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A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror [Hardcover]

by Alfred McCoy
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 10, 2006 0805080414 978-0805080414 First Edition
A startling exposé of the CIA's development and spread of psychological torture, from the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and beyond
In this revelatory account of the CIA's secret, fifty-year effort to develop new forms of torture, historian Alfred W. McCoy uncovers the deep, disturbing roots of recent scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Far from aberrations, as the White House has claimed, A Question of Torture shows that these abuses are the product of a long-standing covert program of interrogation.
Developed at the cost of billions of dollars, the CIA's method combined "sensory deprivation" and "self-inflicted pain" to create a revolutionary psychological approach--the first innovation in torture in centuries. The simple techniques--involving isolation, hooding, hours of standing, extremes of hot and cold, and manipulation of time--constitute an all-out assault on the victim's senses, destroying the basis of personal identity. McCoy follows the years of research--which, he reveals, compromised universities and the U.S. Army--and the method's dissemination, from Vietnam through Iran to Central America. He traces how after 9/11 torture became Washington's weapon of choice in both the CIA's global prisons and in "torture-friendly" countries to which detainees are dispatched. Finally McCoy argues that information extracted by coercion is worthless, making a case for the legal approach favored by the FBI.
Scrupulously documented and grippingly told, A Question of Torture is a devastating indictment of inhumane practices that have spread throughout the intelligence system, damaging American's laws, military, and international standing.

Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

From the start of the Cold War to the early nineteen-sixties, the C.I.A. spent billions of dollars developing psychological tools for interrogation. The agency cast a wide net, funding a Canadian study that involved administering electric shocks to subjects in drug-induced comas, and recruiting people like Kurt Plotner, a Nazi scientist who, in his search for a truth serum, had tested mescaline on Jewish prisoners at Dachau. The eventual conclusion was that cheap, simple methods (for example, enforced standing) worked best, and were also more acceptable to the public than outright physical violence. McCoy skillfully traces the use of these methods from the Phoenix program in Vietnam—which was designed to ferret out high-level Vietcong, although of the more than twenty thousand people it killed most were civilians—to the actions of agency-trained secret police in Honduras in the nineteen-eighties, and the treatment of hooded detainees at Abu Ghraib.
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker

From Booklist

Current events have precipitated a number of recent books connecting executive-branch policy makers with Abu Ghraib and other torture scandals, and McCoy is not the first author to argue that American use of torture in intelligence gathering has been deliberate and systematic rather than accidental. This book is unique, however, in connecting the dots all the way back to early cold war mind-control research, reminding readers that the CIA has been an innovator in modern torture methods. Incorporating simple yet brutally effective techniques of psychological manipulation involving isolation, disorientation, and destruction of personal identity, McCoy argues, the modern CIA interrogation manual is premised on university and army research into the psychology of coercion. As in his earlier work on CIA complicity in the global heroin trade, McCoy is adept at tracing the inertia of government practice; his research on the effect of torture on the Philippine armed forces likewise shows policy in practice and demonstrates that psychological torture is at least as scarring as thumbscrews. Timely and compelling. Brendan Driscoll
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; First Edition edition (January 10, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805080414
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805080414
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #974,767 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
70 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An invaluable book 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.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Call For Soul Searching March 2, 2006
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is Our Government 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.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you only read one book this year 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:

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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A State of Depravity
Alfred McCoy wrote this short history of the use of torture by the United States in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal that erupted in 2004, which along with various other... Read more
Published 7 days ago by S Wood
3.0 out of 5 stars Good description of torture
Good description of toruture and how events took place and why. I think it should be a necessary reading material for all members in the intelligence gathering and military field.
Published 16 months ago by Jerry Antonatos
3.0 out of 5 stars CULT OF TORTURE?
I read this book about eighteen months ago and found the book a mixture of inspired writing and not so inspired writing. Read more
Published on January 17, 2011 by F. Raffaele
5.0 out of 5 stars To this I cannot pledge allegiance
Investigative reporter and Professor Alfred McCoy has illuminated many dark corners of government policy during his career, and this exposition of American culpability in torture... Read more
Published on December 6, 2010 by Cecil Bothwell
3.0 out of 5 stars too optimistic?
Early on, McCoy states that this is not a work of moral outrage, that he simply seeks to determine whether it makes sense to pursue torture as a policy. Read more
Published on August 1, 2010 by S. Sherman
5.0 out of 5 stars Makes me feel ill
I could only read this book a few pages at a time, it brought bile to my mouth. To be presented with data detailing how my country tortures people made me renew my membership to... Read more
Published on January 23, 2010 by mossy cat
4.0 out of 5 stars Redefining Torture
A Question of Torture asks hard questions about the use of torture as a tool or method of gathering intelligence. Read more
Published on January 6, 2009 by B. Evans
4.0 out of 5 stars Decent Book With Surprises
This is the second book I have read by Alfred McCoy- the first being The Politics of Heroin. I think it was a decent read. Read more
Published on May 20, 2008 by K. S. Lutz
5.0 out of 5 stars Why do we torture?
Professor McCoy has done research all over the world, and is the definitive voice on this subject. This book is shocking and disturbing and absolutely essential to an understanding... Read more
Published on March 28, 2008 by John Smart
2.0 out of 5 stars Principled but profoundly naive
I read this book on the recommendation of a liberal friend whose views I respect, and with whom I've had many civil arguments about the subject of interrogation of known terrorists... Read more
Published on August 9, 2007 by William J. Dyer
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