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The Wide World of Torture

by Alexander Cockburn

Open the November 5 edition of Newsweek and here’s Jonathan Alter, munching coyly on the week’s hot topic, namely the propriety of the FBI torturing obdurate September 11 suspects in the Bureau’s custody here in the United States. Alter says no to cattleprods, but continues the sentence with the observation that something is needed to “jump start” the stalled investigation”. The tone is lightly facetious, as in “Couldn’t we at least subject them to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap?” There are respectful references to Alan Dershowitz (who is running around the country promoting the idea of “torture warrants” issued by judges) and to Israel, where, “until 1999 an interrogation technique called ‘shaking’ was legal. It entailed holding a smelly bag over a suspect’s head in a dark room, then applying scary psychological torment… Even now, Israeli law leaves a little room for ‘moderate physical pressure’ in what are called ‘ticking time bomb’ cases.”

As so often with unappealing labor, Alter arrives at the usual American solution: outsource the job: “we’ll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that’s hypocritical.”

What’s striking about Alter’s commentary and others in the same idiom is the abstraction from reality, as if torture is so indisputably a dirty business that all painful data had best be avoided. One would have thought it hard to be frivolous about the subject of torture, but Alter managed it.

Would one know from his commentary that under international covenants that torture is illegal? One would not, and one assumes that as with the war against the Taliban’s Afghanistan Alter regards the issue of legality as entirely immaterial. Would one know that in recent years the United States has been charged by the UN and also by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch as tolerating torture in prisons in many states, by methods ranging from solitary, 23-hour a day confinement in concrete boxes for years on end, to activating 50,000-volt shocks through a mandatory belt worn by a prisoner?

Would one know that since the Second World War many nations –France during the Algerian uprising, Britain in the war in Northern Ireland–have been convulsed by furious debates about the issue of torture; or that one of the darkest threads in postwar US imperial history has been the CIA’s involvement with torture, as instructor, practitioner or contractor?

Remember Dan Mitrione, ultimately kidnapped and killed by the Tupamaros, as portrayed by Yves Montand in Costa Gravas’s State of Siege? In the late 1960s Mitrione worked for the US Office of Public Safety, part of the Agency for International Development. In Brazil, so A.J. Langguth (a former New York Times bureau chief in Saigon) related in his book Hidden Terrors, Mitrione was among US advisors teaching Brazilian police how much electric shock to apply to a prisoner without killing them. In Uruguay, according to the former chief of police intelligence, Mitrione helped “professionalize” torture as a routine measure and advised on psychological techniques, such as playing tapes of women and children screaming giving the impression that the prisoner’s family was being tortured.

If he bothered to study up on the history, maybe Alter would savor Mitrione’s technical professionalism, as displayed in the mantra cited by a Cuban double agent who worked with him in Montevideo and claims to have seen him torture to death four vagrants in the soundproofed cellar of his house in Montevideo, for the benefit of Uruguayan police officers: “the precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect.”

Alter expresses a partiality for “truth drugs”, an enthusiasm shared by the US Navy after the war against Hitler, when its intelligence officers got on the trail of Dr Kurt Plotner’s research into “truth serums” at Dachau. Plotner gave Jewish and Russian prisoners high doses of mescaline and then observed their behaviour in which they expressed hatred for their guards and made confessional statements about their own psychological makeup. The Navy’s interest was anticipated by the OSS, which developed a THC-based truth serum of its own in its labs in St Elizabeth’s Hospital. The serum was tried without any success on scientists working on the Manhattan Project.

Eventually through Project Bluebird, excavation of Nazi research and development of promising avenues in methods of extracting information was run under the aegis of Boris Pash who ran of the CIA’s Program Branch/7 which, as disclosed in the Church hearings of 1976, had responsibility for CIA kidnappings and interrogations. Bluebird’s head in the 1950s was Morse Allen, veteran of Navy Intelligence and a specialist in interrogation techniques, including the polygraph. He passed from an interest in hypnosis to deeper enthusiasm for electro-shock “therapy” and psycho-surgery.

LSD and kindred hallucinogens, were also administered to unwitting US soldiers, over a thousand of whom emerged with serious psychological afflictions. As part of its larger MK-ULTRA project the CIA gave money to Dr Ewen Cameron, at McGill University. Cameron was a pioneer in the sensory deprivation techniques for which Jonathan Alter has issued his approval to be used by the FBI. Cameron once locked up a woman in a small white box for 35 days, deprived of light, smell or sound. The CIA doctors were amazed at this routine, knowing that their own experiments with a sensory deprivation tank in 1955 had induced severe psychological reactions in less than 40 hours. Cameron’s favored brew for mind control was daily doses of Thorazine, Nembutal and Seconal, followed by severe electro-shock, followed by assault with messages on a loop-feed tape player 16 hours a day. This monster died with his boots on, mountain climbing, but some of his victims got $750,000 out of the CIA.

Start torturing, and it’s easy to get carried away. Torture destroys the tortured and corrupts the society that sanctions it. Just like the FBI today, the CIA in 1968 got frustrated by its inability to break suspected leaders of the Vietnamese Liberation Front by their habitual methods of interrogation and torture. So they began more advanced experiments, in one of which they anaesthetized three prisoners, opened their skulls, planted electrodes in their brains. The prisoners were then revived, put in a room and given knives. The CIA psychologists then activated the electrodes, hoping they would then attack each other. They didn’t. The electrodes were removed, the prisoners shot and their bodies burned. Alter can read about it in Gordon Thomas’s book, Journey into Madness. (The overall history narrated above can be found in St Clair and Cockburn’s Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press, advertised on this site.)

The Israelis? They’re still torturing. In July AP and the Baltimore Sun relayed charges from Beth T’selem of “severe torture” by police about Palestinian youths as young as fourteen being badly beaten, their heads shoved into toilet bowls and so forth. But they contracted out some of the rough stuff too. When Israel finally retreated from its “security strip” in southern Lebanon run but its puppet South Lebanese Army, the journalist Robert Fisk visited Khiam prison, about whose horrible tortures he had persistently reported for many years. His report for The Independent, May 25, 2000, began thus: ” The torturers had just left but the horror remained. There was the whipping pole and the window grilles where prisoners were tied naked for days, freezing water thrown over them at night. Then there were the electric leads for the little dynamo–the machine mercifully taken off to Israel by the interrogators–which had the inmates shrieking with pain when the electrodes touched their fingers or penises. And there were the handcuffs which an ex-prisoner handed to me yesterday afternoon. Engraved into the steel were the words: ‘The Peerless Handcuff Co. Springfield, Mass. Made in USA.’ And I wondered, in Israel’s most shameful prison, if the executives over in Springfield knew what they were doing when they sold these manacles.” If those handcuffs are sold these days to the FBI’s subcontractor of choice, at least the executives will know they have Jonathan Alter to explain the patriotic morality of their bottom line. CP

Related Stories:

Karen Snell, Torture By Proxy

Alexander Cockburn, FBI Eyes Torture

Douglas Valentine, Homeland Insecurity

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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