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The CIA and Abu Ghraib
50 Years of Teaching and Training Torturers
by JAMES HODGE And LINDA COOPER

Last April when Americans found themselves looking at photographs of U.S. soldiers abusing naked and hooded Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison, it’s a safe bet that most didn’t realize they were looking at torture techniques refined by the Central Intelligence Agency over the last half century.

The Bush administration worked overtime to convince Americans that what they were seeing was the work of a "few bad apples," whom the president said exhibited "disgraceful conduct" that "dishonored our country and disregarded our values."

Even as late as July, the Army’s inspector general, Paul Mikolashek, claimed that "these abuses should be viewed as what they are: unauthorized actions taken by a few individuals."

A month later, after human rights groups pointed to evidence of much wider culpability, two government reports — one released by an Army panel chaired by Major Gen. George Fay, the other by a commission headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger — confirmed what many already sensed: that the abuse went far beyond the seven arrested MPs.

The 171-page Fay report cites more than two-dozen military intelligence officers, along with several military contractors. It details some 44 incidents, including the stripping, hooding and sodomizing of detainees; subjecting them to temperature extremes; leading them around naked on leashes; and attaching electrical wires to their genitals. In one case, two naked youths were terrorized by snarling, unmuzzled military dogs held by military personnel who competed to try to make the teenagers defecate.

The two reports have been presented as sweeping indictments of U.S. military leadership, but Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S. human rights group, said the reports utterly fail to assess the obvious: the role that official government policies played in bringing about the horrendous abuse.

While the Schlesinger report notes administration policies — such as the Aug. 1, 2002, Justice Department opinion that redefined torture as pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" — it fails to evaluate whether the policies played a role in contributing to the abuses.

The Schlesinger panel, whose members were handpicked by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "seems to go out of its way not to find any relationship between Rumsfeld’s approval of interrogation techniques designed to inflict pain and humiliation and the widespread mistreatment and torture of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo," said Reed Brody, special counsel with Human Rights Watch.

Not only do they leave the dots unconnected, but they fail to make critical links to the past, said Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of "Closer Than Brothers," a study of the impact of the CIA’s torture methods on the Philippine military.

In an interview with NCR and in his own writings, McCoy described the photos at Abu Ghraib as snapshots of "CIA torture techniques that have metastasized over the last 50 years like an undetected cancer inside the U.S. intelligence community."

Throughout the 1950s and early ’60s, the CIA — the lead agency doing interrogations at Abu Ghraib — financed and conducted secret research on coercion and human consciousness, McCoy said. "The scale of that research should not be minimized. By the late ’50s, it reached a billion dollars a year. The agency was providing the majority of the funding for a half-dozen leading psychology departments."

The research ranged from using electric shock, to giving LSD to unsuspecting subjects, to employing sensory deprivation. It was the latter experiments that bore fruit, he said, producing a revolutionary new psychological torture paradigm that was superior to various physical methods that had been used for 2,000 years, from ancient Rome’s hot irons to the medieval rack and wheel.

"People will say anything to stop pain," McCoy said. "The information extracted is inherently unreliable. And that’s the problem the CIA solved with these psychological methods."

The basic techniques — the use of stress positions, sensory deprivation and sexual humiliation — are aimed at making victims feel responsible for their own pain and suffering. But McCoy added that while it appears less abusive than physical torture, the psychological torture paradigm causes deep psychological damage to both victims and their interrogators, who can become capable of unspeakable physical cruelties.

The results of the CIA torture experiments were codified in 1963 in a secret manual known as "KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation." Four years later, the CIA was operating some 40 interrogation centers in Vietnam as part of its Phoenix Program, McCoy said. Eventually the CIA’s psychological methods were spread worldwide through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Public Safety program and U.S. Army Mobile Training Teams.

In 1983, the KUBARK manual provided the model for the CIA’s "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual," whose methods were used by the brutal, U.S.-trained Honduran Battalion 3-16 during the tenure of then-U.S. ambassador to Honduras John Negroponte, now ambassador to Iraq.

About the same time, the CIA compiled the "Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare" manual for the Nicaraguan contra commandos, then seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government with the aid of the Reagan administration.

That’s not all. Six manuals, also linked to a CIA program, were used at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas and distributed across Latin America by Army Mobile Training Teams in the 1980s. They advocated everything from executions of guerrillas to extortion, coercion and false imprisonment.

A 1992 Pentagon investigation, whose findings were kept a secret of state under then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, said the six manuals "evolved from lesson plans used in an intelligence course at [the School of the Americas]. They were based, in part, on old material dating back to the 1960s from the Army’s Foreign Intelligence Assistance program, titled ‘Project X.’ This material had been retained in the files of the Army intelligence school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz."

Project X documents, which have been linked to the CIA’s Phoenix Program, were destroyed in 1992 by the Defense Department, but a telling reference to Fort Huachuca is buried in the Fay report on Abu Ghraib. A five-member U.S. Army Mobile Training Team from Fort Huachuca was sent to the Iraq prison, the report says, "to conduct an overall assessment of interrogation operations, present training and provide advice and assistance."

One of the mobile team members, identified as SFC Walters, told the Fay panel that he "may have contributed to the abuse at Abu Ghraib." When questioned by a military contract employee for ideas on how to get the prisoners to talk, the report says, "Walters related several stories about the use of dogs as an inducement."

Walters also gave advice about how detainees are most susceptible during the first few hours after capture: "The prisoners are captured by soldiers, taken from their familiar surroundings, blindfolded and put into a truck and brought to this place (Abu Ghraib); and then they are pushed down a hall with guards barking orders and thrown into a cell, naked; and that not knowing what was going to happen or what the guards might do caused them extreme fear."

But the report concludes that it "is unclear and likely impossible to definitively determine" the extent to which "word of mouth" techniques were passed to the interrogators in Abu Ghraib by the Mobile Training Team from Fort Huachuca.

It also proved impossible for the Fay and Schlesinger panels to determine the extent of the CIA’s role because neither had sufficient access to the agency. Both, however, pointed fingers in its direction.

The Fay report notes that the CIA’s detention and interrogation practices "led to a loss of accountability, abuse, reduced interagency cooperation, and an unhealthy mystique that further poisoned the atmosphere at Abu Ghraib." It also states that CIA officers held "Ghost Detainees" — including an Iraqi citizen later found dead in a shower, handcuffed with a sandbag over his head, and "three Saudi national medical personnel working for the coalition in Iraq" who were held under false names. The Army allowed the CIA to imprison unidentified and unaccounted-for detainees, thereby circumventing the "reporting requirements under the Geneva Conventions."

Likewise, the Schlesinger panel found that the "CIA’s detention and interrogation practices contributed to a loss of accountability at Abu Ghraib," but it claims it did not have a mandate or "sufficient access to CIA information" to pursue the matter.

Fay concludes that techniques such as "removing clothing, isolating people for long periods of time, using stress positions, exploiting fear of dogs and implementing sleep and light deprivation" were "new ideas" that some U.S. interrogators at Abu Ghraib learned while working in Afghanistan and the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The methods, however, are anything but "new." An examination of CIA interrogation manuals shows that they date back before the Vietnam War, supporting charges by human rights advocates that Abu Ghraib is no aberration. What is new is that photographic evidence became public.

Interrogation manual

The authors of the CIA’s 1963 KUBARK interrogation manual — a guide on the art of using fear, threats and pain to cause debility or psychological regression — were fully aware of the illegality of their methods: "KUBARK’s lack of executive authority abroad and its operational need for facelessness make it particularly vulnerable to attack in the courts or the press."

The Fay report noted that the death of the Iraqi found in the shower remained unsolved due partly to the fact that "CIA officers operating at Abu Ghraib used alias’ [sic] and never revealed their true names."

The KUBARK manual notes that prior approval "must be obtained for the interrogation of any source against his will and under any of the following circumstances: If bodily harm is to be inflicted" or "if medical, chemical or electrical methods or materials are to be used."

Before using an interrogation site, "it should be studied carefully. … The electric current should be known in advance, so that transformers and other modifying devices will be on hand if needed."

It notes that psychological rather than physical debility will break a suspect sooner: "The threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself. The threat to inflict pain can trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain." Elsewhere, it notes, "Intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, concocted as a means of escaping from distress."

The manual, which cites numerous psychological studies and says all detainees should be given a psychological assessment, contains descriptions of different personality types and which techniques to use to interrogate them.

"If a coercive technique is to be used, or if two or more are to be employed jointly, they should be … carefully selected to match his personality."

"Persons with intense guilt feelings," it advises, "may cease resistance and cooperate if punished in some way because of the gratification induced by punishment."

All of the basic techniques used in Iraq are found in the manual’s pages: sexual humiliation, the use of stress positions and sensory deprivation.

The manual first advises that a suspect’s clothes should be taken. It later notes, "In the simple torture situation the contest is one between the individual and his tormenter. When the individual is told to stand at attention for long periods, an intervening factor is introduced. The immediate source of pain is not the interrogator but the victim himself."

The manual lists the principal coercive techniques of interrogation as "deprivation of sensory stimuli through solitary confinement or similar methods, threats and fear, debility, pain, heightened suggestibility and hypnosis, narcosis [use of drugs] and induced regression."

The response to coercion, it says, typically contains "at least three important elements: debility, dependency and dread."

"Disrupting normal time patterns like sleep and food" can cause disorientation, fear, helplessness and regression. "Deprivation of stimuli induces regression by depriving the subject’s mind of contact with an outer world," noting that inducing regression will dissolve resistance and create dependence.

"Results produced only after weeks or months of imprisonment in an ordinary cell can be duplicated in hours or days in a cell which has no light … which is soundproofed, in which odors are eliminated, etc. An environment still more subject to control, such as water tank or iron lung, is even more effective."

The manual also suggests threatening a detainee suspected of feigning mental illness by telling him that he might need "a series of electric shock treatments or a frontal lobotomy."

The 1963 KUBARK manual — and its descendant, the "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual 1983" — were both released in the 1990s with numerous deletions after The Baltimore Sun threatened the CIA with a lawsuit. The newspaper sought the manuals in connection with its 1995 series about the CIA-trained Honduran Battalion 3-16, a secret army unit whose torture methods mirrored those in the manuals.

Honduras, which shares borders with Nicaragua and El Salvador, was used by the Reagan-Bush administration in the 1980s as a base to fight Salvadoran rebels and to topple the Nicaraguan Sandinista government with the CIA-trained contra rebels.

Washington’s key man in Honduras was Gen. Gustavo Alvárez, a graduate of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, who created 3-16 with the CIA’s help and who worked closely with U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, whose reports gave the impression that the Honduran military respected human rights.

However, Battalion 3-16 atrocities were detailed in a 1988 New York Times story, headlined "Testifying to Torture." Florencio Caballero, a 3-16 interrogator who later fled to Canada, told the Times that the CIA trained him and two dozen others in psychological methods. They were taught "to study the fears and weaknesses of a prisoner. Make him stand up, don’t let him sleep, keep him naked and in isolation, put rats and cockroaches in his cell, give him bad food, serve him dead animals, throw cold water on him, change the temperature."

Caballero said the CIA taught that psychological coercion was more effective than physical torture, but that interrogations often degenerated into physical torture. He told of a 24-year-old woman named Ines Murillo who was stripped, starved, deprived of sleep, beaten, burned, electrically shocked and sexually molested.

Fay’s Abu Ghraib report makes the same point about dehumanizing interrogations degenerating: "What started as nakedness and humiliation, stress and physical training, carried over into sexual and physical assaults."

Human Rights Watch makes a similar point, saying that U.S. forces operating in Iraq, Guantánamo and Afghanistan have "used interrogation techniques including hooding, stripping detainees naked, subjecting them to extremes of heat, cold, noise and light, and depriving them of sleep — in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This apparently routine infliction of pain, discomfort and humiliation has expanded in all too many cases into vicious beatings, sexual degradation, sodomy, near drowning and near asphyxiation. Detainees have died under questionable circumstances while incarcerated."

The 1983 CIA Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual states, "While we do not stress the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them and the proper way to use them." It states that if they are to be used, they always require "prior HQS approval."

The Schlesinger report says U.S. interrogators at Guantánamo were required to get approval from Rumsfeld or the U.S. Southern Command before using certain methods such as hooding, stripping, 30-day isolations, stress positions and playing on a detainee’s phobias.

The 1983 manual advises that a subject should be arrested in the early morning when the subject "least expects it" and when it would cause "intense feelings of shock, insecurity and psychological stress." He should be "rudely awakened and immediately blindfolded and handcuffed" and transported "by circuitous route." Excessive force should not be used because "if they break the subject’s jaw, he will not be able to answer questions."

Similarly, the Fay report on Abu Ghraib notes, "It became a common practice for maneuver elements to round up large quantities of Iraqi personnel in the general vicinity of a specified target as a cordon and capture technique. Some operations were conducted at night, resulting in some detainees being delivered to collection points only wearing night clothes or under clothes."

The 1983 manual advises that the subject should be "completely stripped and told to take a shower. Blindfold remains in place while showering and guard watches throughout. Subject is given a thorough medical examination, including all body cavities."

The Fay report noted that nudity likely "contributed to an escalating ‘de-humanization’ of the detainees and set the stage for additional and more severe abuses to occur." Meanwhile, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, writing in the July issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, said that evidence is mounting "that U.S. doctors, nurses and medics have been complicit in torture and other illegal procedures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay." Doctors, he said, have "turned over prisoners’ medical records to interrogators who could use them to exploit the prisoners’ weaknesses or vulnerabilities."

The "exploitation" manual goes on to say the interrogation room is the "battleground" where the interrogator "has total control over the subject" and can manipulate the environment "to create unpleasant or intolerable situations to disrupt patterns of time, space and sensory perception."

The Fay report blames many of the abuses at Abu Ghraib on misinterpretations of a paragraph in an "outdated" 1987 Army field manual, which reads in part: "The interrogator should appear to be the one who controls all aspects of the interrogation to include the lighting, heating and configuration of the interrogation room, as well as the food, shelter and clothing given to the source."

The 1983 interrogation manual states the subject should be placed in a soundproof cell and not allowed to relax. Furthermore, "there should be no built-in toilet facilities," and the subject should "either be given a bucket or escorted by a guard to the latrine. The guard stays at his side the entire time."

Cells should have windows that can be "covered to disrupt the sense of night and day."

"Heat, air and light should be externally controlled." Interrogators should disrupt the subject’s patterns of eating and sleeping. "Meals and sleep should be granted irregularly" to disorient the subject and destroy his capacity to resist. "If successful," a handwritten note adds, "it causes serious psychological damage and therefore is a form of torture."

The handwritten note was added in the mid-1980s after another CIA manual was made public and caused a public fury. Other revisions have also been written in, but the original text is still easily readable.

The manual also states, "Many psychologists consider the threat of inducing debility to be more effective than debility itself."

Like KUBARK, the 1983 exploitation manual lists various personality types and how to deal with them during questioning. It advises making a psychological assessment to determine which personality category the subject fits in, noting "any psychological abnormalities … what his potential vulnerabilities are. How he views his potential for surviving his situation."

The subject must be convinced that the interrogator "controls his ultimate destiny." The number of variations in techniques, the manual says, "is limited only by the experience and imagination" of the interrogator.

"The torture situation is an external conflict, a contest between the subject and his tormentor. The pain which is being inflicted upon him from outside himself may actually intensify his will to resist. On the other hand, pain which he feels he is inflicting upon himself is more likely to sap his resistance." One example given was requiring the subject "to maintain rigid positions, such as standing at attention or sitting on a stool for long periods of time."

In a section named "Coercive Techniques," interrogators are advised not to make empty threats. "If a subject refuses to comply once a threat has been made, it must be carried out. If it is not carried out, then subsequent threats will also prove ineffective."

"The purpose of all coercive techniques is to induce psychological regression in the subject." However, if "the debility-dependency-dread state is unduly prolonged, the subject may sink into a defensive apathy from which it is hard to arouse him." The symptoms most commonly associated with solitary confinement and sensory deprivation are "hallucinations and delusions."

In an ambiguous note, interrogators are advised to ask themselves a cautionary question: If the subject is released, "will he be able to cause embarrassment by going to the newspapers or courts?"

The CIA developed the "Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare" manual to help train Nicaraguan contras, whom the Reagan administration armed and financed in an effort to overthrow the Sandinista government in the 1980s.

Unlike the 1963 KUBARK and 1983 interrogation manuals, the CIA contra guide deals not with counterinsurgency measures, but with creating an insurgent force. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy in that it sheds light on the Reagan administration’s use of an abusive proxy army, its snubbing of international law, and again on John Negroponte, who was the ambassador to Honduras when the contras used Honduras as a staging ground to attack Nicaragua.

The manual, which The Associated Press exposed in a 1984 story, advocates that contras assassinate Nicaraguan officials, seize power through acts of torture and terrorism, and create "martyrs" by placing their supporters in "confrontation with the authorities, in order to bring about uprisings or shootings, which will cause the death of one or more persons, who would become the martyrs."

The training manual, along with the CIA’s mining of Nicaraguan harbors, played a part in a ruling by the International Court of Justice that the United States had broken international law, should pay reparations and stop its war against Nicaragua. But the Reagan administration refused to recognize the court’s jurisdiction.

The current Bush administration has adopted the same stance toward the International Criminal Court, refusing to join the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal, partly out of fear that the court could prosecute U.S. military personnel and their superiors. In addition, the Bush administration has withheld military aid and training to nations that refuse to sign "Article 98 waivers," agreements stating that they will not extradite U.S. citizens accused of war crimes to the Hague for prosecution by the court.

SOA manuals

The six manuals used at the U.S. Army School of the Americas and distributed across Latin America by Mobile Training Teams were used from 1982 to 1991, throughout most of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

They carried the titles "Handling of Sources," "Revolutionary War and Communist Ideology," "Terrorism and the Urban Guerrilla," "Interrogation," "Combat Intelligence," and "Counterintelligence."

A 1992 Pentagon investigation of the manuals found that they advocated executions of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse and coercion. The findings were kept secret until September 1996 when the Pentagon disclosed them, fearing that Congressman Joseph Kennedy had obtained a copy of the manuals.

Kennedy, who conducted a five-year campaign to close the school, told the media later that "according to the Pentagon’s own excerpts, School of the Americas students were advised to imprison those from whom they were seeking information; to ‘involuntarily’ obtain information from those sources — in other words, torture them; to arrest their parents; to use ‘motivation by fear'; pay bounties for enemy dead; execute opponents; subvert the press; and use torture, blackmail and even injections of truth serum to obtain information."

The "Revolutionary War" manual offers perhaps the most timely tie-in: maintaining that an insurgent "does not have a legal status as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention." The current Bush administration has tried to reclassify POWs held at Guantánamo as "unlawful combatants" to strip them of protections under the Geneva Conventions.

Another manual advised counter-intelligence agents to use fear and false imprisonment. Up to 90 percent of the detainees at Abu Ghraib were falsely detained and had no connection whatever with terrorism, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The School of the Americas, renamed in 2000 the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has produced hundreds of human rights abusers, which the Pentagon has repeatedly called "a few bad apples." Its 1992 Pentagon investigation also claimed that the manuals had been compiled from outdated instructional material, an argument also made by the Fay panel in its Abu Ghraib report.

The 1992 Pentagon report on the School of the Americas called it "incredible" that the use of the manuals "evaded the established system of doctrinal controls." Nevertheless, the investigators "could find no evidence that this was a deliberate and orchestrated attempt to violate Department of Defense or Army policies."

Kennedy, who did his own investigation, said the manuals were assembled at Fort Huachuca under the supervision of Maj. Richard L. Montgomery, who had worked in the CIA’s Phoenix program in Vietnam.

Despite the Pentagon’s insistence that the material was not properly reviewed, Kennedy said, the training material was sent to the Pentagon for review, and it was returned to the School of the Americas approved and unchanged.

A similar defense has been mounted for the other interrogation manuals. The Reagan administration, for example, claimed that the CIA’s contra manual had not been officially approved and was the work of an "overzealous freelancer" under contract with the CIA.

It’s the photographic evidence that separates the current scandal from those in the past.

"We were caught red-handed," said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst for the National Security Archive. "I think the types of abuses and human rights atrocities committed by our allies like Augusto Pinochet had a degree of separation for the American public. But this scandal eliminates that distance. The abuse was not only committed directly by the U.S. military but it was captured on digital camera."

James Hodge and Linda Cooper are the authors of Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas, published this fall by Orbis Books.

This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Reporter.