News & Politics

The CIA's Pain Project

Alfred McCoy exposes how the Bush administration gave the CIA an opportunity to perfect its research on psychological torture.
[Editor's Note: This is an edited transcript of an interview between Amy Goodman and Alfred McCoy from Democracy Now!. It originally aired on February 17, and is available for download from DemocracyNow.org.]

Amy Goodman: A new expose gives an account of the C.I.A.'s secret efforts to develop new forms of torture, spanning half a century. It reveals how the C.I.A. perfected its methods, distributing them across the world, from Vietnam to Iran to Central America, uncovering the roots of the Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo torture scandals.

The book is called "A Question of Torture: C.I.A. Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror," and we're joined by its author, Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. We welcome you to Democracy Now! I first learned of you with your first book "The Politics of Heroin: C.I.A. Complicity in the Global Drug Trade," for which you almost died. What happened then?

Alfred McCoy: When I was researching that book in the mountains of Laos, hiking from village to village, interviewing Laotian farmers about their opium harvest, and they were telling me that they took it down to the local helicopter pad where Air America helicopters would land, Air America being a subsidiary of the C.I.A., and officers, tribal officers in the C.I.A.'s secret army would buy the opium and fly it off to the C.I.A.'s secret compound, where it would be transformed into heroin and ultimately wind up in South Vietnam.

While I was doing that research, we were ambushed by a group of C.I.A. mercenaries. Fortunately, I had five militiamen from the village with me, and we shot our way out of there, but they came quite close. Then later on, a C.I.A. operative threatened to murder my interpreter unless I stopped doing that research.

AG: How did you know they were C.I.A.?

AM: In the mountains of Laos, there aren't that many white guys. The C.I.A. ran what was called the "Army Clandestine." They had a secret army, and those soldiers that ambushed us were soldiers in the secret army. That we knew.

AG: And the contention of that book was that the C.I.A. was complicit in the global drug trade?

AM: Right. In the context of conducting covert operations around the globe, particularly in the Asian opium zone, which stretched from the Golden Triangle of Vietnam and Laos all the way to Afghanistan, that in those mountains far away from home, when the C.I.A. had to mobilize tribal armies, the only allies were warlords. When the C.I.A. formed an alliance with them, the warlords used this alliance to become drug lords, and the C.I.A. didn't stop them from their involvement in the traffic.

AG: Well, as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, you have not stopped looking at the C.I.A., and now you've written this new book. It's called A Question of Torture: C.I.A. Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Give us a history lesson.

AM: Look at the most famous of photographs from Abu Ghraib, of the Iraqi standing on the box, arms extended with a hood over his head and the fake electrical wires from his arms, OK? In that photograph you can see the entire 50-year history of C.I.A. torture. It's very simple. He's hooded for sensory disorientation, and his arms are extended for self-inflicted pain. And those are the two very simple fundamental C.I.A. techniques, developed at enormous cost.

From 1950 to 1962, the C.I.A. ran a massive research project, a veritable Manhattan Project of the mind, spending over $1 billion a year to crack the code of human consciousness, from both mass persuasion and the use of coercion in individual interrogation. They tried LSD, mescaline, all kinds of drugs. They tried electroshock, truth serum, sodium pentathol. None of it worked. What worked was very simple behavioral findings, outsourced to our leading universities -- Harvard, Princeton, Yale and McGill -- and the first breakthrough came at McGill. It's in the book.

AG: Describe it.

AM: Dr. Donald O. Hebb of McGill University, a brilliant psychologist, had a contract from the Canadian Defense Research Board, which was a partner with the C.I.A. in this research, and he found that he could induce a state of psychosis in an individual within 48 hours. It didn't take electroshock, truth serum, beating or pain. He had student volunteers sit in a cubicle with goggles, gloves and headphones, earmuffs, so that they were cut off from their senses, denied sensory stimulation. Within 48 hours, they would suffer, first hallucinations, then ultimately breakdown. And if you look at many of those photographs, they show people with bags over their head.The photographs of the Guantánamo detainees look exactly like those student volunteers in Dr. Hebb's original cubicle.

The second major breakthrough that the C.I.A. had came here in New York City at Cornell University Medical Center, where two eminent neurologists under contract from the C.I.A. studied Soviet K.G.B. torture techniques. They found that the most effective K.G.B. technique was self-inflicted pain. You simply make somebody stand for a day or two. And as they stand, you tell them, "You're doing this to yourself. Cooperate with us, and you can sit down." As they stand, the fluids flow down to the legs, the legs swell, lesions form, they erupt, they suppurate, hallucinations start, the kidneys shut down.

Several of those photos you just showed, one of them with a man with a bag on his arm, his arms are straight in front of him, people are standing with their arms extended, that's self-inflicted pain. And the combination of those two techniques -- sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain -- is the basis of the C.I.A.'s technique.

AG: Who has pioneered this at the C.I.A.?

AM: This was done by Technical Services Division. Most of the in-house research involved drugs and all of the LSD experiments that we heard about for years, but ultimately they were a negative result. When you have any large massive research project, you get, you hit brick walls, you get negative results. All the drugs didn't work. What did work was this.

AG: But when you talk about the 'everyone knows the LSD experiments,' I don't think everyone knows. In fact, I would conjecture that more than 90 percent of Americans don't know that the C.I.A. was involved with LSD experiments on unwitting Americans. Can you explain what they did?

AM: As a part of this comprehensive survey of human consciousness, the C.I.A. tried every possible technique. And one of the things that they -- at the time that this research started in the 1940s, a Swiss pharmaceutical company developed LSD. Dr. Hoffman there was the man who developed it. The C.I.A. bought substantial doses, and they conducted experiments. One of the most notorious experiments was that Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, inside the agency, spiked the drinks of his co-workers, and one of those co-workers suffered a breakdown, Dr. Frank Olson. He either was pushed or jumped from a hotel here in New York City.

His son Eric Olson insists that his father was murdered by the C.I.A. He believes that his father did a tour of Europe, and he visited the ultimate Anglo-American test site, black site near Frankfurt, where they were doing lethal experiments, fatal experiments on double agents and suspected double agents, and that his father returned enormously upset by the discovery that this research was actually killing people. Olson argues his father was killed by the C.I.A., that he was pushed.

AG: And didn't they do experiments in brothels in the San Francisco area?

AM: They had two kinds of party houses. They had one in the San Francisco Bay Area, another in New York City. And what they did in San Francisco was they had prostitutes who go out to the streets, get individuals, bring them back, give them a drink, and there would be a two-way mirror, and the C.I.A. would photograph these people. They were running the brothel. They were running all of these experiments. They did that on Army soldiers through the Army Chemical Warfare Division.

AG: What did they do there?

AM: Again, they gave them LSD and other drugs to see what effect they would have.

AG: And what did the soldiers think they were getting?

AM: They were just told they were participating in an experiment for national defense.

AG: Also on prisoners, were there experiments?

AM: There were some in prisons in the United States and also the Drug Treatment Center in Lexington, Ky. The Federal Drug Treatment Center in Lexington, Ky, had this. All of this research, all this very elaborate research …

AG: On unwitting Americans?

AM: Unwitting Americans, produced nothing. What they found time and again is that electroshock didn't work, and sodium pentathol didn't work, LSD certainly didn't work. You scramble the brain. You got unreliable information. But what did work was the combination of these two rather boring, rather mundane behavioral techniques: sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain. In 1963, the C.I.A. codified these results in the so-called KUBARK Counterintelligence Manual.

If you just type the word "KUBARK" into Google, you will get the manual, an actual copy of it, on your computer screen, and you can read the techniques. Read the report. But if you do, read the footnotes, because that's where the behavioral research is. This produced a distinctively American form of torture, the first real revolution in the cruel science of pain in centuries, psychological torture, and it's the one that's with us today. It's proved to be a very resilient, quite adaptable, and an enormously destructive paradigm.

Let's make one thing clear. Americans refer to this often times in common parlance as "torture light." People who are involved in treatment tell us it's far more destructive, does far more lasting damage to the human psyche than does physical torture. As Sen. McCain said, himself, last year when he was debating his torture prohibition, faced with a choice between being beaten and psychologically tortured, I'd rather be beaten. It does far more lasting damage. It is far crueler than physical torture. This is something that we don't realize in this country.

The initial research basically developed techniques for attacking universal human sensory receptors: sight, sound, heat, cold, sense of time. That's why all of the detainees describe being put in dark rooms, being subjected to strobe lights, loud music. That's sensory deprivation or sensory assault. That was the phase one of the C.I.A. research. But the paradigm has proved to be quite adaptable.

Right at the start of the war of terror, in late 2002, Donald Rumsfeld appointed Gen. Geoffrey Miller to be chief at Guantánamo because the previous commanders at Guantánamo were too soft on the detainees. Gen. Miller turned Guantánamo into a de facto behavioral research laboratory, a kind of torture research laboratory. And under Gen. Miller at Guantánamo, they perfected the C.I.A. torture paradigm. They added two key techniques. They went beyond the universal sensory receptors of the original research. They added to it an attack on cultural sensitivity, particularly Arab male sensitivity to issues of gender and sexual identity.

And then they went further still. Under Gen. Miller, they created these things called "Biscuit" teams, behavioral science consultation teams, and they actually had qualified military psychologists participating in the ongoing interrogation, and these psychologists would identify individual phobias, like fear of dark or attachment to mother. And by the time we're done, by 2003, under Gen. Miller, Guantánamo had perfected the C.I.A. paradigm, and it had a three-fold total assault on the human psyche: sensory receptors, self-inflicted pain, cultural sensitivity, and individual fears and phobia.

AG: And then they sent Gen. Miller to, quote, "Gitmo-ize" Abu Ghraib.

AM: In mid-2003, when the Iraqi resistance erupted, the United States found it had no intelligence assets; it had no way to contain the insurgency. The U.S. military was in a state of panic. They began sweeping across Iraq, rounding up thousands of Iraqi suspects, putting many of them in Abu Ghraib prison. At that point, in late August 2003, Gen. Miller was sent from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib, and he brought his techniques with him. He brought a CD, and he brought a manual of his techniques. He gave them to the M.P. officers, the military intelligence officers and to Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. commander in Iraq.

In September of 2003, Gen. Sanchez issued orders, detailed orders, for expanded interrogation techniques beyond those allowed in the U.S. Army Field Manual 3452. If you look at those techniques, what he's ordering is a combination of self-inflicted pain, stress positions and sensory disorientation. If you look at the 1963 C.I.A. KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual, the 1983 C.I.A. Interrogation Training Manual that they used in Honduras for training Honduran officers in torture and interrogation, and then Gen. Sanchez's 2003 orders, there's a striking continuity across this 40-year span, in both the general principles, this total assault on the existential platforms of human identity and existence.

AG: And Rumsfeld's comment, when asked if it was torture, when people were forced to stand hours on end -- that he stands at his desk?

AM: Right, he wrote that in one of his memos. When he was asked to review the Guantánamo techniques in late 2003 or early 2004, he scribbled that marginal note and said, you know, "I stand at my desk eight hours a day." He has a designer standing desk. "How come we're limiting these techniques of the stress position to just four hours?" In other words, that was a clear signal from the defense secretary. One of the problems beyond the details of these orders is torture is an extraordinarily dangerous thing. There's an absolute ban on torture for a very good reason. Torture taps into the deepest recesses, unexplored recesses of human consciousness, where creation and destruction coexist, where the infinite human capacity for kindness and infinite human capacity for cruelty coexist, and it has a powerful perverse appeal. And once it starts, both the perpetrators and the powerful who order them, let it spread, and it spreads out of control.

When the Bush administration gave those orders for techniques tantamount to torture at the start of the war on terror, I think it was probably their intention that these be limited to top al-Qaida suspects. But within months, we were torturing hundreds of Afghanis at Bagram near Kabul. A few months later in 2003, through these techniques, we were torturing literally thousands of Iraqis. You can see in those photos, beyond the details of the techniques that we've described, you can see how that once it starts, it becomes this Dantesque hell, this kind of play palace of the darkest recesses of human consciousness. That's why it's necessary to maintain an absolute prohibition on torture. There is no such thing as a little bit of torture.

AG: Professor McCoy, when you started seeing these images, the first photos that came out at Abu Ghraib, the pictures we showed of the hooded man, electrodes coming out of his fingers, standing on the box, your response?

AM: The reason I wrote this book is when that photo came out in April 2004 on CBS news, at the Times, William Safire, for example, writing in the New York Times said this was the work of creeps. Later on, Defense Secretary Schlesinger said that this was just abuse by a few people on the night shift. There was another phrase: "Recycled hillbillies from Cumberland, Maryland." In other words, this was the bad apple thesis. We could blame these bad apples. I looked at those photos, I didn't see individual abuse. What I saw was two textbook, trademark C.I.A. psychological interrogation techniques: self-inflicted pain and sensory disorientation.

AG: And that bombardment of sound is often joked about. "Oh, we played Britney Spears really loud," or whatever it is.

AM: That's one of the problems of talking about this topic in the United States. We regard all of this panoply of psychological techniques as "torture light," as somehow not really torture. We're the only country in the world that does that. The U.N. convention defines torture as the infliction of severe psychological or physical pain. The U.N. convention which bans torture in 1984 gives equal weight to psychological and physical techniques. We alone as a society somehow exempt all of these psychological techniques.

Back in the early 1990s, the United States was emerging from the Cold War, and we began this process of disarming ourselves and trying to sort of bring ourselves in line with the rest of the international community. President Clinton sent the U.N. Anti-Torture Convention to the U.S. Congress for ratification in 1994; he included four detailed paragraphs of reservation that had been drafted by the Reagan administration. He adopted them without so much as changing a semicolon. When you read those detailed paragraphs of reservation, what you realize is that the United States Congress ratified the treaty, but basically we outlawed only physical torture. Those photographs of reservation are carefully written to avoid one word in the 26 printed pages of the U.N. convention. That word is "mental." Basically, we exempted psychological torture.

AG: You wrote a piece, "Why the McCain Torture Ban Won't Work: The Bush Legacy of Legalized Torture."

AM: Most Americans think that it's over, that in December 2005, the U.S. Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act 2005, which bars all inhumane or cruel treatment. Actually, what has happened is the Bush administration fought that amendment tooth and nail; they fought it with loopholes. Vice President Cheney went to Sen. McCain and asked for a specific exemption for the C.I.A. McCain refused. The National Security Advisor went to McCain and asked for certain kinds of exemptions for the C.I.A. He refused.

So then they started amending it. Basically what happened is, through the process, they introduced loopholes. President Bush said right on Sept. 11, 2001, when he addressed the nation, "I don't care what the international lawyers say. We're going to kick some ass." Those were his words, and then it was up to his legal advisors in the White House and the Justice Department to translate his otherwise unlawful orders into legal directives, and they did it by crafting three very controversial legal principles.

One, that the president, as commander-in-chief, could override laws and treaties. Two, that there was a possible defense for C.I.A. interrogators who engage in torture, and the defenses were of two kinds. First of all, they played around with the word "severe," that torture is the infliction of severe pain. That's when Jay Bybee, who was assistant attorney general, wrote that memo in which he said, "'severe' means equivalent to organ failure," in other words, right up to the point of death. The other thing was that they came up with the idea of intentionality. If a C.I.A. interrogator tortured, but the aim was information, not pain, then he could say that he was not guilty.

The third principle, which was crafted by John Yoo, was Guantánamo is not part of the United States; it is exempt from the writ of U.S. courts. Now, in the process of passing the McCain's ban on inhumane treatment, the White House has cleverly twisted the legislation to reestablish these three key principles. In his signing statement on December 30, President Bush said …

AG: This was the statement that he signed as he signed the McCain so-called ban on torture?

AM: Right, he emailed it at 8 o'clock at night from his ranch in Crawford on December 30th, that he was signing this legislation into law. He said, "I reserve the right, as commander-in-chief and as head of the unitary executive, to do what I need to do to defend America." The next thing that happened is that McCain, as a compromise, inserted into the legislation a provision that if a C.I.A. operative engages in inhumane treatment or torture but believes that he or she was following a lawful order, then that's a defense.

So they got the second principle, defense for C.I.A. torturers. The third principle is that the White House had Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina amend McCain's amendment by inserting language into it, saying that for the purposes of this act, the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay is not on U.S. territory.

In the last month, the Bush administration has gone to federal courts and said, "Drop all of your habeas corpus suits from Guantánamo." There are 160 of them. They've gone to the Supreme Court and said, "Drop your Guantánamo case." They have, in fact, used that law to quash legal oversight of their actions.
Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!
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