Torture Amnesia – Shame on America

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There are some things one never forgets. I’ll never forget my brief encounter with torture 40 years ago. Our patrol engaged some VC hidden in a tree-line and a firefight ensued. The tree-line held a small hamlet. Predictably the village people fled in our direction. They fled because they knew their village would most likely be shelled, strafed or bombed. It was.

Our Viet counterparts detained a young lady they suspected of being a VC, a nurse they claimed. We brought her back to our dilapidated compound where they bound her, stripped off her shirt and attached wires to her nipples and proceed to use a crank operated electrical device to shock her. Needless to say it was thoroughly disgusting. Through it all she refused to talk. I admired her courage. I don’t know where they sent her but I hope she survived.

In April 2004, Americans were stunned when CBS broadcast those now-notorious photographs from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, showing hooded Iraqis stripped naked while U.S. soldiers stood by smiling. As this scandal grabbed headlines around the globe, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted that the abuses were “perpetrated by a small number of U.S. military personnel”…

What was it that led the US to embrace torture? When did it begin? Let’s take a look.

kr waterboardThe history of torture is well documented in numerous books, declassified documents, CIA training manuals, court records and truth commissions.

Some of torture’s prominent opponents, including Republican Party presidential nominee contender John McCain, would have us believe that the idea of torturing prisoners first occurred to US officials just after 9/11, at which point the methods used in Guantanamo began to emerge.

Up until then, we are led to believe, “we fought our enemies while keeping our humanity intact”.


Alfred W. McCoy has written a number of books and articles on the topic of torture. One of these, The U.S. Has a History of Using Torture, was published on the History News Network in December of 2006. McCoy wrote:

From 1950 to 1962, the CIA led a secret research effort to crack the code of human consciousness, a veritable Manhattan project of the mind with costs that reached a billion dollars a year. Many have heard about the most outlandish and least successful aspect of this research — the testing of LSD on unsuspecting subjects and the tragic death of a CIA employee, Dr. Frank Olson, who “jumped” to his death from a New York hotel after a dose of this drug. This Agency drug testing, the focus of countless sensational press accounts and a half-dozen major books, led nowhere.

Research into sensory deprivation looked promising and led to a new concept of psychological, rather than physical, torture. It could be described as “no-touch” torture.

McCoy claims that these “no-touch” torture methods were field-tested by the CIA in Viet Nam as a part of the Phoenix Program and later were imported to Latin American and elsewhere in Asia under the guise of “police training”.

The CIA developed a classified interrogation manual called “KUBARK Counter Intelligence Interrogation-July 1963,” which was used globally for the next three decades. The manual discussed the “principal coercive techniques of interrogation,” which it identified as “arrest, detention, deprivation of sensory stimuli through solitary confinement or similar methods, threats and fear, debility, pain, heightened suggestibility and hypnosis, narcosis, and induced regression.” Especially effective in depriving an “interrogatee” of sensory stimuli, the manual stated, is placing the person in a “cell which has no light” or a “water-tank or iron lung.” The manual recommended placing people under interrogation in situations where pain is seemingly self-inflicted, such as forcing a person to stand at attention for long periods, rather than having the interrogator inflict pain directly.


The Viet Nam Era

Since the early days of the US presence in Viet Nam torture was commonplace. The following is from The Phoenix Program by Douglas Valentine. A portion, including the following blockquote is available for viewing online at this link. The term PIC refers to Province Interrogation Centers.

Prisoners slept on concrete slabs. “Depending on how cooperative they were, you’d give them a straw mat or a blanket. It could get very cold at night in the highlands.”

… They were completely isolated. They didn’t get time to go out and walk around the yard. They sat in their cells when they weren’t being interrogated. After that they were sent to the local jail or were turned back over to the military, where they were put in POW camps or taken out and shot.

The interrogation rooms were at the back of the PIC. Some had two-way mirrors and polygraph machines, although sophisticated equipment was usually reserved for regional interrogation centers, where expert CIA staff interrogators could put them to better use…

The PIC chief’s job was to “turn” captured VCI into double agents, and maintain informant networks in the hamlets and villages…

As for the American role, according to Muldoon, “you can’t have an American there all the time watching these things.”

“These things” included: rape, gang rape, rape using eels, snakes, or hard objects, and rape followed by murder; electrical shock (“the Bell Telephone Hour”) rendered by attaching wires to the genitals or other sensitive parts of the body, like the tongue; “the water treatment”; “the airplane,” in which a prisoner’s arms were tied behind the back and the rope looped over a hook on the ceiling, suspending the prisoner in midair, after which he or she was beaten; beatings with rubber hoses and whips; and the use of police dogs to maul prisoners. All this and more occurred in PICs.

Apart from being known as torture chambers, PICs are also faulted for producing only information on low-level VCI.

As for the military side, from the same link as the above blockquote:

The final stage of the intelligence cycle was the termination of agents, for which there were three methods. First was termination by paying the agent off, swearing him to secrecy, and saying so long. Second was termination with prejudice, which meant ordering an agent out of an area and placing his or her name on a blacklist so he or she could never work for the United States again; third was termination with extreme prejudice, applied when the mere existence of an agent threatened the security of an operation or other agents. Military Intelligence officers were taught, in off-the-record sessions, how to terminate their agents with extreme prejudice.

CIA officers received similar instruction.

I read Valentine’s book, about Phoenix in Vietnam, 5 years ago and have referred to it many times but I do not recall any mention of the sensory deprivation torture techniques described by Alfred McCoy. Nonetheless, there can be no questioning the fact that America utilized many torture techniques in Vietnam.

The War on Terror

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.


Evidence of no-touch torture is obvious in the these photos from Abu Ghraib Prison (from Warning – very graphic images! Note the contorted positions of those being tortured.

Professor McCoy was interviewed by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now in February of last year.

abu ghraibWell, if you 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, okay? 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…

McCoy explained further:

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… All he did was had student volunteers sit in a cubicle with goggles, gloves and headphones, earmuffs, so that they were cut off from their senses, and within 48 hours, denied sensory stimulation, they would suffer, first hallucinations, then ultimately breakdown.

And if you look at many of those photographs, what do they show? They show people with bags over their head. If you look at the photographs of the Guantanamo detainees even today, they look exactly like those student volunteers in Dr. Hebb’s original cubicle.

abu stress position… 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, and 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-okay, you’re not beating them, they have no resentment-you tell them, “You’re doing this to yourself. Cooperate with us, and you can sit down.” And so, as they stand, what happens is the fluids flow down to the legs, the legs swell, lesions form, they erupt, they suppurate, hallucinations start, the kidneys shut down.

Now, if you look at the other aspect of those photos, you’ll see that they’re short-shackled-okay?-that they’re long-shackled, that they’re made-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.

The Military Commissions Act

The MCA legitimizes and legalizes the global CIA program of torture. It bans certain forms of torture, while leaving other techniques unmentioned and legal. Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin points out, “The MCA continues to recognize that certain conduct is illegal, but attempts to eliminate all judicial remedies for such violations.”

The MCA rewrites the 1996 War Crimes Act to create a loophole for the torture they have been carrying out. Previously the War Crimes Act made it a felony to commit “violations” of the Geneva Conventions Common Article 3 (a major international agreement forbidding cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners). After the MCA changes, the War Crimes Act will only forbid “grave breaches” of Common Article 3. And this change is effective retroactively back to 1997. This in effect will allow the Bush administration to violate the Geneva Conventions while asserting its torture methods (like half-drowning prisoners, “stress positions,” and grotesque degradation) are not “grave breaches.” This will protect its CIA torturers from prosecution for war crimes.

Source (Some might find this source offensive and I offer my apologies. I could not find it spelled out more clearly anywhere else.) There is much more information on the MCA at this link and a summary at Wikipedia.

We can take no comfort in the fact that the MCA would apply only to those associated with al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations. The MCA redefines “unlawful enemy combatant” in a way that it can be applied to US citizens who have engaged in hostilities or who have purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States.

The definition of “unlawful enemy combatant” in the MCA is not limited to jihadist forces like Al Qaeda. The MCA can quickly become the legal basis for government roundups of other forces the government chooses to target.

Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman writes that the MCA, “which is racing toward the White House, authorizes the president to seize American citizens as enemy combatants, even if they have never left the United States. And once thrown into military prison, they cannot expect a trial by their peers or any other of the normal protections of the Bill of Rights.” (L.A. Times, Sept. 28, 2006)

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of torture under the current administration is not the torture itself. Past administrations have also utilized torture but have done so in the shadows “officially denied and condemned”. What is unprecedented now is the the openness with which it is carried out. The Bush administration, since 9/11, has demanded the right to torture without shame and the our elected representatives have allowed torture to be legitimized by new definitions and new laws.

Final passage in the Senate was by a vote of 65 to 34 with 1 abstention. Passage in the House of Representatives was by a vote of 250 to 170 with 12 abstentions. The MCA was signed into law by George W. Bush on 17 October 2006.

So we ask again, does the US torture?

“We do not torture.” President George W. Bush Nov. 7, 2005

Interview 2 May 2007 with Scott Pelley (CBS)

Tenet: We don’t torture people.

Pelley: Water boarding?

Tenet: We do not – I don’t talk about – techniques.

The blockquote below is from a CNN Interview with former US President Jimmy Carter, aired October 10, 2007 – 16:00 ET

BLITZER: President Bush said as recently as this week the United States does not torture detainees.

JAMES CARTER, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That’s not an accurate statement if you use the international norms of torture, as has always been honored. Certainly in the last 60 years, since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated. But you can make your own definition of human rights and say we don’t violate them and you can make your own definition of torture and say we don’t violate it.

BLITZER: But from your definition, you believe the United States, under this administration, has used torture?

CARTER: I don’t think it. I know it, certainly.

BLITZER: So is the president lying?

CARTER: The president is self-defining what we have done and authorized in the torture of prisoners, yes.

US torture – “A few bad apples”? As per Wikipedia – “in an interview with Denver CBS affiliate television station KCNC-TV, Lyndie England reportedly said that she was ‘instructed by persons in higher ranks’ to commit the acts of abuse for psyop reasons, and that she should keep doing it, because it worked as intended. England noted that she felt ‘weird’ when a commanding officer asked her to do such things as ‘stand there, give the thumbs up, and smile’.”

This is justice? Shame on America.


Skip to comment form

    • OPOL on February 11, 2008 at 14:21

    There is no more pressing issue in America.  It is over this issue that we stand to lose our soul.

    • Edger on February 11, 2008 at 15:32

    We were all interrogated a few times, some of us more than others. During one interrogation, I was led blindfolded into a room. Suddenly one of the “enemy” hit me hard in the stomach — a sucker punch that left me doubled over, out of breath. I think three other people were present, but I was never sure. Two men grabbed me at my sides. They put a pole of some kind under my knees and bent me over backward. My head went down lower than the rest of my body.

    The questions (What is your unit? Where are you from?) were asked by one man. But we were not supposed to talk. I remember that the blindfold was heavy and completely covered my face. As the two men held me down, one on each side, someone began pouring water onto the blindfold, and suddenly I was drowning. The water streamed into my nose and then into my mouth when I gasped for breath. I couldn’t stop it. All I could breathe was water, and it was terrifying. I think I began to lose consciousness. I felt my lungs begin to fill with burning liquid.

    Pulling out my fingernails or even cutting off a finger would have been preferable.

    At least if someone had attacked my hands, I would have had to simply tolerate pain. But drowning is another matter.

    […] my body sensed and reacted to the danger it was in. Adrenaline helped me to fight out of the position the men were holding me in. I can’t really explain how I managed to stand up, still with one man clinging to each arm. I only know how horrible it was. The experience was probably only a few minutes, but to me it seemed much longer.

    Waterboarding has, unfortunately, become a household word. Back then, we didn’t call it waterboarding — we called it “water torture.” We recognized it as something the United States would never do, whatever the provocation. As a nation, we must ask our leaders, elected and appointed, to be aware of such horrors; we must ask them to stop the narrow and superficial thinking that hinges upon “legal” definitions and to use common sense. Waterboarding is torture, and torture is clearly a crime against humanity.

    An “enemy”?


    The above was written by a US Navy flight crew member, Richard E. Mezo, in an article in yesterdays Washington Post, describing his “training” in a simulated prisoner-of-war camp in 1963.

    — LINK

    • pfiore8 on February 11, 2008 at 15:48

    is torture too… death and destruction and what’s left for over one million human beings.

    our country. our country. in the crimes-against-humanity business.

    • Nordic on February 11, 2008 at 18:37

    of every newspaper in America.

    Too bad Britney Spears wasn’t sent to Gitmo.  Then we’d know ALL about it.

    • Valtin on February 11, 2008 at 18:46

    I have seen summarizing this issue.

    It deserves wide exposure and readership. You have compiled a most telling indictment against the crimes of this country on the torture issue.

    I encourage readers to follow-up the Frank Olson story. It is much more than simply an LSD-guy-jumps-out-the-window story. Frank Olson was a biowarfare researcher who worked also with MKULTRA. Sickened by the use of human subjects for terminal experiments on biological agents (for assassination or general warfare or both), his turn of conscience was noticed by his superiors and he was murdered.

    The link to the Chris Floyd article in your essay gives an excellent narrative of the essential points of the tale. I also refer readers to Gordon Thomas’s new book, Secret and Lies: A History of CIA Mind Control and Germ Warfare. It’s an excellent companion piece to McCoy’s book.

    • Viet71 on February 11, 2008 at 18:58

    Worked in an army unit that collected information from agents, which was sent to Saigon for analysis, and did counter-intelligence work.

    Had a close-up, hands-on experience with agents and collection.  Also, because of my particular work, knew a lot about the operations of other agent handlers.

    Not once did I ever hear one word about anything even remotely having to do with torture or agent-elimination by death being carried out by my unit.  Not once.

    I oberved certain CIA activities, and from what I could see, the CIA avoided torturing for the very practical reason they found there were other, much more effective, ways to get reliable information from persons they snatched.

    On the other hand, I did observe that the ARVN and MSS (South Viet Nam military intelligence) routinely used beatings and other forms abuse.

  1. like much of what goes on during wars. Notice we never see pictures in newspapers of dead Americans? The excuse of protecting identity is BS, they could block out the names and ranks on uniforms and only use photos that don’t show faces. about 80,000 US troops wounded and about 4000 dead and there are no photos. No that is not why, it is because nobody wants to see it, it does not sell papers and somebody (big brother?) does not want us to see it. Just like we don’t ever see the lobbies of VA hospitals. I go to the VA hospital at least once every six weeks for my appointments. Walk around a VA hospital and there are the legless, armless, burned and the like. Thanks for this truong. Please cross post to Sancho Press. We are glad to have you as a member and would welcome any of you stuff cross posted. I did not know of you experiences in Nam.  

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