The Hidden History of CIA Torture: America’s Road to Abu Ghraib
by Alfred W. McCoy
Despite torture’s appeal as a “lesser evil,” a necessary expedient in dangerous times, those who favor it ignore its recent, problematic history in America. They also seem ignorant of a perverse pathology that allows the practice of torture, once begun, to spread uncontrollably in crisis situations, destroying the legitimacy of the perpetrator nation. As past perpetrators could have told today’s pundits, torture plumbs the recesses of human consciousness, unleashing an unfathomable capacity for cruelty as well as seductive illusions of potency. Even as pundits and professors fantasized about “limited, surgical torture,” the Bush administration, following the President’s orders to “kick some ass,” was testing and disproving their theories by secretly sanctioning brutal interrogation that spread quickly from use against a few “high target value” Al Qaeda suspects to scores of ordinary Afghans and then hundreds of innocent Iraqis.
As we learned from France’s battle for Algiers in the 1950s, Argentina’s dirty war in the 1970s, and Britain’s Northern Ireland conflict in the 1970s, a nation that harbors torture in defiance of its democratic principles pays a terrible price. Its officials must spin an ever more complex web of lies that, in the end, weakens the bonds of trust that are the sine qua non of any modern society. Most surprisingly, our own pro-pain pundits seemed, in those heady early days of the war on terror, unaware of a fifty-year history of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), nor were they aware that their enthusiastic proposals gave cover to those in the Bush Administration intent on reactivating a ruthless apparatus.
For over 2,000 years, from ancient Athens through the Inquisition, interrogators found that the infliction of physical pain often produced heightened resistance or unreliable information – the strong defied pain while the weak blurted out whatever was necessary to stop it. By contrast, the CIA’s psychological torture paradigm used two new methods, sensory disorientation and “self-inflicted pain,” both of which were aimed at causing victims to feel responsible for their own suffering and so to capitulate more readily to their torturers. A week after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, General Geoffrey Miller, U.S. prison commander in Iraq (and formerly in Guantanamo), offered an unwitting summary of this two-phase torture. “We will no longer, in any circumstances, hood any of the detainees,” the general said. “We will no longer use stress positions in any of our interrogations. And we will no longer use sleep deprivation in any of our interrogations.”
Under field conditions since the start of the Afghan War, Agency and allied interrogators have often added to their no-touch repertoire physical methods reminiscent of the Inquisition’s trademark tortures – strappado, question de l’eau, “crippling stork,” and “masks of mockery.” At the CIA’s center near Kabul in 2002, for instance, American interrogators forced prisoners “to stand with their hands chained to the ceiling and their feet shackled,” an effect similar to the strappado. Instead of the Inquisition’s iron-framed “crippling stork” to contort the victim’s body, CIA interrogators made their victims assume similar “stress positions” without any external mechanism, aiming again for the psychological effect of self-induced pain
Although seemingly less brutal than physical methods, the CIA’s “no touch” torture actually leaves deep, searing psychological scars on both victims and – something seldom noted – their interrogators. Victims often need long treatment to recover from a trauma many experts consider more crippling than physical pain. Perpetrators can suffer a dangerous expansion of ego, leading to escalating acts of cruelty and lasting emotional disorders. When applied in actual operations, the CIA’s psychological procedures have frequently led to unimaginable cruelties, physical and sexual, by individual perpetrators whose improvisations are often horrific and only occasionally effective.
Enraptured by this illusory power, modern states that sanction torture usually allow it to spread uncontrollably. By 1967, just four years after compiling a torture manual for use against a few top Soviet targets, the CIA was operating forty interrogation centers in South Vietnam as part of its Phoenix Program that killed over 20,000 Viet Cong suspects. In the centers themselves, countless thousands were tortured for information that led to these assassinations. Similarly, just a few months after CIA interrogators first tortured top Al Qaeda suspects at Kabul in 2002, its agents were involved in the brutal interrogation of hundreds of Iraqi prisoners. As its most troubling legacy, the CIA’s psychological method, with its legitimating scientific patina and its avoidance of obvious physical brutality, has provided a pretext for the preservation of torture as an acceptable practice within the U.S. intelligence community.
Once adopted, torture offers such a powerful illusion of efficient information extraction that its perpetrators, high and low, remain wedded to its use. They regularly refuse to recognize its limited utility and high political cost. At least twice during the Cold War, the CIA’s torture training contributed to the destabilization of two key American allies, Iran’s Shah and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos. Yet even after their spectacular falls, the Agency remained blind to the way its torture training was destroying the allies it was designed to defend.