The Long Shadow of CIA Torture Research


The photos from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison are snapshots, not of simple brutality or a breakdown in discipline, but of CIA torture techniques that have metastasized, over the past 50 years, like an undetected cancer inside the US intelligence community.

From 1950 to 1962, the CIA led massive, secret research into coercion and consciousness that reached a billion dollars at peak. After experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, electric shocks, and sensory deprivation, this CIA research produced a new method of torture that was psychological, not physical–best described as “no touch torture.”

The CIA’s discovery of psychological torture was a counter-intuitive break-through–indeed, the first real revolution in this cruel science since the 17th century. In its modern application, the physical approach required interrogators to inflict pain, usually by crude beatings that often produced heightened resistance or unreliable information. Under the CIA’s new psychological paradigm, however, interrogators used two essential methods, disorientation and self-inflicted pain, to make victims feel responsible for their own suffering.

In the CIA’s first stage, interrogators employ simple, non-violent techniques to disorient the subject. To induce temporal confusion, interrogators use hooding or sleep deprivation. To intensify disorientation, interrogators often escalate to attacks on personal identity by sexual humiliation.

Once the subject is disoriented, interrogators move on to a second stage with simple, self-inflicted discomfort such as standing for hours with arms extended. In this phase, the idea is to make victims feel responsible for their own pain and thus induce them to alleviate it by capitulating to the interrogator’s power.

In his statement on reforms at Abu Ghraib last week, General Geoffrey Miller, former chief of the Guantanamo detention center and now prison commander in Iraq, 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.”

Although seemingly less brutal, “no touch” torture leaves deep psychological scars on both victims and interrogators. The victims often need long treatment to recover from trauma far more crippling than physical pain. The perpetrators can suffer a dangerous expansion of ego, leading to escalating cruelty and lasting emotional problems.

After codification in the CIA’s “Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation” manual in 1963, the new method was disseminated globally to police in Asia and Latin America through USAID’s Office of Public Safety (OPS). Following allegations of torture by USAID’s police trainees in Brazil, the US Senate closed down OPS in 1975.

After OPS was abolished, the Agency continued to disseminate its torture methods through the US Army’s Mobile Training Teams, which were active in Central America during the 1980s. In 1997, the Baltimore Sun published chilling extracts of the “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual” that these Army teams had distributed to allied militaries for 20 years.

In the ten years between the last known use of these manuals in the early 1990s and arrest of Al Queda suspects since September 2001, torture continued as a US intelligence practice by delivering suspects to allied agencies, including Philippine National Police who broke the trans-Pacific bomb plot in 1995.

Once the War on Terror started, however, the US use of “no touch” torture resumed, first surfacing at Bagram Air Base near Kabul in early 2002 where Pentagon investigators found two Afghans had died during interrogation. In reports from Iraq, the methods are strikingly similar to those detailed over 40 years ago in the CIA’s Kubark manual and later used by US-trained security forces worldwide.

Following the CIA’s two-part technique, last September General Miller instructed US military police at Abu Ghraib to soften up high-priority detainees in the initial disorientation phase for later “successful interrogation and exploitation” by CIA and Military Intelligence. As often happens in “no touch” torture sessions, this process soon moved beyond sleep and sensory deprivation to sexual humiliation. In the second, still unexamined phase, US Army intelligence and CIA operatives probably administered the prescribed mix of interrogation and self-inflicted pain–outside the frame of these photographs.

If a fuller inquiry does establish that this is was what happened at Abu Ghraib, then these seven MPs are neither “creeps” nor weaklings who succumbed to the prison pressure-cooker. They are ordinary American soldiers following orders within a standard interrogation procedure. Whatever their guilt, the court martial of these soldiers should be just a first step up the chain of command and beyond to far-reaching reforms.

At home and abroad, the United States has been, for over 50 years a strong voice in the fight against torture. Simultaneously, however, the CIA’s method has become so widely accepted that US interrogators seem unaware that they are, in fact, engaged in systematic torture. From 1970 to 1988, Congress held hearings four times to expose the CIA’s use of torture. But each time, the public did not demand reform and the practice persisted.

But now, through these photographs from Abu Ghraib, we can see the reality of these interrogation techniques. We have a chance to join fully with the international community in repudiating a practice that, more than any other, represents a denial of democracy.

ALFRED W. McCOY is professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is the author of Closer Than Brothers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), a study of the impact of torture upon the Philippine armed forces, and The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, which made the list as one of CounterPunch’s Top 100 books of the last century.

This column originally appeared in the Boston Globe.

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