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How the CIA Taught the Portuguese to Torture

For several days in the early summer of 1974, I had open access to a strange and terrible prison near Lisbon, then empty because of the coup that April which ended 48 years of fascist dictatorship in Portugal. My prison time in Caxias was a never forgotten experience, but I did not expect the memories to return so vividly today — at the instigation of the United States.

My recollections pose the question of whether Caxias was a beginning of the American prison gulag, the lawless penal control stretching today from Guantanamo in Cuba, to the Middle East, Afghanistan and clandestine activities in Colombia, the Philippines, and other places unknown, as well as the suspected proxy torture havens like Syria. When did political prisoners across the world begin to answer not to their peers, but to Uncle Sam?

The prison of Caxias (Cuh-SHI-ash in Portuguese) was run by the secret police, the Pide (International Police for the Defence of the State), who were so feared by the Portuguese, pedestrians would cross to the opposite side of the street to pass its unmarked offices in Lisbon. Caxias was an old fortress near the sea, but inside was a modern torture chamber using the latest coercion techniques — devised by the US Central Intelligence Agency.

For decades in Caxias, thousands of political prisoners, mostly communists and socialists, were admitted for systematic torture and then released. Why were these known subversives, who had dedicated their lives to destroying the dictatorship, allowed to return to freedom? Because the success of the Pide’s state-of-the-art imported torture techniques meant that their previous lives were now irrelevant. In the Pide’s words, they had been “taken off the chess board”. Their lives, old and new, were destroyed.

My guide to Caxias was an Edinburgh-trained Portuguese psychiatrist, who for a mercifully short time had been a prisoner there himself. He told me that released prisoners, especially the communists — regarded as the toughest ones to crack — would often not go home. They would instead travel in the opposite direction from their families, take a simple job, or fall into alcoholism, even change their names; such were their new lives as mental zombies, created by coercion. (This was confirmed by another psychiatrist I interviewed who treated Caxias victims.)

Central to the torture was sleep deprivation, a newish discovery enshrined in a 128-page secret manual produced by the CIA in July 1963 called Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation. I was told several times at Caxias that the Pide’s methods came from the CIA, although I did not knowingly see a copy of Kubark (the word is a code name for the agency itself). However, Portugal is and was a member of Nato, and as its secretive communist party was regarded as the nation’s most dangerous security threat, and the Cold War rumbled on, there seems no doubt that the US intelligence agency, ordered to fight communism everywhere, was the source. It also had the latest information on “coercive interrogation.”

This becomes plainer on perusal of the Kubark manual, which was declassified in 1997 when the Baltimore Sun threatened a suit under the US Freedom of Information Act. It clearly describes what I saw as the methods at Caxias, and read about in the Pide’s internal reports during my 1974 prison visits.

In chapter nine of Kubark, titled Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources, it recommends sleep and sensory deprivation to produce the “DDD syndrome” of “debility, dependence, and dread” in “interrogatees.” (Note the dehumanisation of that word.) Victims could be reduced to compliance in a matter of hours or days, it said, but then warned against “applying duress past the point of irreversible psychological damage.” This sentence confirms what the Pide were doing.

The objective of CIA interrogation, as Kubark repeatedly emphasises, was information, hence the warning. But how conveniently this assisted the Pide, who were less interested in their victims’ information, than in their destruction. Caxias adopted Kubark, but deliberately took its methods to the extreme it warned against. But as the mind torturers’ manifesto carefully remarks: “The validity of the ethical arguments about coercion exceeds the scope of this paper.”

Complying with the manual’s recommendations, the sound-proofed Caxias cells contained no distractions. Walls and ceilings were white but scuff marks remained — they were excellent sources to stimulate the hallucinations that prisoners experienced after the first few days of sleeplessness. The light, as Kubark urges, was weak, artificial, and its source invisible. Huge concealed air-conditioner-heaters could turn the room in minutes from icy cold to a desert scorch.

Such furniture as there was, mostly a table and a few chairs, was rounded at the edges to prevent a prisoner trying to kill himself by running his head into them, as some had tried. Cell ceilings contained speakers which broadcast loud and terrifying sounds, or sometimes the cries and sobs of their wives or children. The Pide had recorded these and played them from a central “studio” which I saw.

Meals came at random, deliberately. An apparent breakfast might arrive at 4 pm; dinner in the middle of the night. No clocks or watches were allowed. Oh yes — and cells had no beds. The record for prisoner sleeplessness was a young engineer, a communist, kept awake for a full month. He committed suicide upon his release.

How can you keep someone awake for weeks? My psychiatrist friend sat me at the plastic-topped table and asked me to pretend to nod off. I closed my eyes — to be jerked out of it by a sharp but penetrating metallic series of sounds. He had taken out an escudo coin and simply rapped it on the table top. Astonishingly, this was usually sufficient, and guards took turns through the endless hours. Another method was to throw a mug of icy water in a prisoner’s face. And of course the tape recordings were always available.

In former times the Pide was notorious for brutal torture. But it mellowed under its benevolent CIA guides; violence was eschewed. I saw a report on a Pide officer demoted for striking a prisoner, thus renewing his resistance. As Kubark-CIA says: “Direct physical brutality creates only resentment, hostility, and further defiance.” The report on the Pide officer complained that his violence had “set back the treatment.” Caxias prisoners were not left naked and suffered no systematic sex coercion. That came years later — in 1983 when the CIA updated Kubark and recommended stripping prisoners and keeping them blindfolded. Presumably the additon of sexual manipulation is the latest thinking among US torture intellectuals.

The 1983 manual, enthusiastically used by CIA clients in the vicious “contra” war against Central American leftist nationalists in President Reagan’s years, was changed in 1985 after unfavourable publicity. An inserted page stated: “The use of force, mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to inhumane treatment of any kind as an aid to interrogation is prohibited by law both internationally and domestically; it is neither authorised nor condoned.” But as they say, what goes around, comes around.

CHRISTOPHER REED was a correspondent for the London Guardian in Portugal from 1974-76. He now writes for the London Observer and other papers. He can be reached at: christopherreed@earthlink.net.