chapter 4 is the substantive section, titled "War on Terror." In its 42 pages the author traces the sequence of permissions and practices that have lead to extensive use of various forms of torture on prisoners held by the U.S. It is a shocking documentation of acts of our C.I.A. and military that would have been unthinkable three or four years ago.
This book illuminates the topic of torture in a similar way that McCoy's earlier work "The Politics of Heroin" provided insight on that subject.
Robert Thatch, Kansas City, MO
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2006
Alfred McCoy's A QUESTION OF TORTURE documents in chilling and sickening detail the history of CIA policy regrarding torture, from the Phoenix program in Vietnam to the War on Terror. He demonstrates that the Agency, which has long constituted a state within a state, has been extensively involved in the use of torture to undermine democratic governments and prop up totalitarian ones all over the world. To be sure, the CIA has used torture with "finesse". It has eschewed crude techniques in favor of ones which use the insights of psychology to design tortures which exploit ethnic and personal phobias to "break" subjects. Physical pain of the sort which leaves no scars but the emotional (after all, the last thing the CIA wants is to have one of its victims appear, obviously maimed, in a news bulletin) is combined with humiliation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, and manipulation of daily routines in order to cause the dissolution of personality and regression to an infantile dependency upon the torturer. As McCoy says, these techniques have "metastasized like an undetected cancer inside the U.S. intelligence community over the past century." And never more so than since 9/11. As McCoy points out, in the multiple investigations and congressional inquiries sparked by the revelations coming out of Abu Ghraib and other prisons, the CIA has always been exempted, as it is from the provisions of the McCain Anti-Torture Amendment to the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act, making that Amendment meaningless.
The edition of McCoy's book which I purchased from Amazon pre-dates the passage of the Military Commissions Act (MCA) signed into law by President Bush on October 17 of this year. Thus McCoy was unable to comment upon the most horrible development of all: AMERICAN CITIZENS CAN NOW BE DETAINED, CLASSIFIED AS UNLAWFUL ENEMY COMBATANTS AT THE WHIM OF THE ADMINISTRATION, AND TORTURED WITHOUT ANY RECOURSE TO THE COURTS, WHETHER TO OBTAIN A WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS OR REDRESS FOR THEIR TREATMENT. This is nothing less than the emergence of the totalitarian state within a state which has been growing in this country since World War II. The enactment of the MCA only serves to underline the relevance of McCoy's revelations, as the democracy that is being undermined is now our own, and the totalitarian state that is emerging will affect every American in catastrophic ways.
There is only one problem with McCoy's analysis. Toward the end of it, he conducts a detailed inquiry in order to answer the question: is torture effective in obtaining information? Reaching the conclusion that it is not, he asks, why then do our leaders choose to use it? His answer is that it "salves their fears with the psychic balm of empowerment." (p. 207). This is naive. The American government does not need any psychic balm, as it is the most powerful government ever to exist on this earth. And there is no need to ask if torture is effective in obtaining information, for our government has no need of information, since it is itself "running the show". In fact, torture is very effective in obtaining the thing that it really wants: CONFESSIONS, which will convince the American public that there is an enemy out there so dangerous that the struggle against him justifies the surrender of their most fundamental liberties. It was just such a confession which got us into Iraq, when Shiekh Mohammed Ibn Al-Libi "admitted" under torture that Iraq was supplying terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, an "admission" which later turned out to be false.
When one considers the fact that, according to the best informed sources, some 90% of the people detained in the War on Terror are absolutely innocent, torture becomes not only effective but necessary, for how else can one build a picture of looming threat from a bunch of poor souls picked up by mistake or handed over to the U.S. for bounties? The ultimate message is that the worst terrorists in the world operate out of Washington, D.C., and that we have far more to fear from them than from small-time operators and novices like Al Quaeda.