- Series: American Empire Project
- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; Reprint edition (December 26, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0805082484
- ISBN-13: 978-0805082487
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 13.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 36 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #283,541 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (American Empire Project) Reprint Edition
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About the Author
Alfred W. McCoy is a professor of history at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia and Closer Than Brothers.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Chapter OneTwo Thousand Years of Torture
In April 2004, the American public was stunned when CBS Television broadcast photographs from Abu Ghraib prison, showing Iraqis naked, hooded, and contorted in humiliating positions while U.S. soldiers stood over them, smiling.1 As the scandal grabbed headlines around the globe, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld assured Congress that the abuse was "perpetrated by a small number of U.S. military," whom columnist William Safire branded as "creeps."2 Other commentators—citing the famous Stanford prison experiment in which ordinary students role-playing the "guards" soon became brutal—attributed the abuse to a collapse of discipline by overstretched American soldiers in overcrowded prisons.3
But these photos are not, in fact, snapshots of simple sadism or a breakdown in military discipline. Rather, they show CIA torture methods that have metastasized like an undetected cancer inside the U.S. intelligence community over the past half century. If we look closely at these grainy images, we can see the genealogy of CIA torture techniques, from their origins in 1950 to their present-day perfection. Indeed, the photographs from Iraq illustrate standard interrogation practice inside the global gulag of secret CIA prisons that have operated, on executive authority, since the start of the war on terror. These photos, and the later investigations they prompted, offer telltale signs that the CIA was both the lead agency at Abu Ghraib and the source of systematic tortures practiced in Guantánamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In this light, the nine soldiers court-martialed for the abuse at Abu Ghraib were simply following orders. Responsibility for their actions lies higher, much higher, up the chain of command.
In this heated controversy, all of us, proponents and opponents of torture alike, have been acting out a script written over fifty years ago during the depths of the Cold War. Indeed, a search for the roots of Abu Ghraib in the development and propagation of a distinctive American form of torture will, in some way, implicate almost all of our society—the brilliant scholars who did the psychological research, the distinguished professors who advocated its use, the great universities that hosted them, the august legislators who voted funds, and the good Americans who acquiesced, by their silence, whenever media or congressional critics risked their careers for exposés that found little citizen support, allowing the process to continue.
What began as an isolated incident of abuse by a few "bad apples," "sadistic" soldiers on the "night shift," or some "recycled hillbillies from Cumberland, Maryland" would grow, in just six months, into a great political scandal that diminished the majesty of the American state, the world’s preeminent power. As the U.S. press probed and Washington’s bureaucracy hemorrhaged documents, revelations of abuse spread from Abu Ghraib to American military prisons worldwide. Despite eleven military investigations, twelve congressional hearings, and forty White House briefings all designed to bury the scandal, responsibility climbed, by degrees, from the handful of prison guards to the Pentagon and, ultimately, the president.4 What started as an examination of the night shift in one cell block ramified into an inquiry, first into the Bush administration’s interrogation policy, and then into the inner workings of the national-security state, the constitutional restraints on executive powers, and the limits of civil liberties—making other recent American political scandals appear, if not petty or parochial, at least somewhat more limited in their implications. Compared to weighty matters of state raised by Abu Ghraib, Watergate, narrowly construed, seems little more than the failure of one man’s character; Iran-Contra an isolated albeit intriguing incident at the sunset of the Cold War; and, above all, l’affaire Monica Lewinsky sad, sordid, and forgettably partisan. At last, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, America’s century, the United States had a crisis worthy of its grandeur as a global power, one revealing of the most profound ambiguities of our age—the tensions between security and freedom, morality and expediency, sovereignty and internationalism, the rule of law and the imperatives of covert operations, democracy at home and dominion abroad. Yet, ironically, the gravity of the scandal has discouraged television coverage, defied close analysis, and may ultimately drive Abu Ghraib from America’s collective memory.
More deeply, this controversy is the product of a contradictory U.S. policy toward torture evident since the start of the Cold War. At the UN and other international forums, Washington opposed torture and advocated a universal standard for human rights. But, in contravention of these diplomatic conventions, the CIA propagated torture during those same decades. Several scholarly essays have noted this conflict in U.S. human rights policy without understanding the reason: notably, the persistence of torture techniques and the prerogative of their use within the intelligence community.5
At the deepest level, the abuse at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and Kabul are manifestations of a long history of a distinctive U.S. covert-warfare doctrine developed since World War II, in which psychological torture has emerged as a central if clandestine facet of American foreign policy. Thus, this book does not focus primarily on particular incidents, even important ones such as the events at Abu Ghraib, but instead examines these events as expressions of how American power has been brought to bear upon the world—so strong, so forceful, and so misapplied.
From 1950 to 1962, the CIA became involved in torture through a massive mind-control effort, with psychological warfare and secret research into human consciousness that reached a cost of a billion dollars annually—a veritable Manhattan Project of the mind.6 After experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, electric shock, and sensory deprivation, this work then produced a new approach to torture that was psychological, not physical, perhaps best described as "no-touch torture." The agency’s discovery was a counterintuitive breakthrough— indeed, the first real revolution in the cruel science of pain in more than three centuries. To test and then propagate its distinctive form of torture, the CIA operated covertly within its own society, penetrating and compromising key American institutions—universities, hospitals, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the armed forces. As the lead agency within the larger intelligence community, the CIA has long been able to draw upon both military and civil resources to amplify its reach and reduce its responsibility. Moreover, the agency’s attempts to conceal these programs from executive and legislative review have required manipulation of its own government through clandestine techniques, notably disinformation and destruction of incriminating documents.
Still, if genius is the discovery of the obvious, then the CIA’s perfection of psychological torture was a major scientific turning point, albeit unnoticed and unheralded in the world beyond its secret safe houses. For more than two thousand years, interrogators had found that mere physical pain, no matter how extreme, often produced heightened resistance. By contrast, the CIA’s psychological paradigm fused two new methods, "sensory disorientation" and "self-inflicted pain," whose combination causes victims to feel responsible for their suffe
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The book is very useful in the US context for tracing a longer lineage to torture than is usually stated by liberals outraged by the Bush administration. McCoy goes back to the CIA thought control research of the late fifties and early sixties. What they eventually found was that psychological torture and self-inflicted pain were among the most effective interrogation techniques. Threatening someone with harm is more effective than actually inflicting it (although McCoy emphasizes at a number of points that in practice these two techniques are blurred). These findings were propagated around the world by various security forces training programs issuing from the US. They seem to have shaped the actions of the Reagan and Clinton adminstrations, which produced a US commitment to oppose torture that excluded the psychological forms. Various revised interrogation manuals always seem to return to these techniques. This set the stage for the unabashed usage of torture by the Bush administration, which, as it came under attack, began to play these same semantic games--that torture which does not do lasting harm or nearly induce death isn't really torture, that self-inflicted pain is not really torture, etc. McCoy also makes a strong argument that the Abu Graib scandal, rather than being the product of a few misguided individuals, came out of the attitude adopted by those at the pinnacle of the chain of command.
The last couple of chapters of the book deal with the backlash against torture, and it is here where I think McCoy goes a little askew. He sounds optimistic about the prospects of reform in the US, although he does hedge this view. He mentions a coalition of media, human rights groups, and liberal politicians challenging the Bush administration. But the role of the media was much more ambivalent. A recent study has shown that among the leading news agencies (often referred to as the 'liberal' media) in the US--NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post--the word torture more or less disappeared from news accounts of the US once the Bush administration began insisting that they were instead using 'harsh interrogation techniques.' As for liberals within the political establishment, we have seen a precipitious decrease in interest in this issue once Obama was sworn in (two years after the publication of this book), even though he has not fundamentally shifted policies. The question of torture remains quite wide open in the US (additionally, McCoy doesn't deal with the torture which is more widespread than most Americans would like to admit within the domestic policing and imprisonment complexes). Two years into the Obama administration, the prospect that impunity for high level American officials will give way to holding them responsible for their actions appears dim, at least within the US.
Overall, however, this is a very useful read that gives the reader a sense of the long term genesis of torture among US intelligence agencies. One striking absence--McCoy mentions NYPD Blue as a show that legitimates the use of 'bending the rules' i.e. torturing to get suspects to confess, and how this helps create a climate that legitimates the Bush administration mentality (he also mentions Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which dwelled on torture scenes). Apart from the fact that this show's heyday was in the 1990s, and it deals with a municipal police force, it is striking that McCoy failed to note the broadcasting of 24, which is far more explicit in its embrace of torture, both linking it very directly to the fight against terrorism and celebrating brutal acts much more explicitly than NYPD Blue (although Jack Bauer is much more obsessed with inflicting and prolonging pain than the sort of psychological techniques recommended by the CIA). Indeed, the US military, much more skeptical of torture than the CIA, actually pleaded with the producers to rane in this mentality. Meanwhile some have claimed the Bush administration adored the show.
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.
This book is an excellent introduction to how torture has become increasingly accepted as a normal feature of government policy (in the U.S. and elsewhere)over the past half-century. McCoy's writing is clear and well-sourced: every chapter is footnoted abundantly, and there is an extensive bibliography of books, articles, interviews, and government documents to guide anyone who desires to pursue this subject further.
One note to the Alan Dershowitz "Get Me A Torture Warrant" crowd: McCoy is highly skeptical not only of the morality of torture, but also its efficacy (both in terms of the value of the information obtained, and the long-term political fallout to nations that practice torture).