17 March 2006

By The Book

Salon released more photos this week of the prisoner
abuses at Abu Ghraib. While the Bush Administration
maintains its “few bad apples” defense, historian
Alfred W. McCoy provides some essential context in
his latest book, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation,
from the Cold War to the War on Terror.

From Scott McLemee’s book review in Newsday:

The photos from Abu Ghraib are not, McCoy
argues, signs of a local lapse in military order
- or even the excesses fostered by recent
policy. "Rather," he writes, "they show CIA
torture methods that have metastasized like
an undetected cancer inside the U.S.
intelligence community over the past half

The specificity of these methods is that they
target the mind, not just the body. The
unreliability of physical pain as a means to
extract information have been recognized for
a long time. McCoy cites the Roman legal
writer Ulpian, who spelled the problem out
clearly in the third century A.D. "For many
persons have such strength of body and soul
that they heed pain very little ... while others
are so susceptible to pain that they will tell
any lie rather than suffer it."

The inspiration to find a different way of
breaking through resistances dawned on the
American intelligence community from
studying the Communist show-trials from the
1930s through the early '50s. The glassy-
eyed, robotic performance of defendants in
the dock - confessing, with monotonous
unanimity of tone, to the most improbable
acts of espionage and subversion - suggested
that perhaps the Soviets had reached some
breakthrough in psychological warfare

There followed a secret crash program in
efforts to duplicate those imagined
techniques. (I say "imagined" because most
accounts of Stalin-era interrogation suggest
an overwhelmingly low- tech reliance on
good old-fashioned beating, hunger and

Discreetly pumping large quantities of money
into the academic discipline of psychology,
the CIA helped foster work on, as one
researcher put it, the "effects of radical
isolation upon intellectual function." With a
handful of tools such as goggles, gloves and a
foam pillow, a subject could be reduced to "a
state akin to acute psychosis within just 48
hours." Psychologists also found that self-
inflicted pain - caused by, say, standing in an
uncomfortable position for a long period -
created great mental stress while leaving
minimal physical damage.

By 1963, the results of all this sordid
laboratory work were synthesized in the
CIA's manual titled "Kubark
Counterintelligence Interrogation."
presented "a revolutionary two-phase form of
torture that relied on sensory deprivation and
self-inflicted pain for an effect that, for the
first time in the two millennia of this cruel
science, was more psychological than
physical." It aimed at destroying the detained
person's sense of identity by (in the manual's
own words) "inducing the regression of the
personality to whatever earlier and weaker
level is required for the dissolution of
resistance and the inculcation of

The Kubark manual was not just a moment of
Cold War excess. Some of the more
deranged-seeming CIA-sponsored research
projects were exposed to public scrutiny
during Congressional hearings during the
1970s. But the psychological techniques
themselves continued to be codified in
handbooks on interrogation used by military
and intelligence personnel in training their
counterparts in Asia and Latin America in the
arts of "human resources exploitation."

The same principles (isolation, disorientation,
efforts to destroy the sense of inner identity)
can be read in recent accounts of
interrogations conducted during the war on
terror. McCoy notes the similarity between
the earlier CIA manual and the "72-point
matrix for stress and duress" adopted at
Guantanamo Bay. The arsenal of tools has
been expanded, thanks to techniques
intended for precise kinds of psychosexual

Some of this, of course, is as familiar as
certain hideous digital-camera images burned
into the world's memory. But the value of
McCoy's retelling of it comes from the
enlarged historical context, and from his
willingness to do a bold thing - namely, to
state the obvious, that these techniques are in
no meaningful sense less inhumane than
anything practiced in a medieval dungeon.

Nor is there any particular reason to think
they are more effective than the methods that
Ulpian considered so unreliable almost two
millennia ago. Reducing detained subjects to
a quasi-psychotic state is doubtless a lot of
fun for some people. (McCoy notes that the
practitioners of these techniques can undergo
"a dangerous expansion of ego, leading to
escalating cruelty and lasting emotional
disorders.") But the smirking assurances of
Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales to the
contrary notwithstanding, do we have any
reason to think it has had any tangible

We hear repeatedly from the administration
that, in short, no, the United States does not
torture - but yes, we are going to do
whatever it takes to preserve us from the
barbarians. Perhaps it is an appropriate
moment to recall a good summary account of
how an unstable regime creates the
conditions in which dehumanization

"When feelings of insecurity develop within
those holding power," it reads, "they become
increasingly suspicious and put great
pressures upon the secret police to obtain
arrests and confessions. At times police
officials are inclined to condone anything
which produces a speedy 'confession,' and
brutality may become widespread." That was
an analysis produced by the CIA, 50 years
ago, describing the Soviet system. But at
least they were secure.