Arts Listings

Books: Two Books Explore the Modern History of Torture By HENRY NORR Special to the Planet

Tuesday March 28, 2006

The Bush-Cheney regime may represent a radical break with this nation’s traditions in many areas, but in making torture a central weapon in its “war on terror,” the current administration is simply building on a body of theory and practice that goes back more than half a century. 

That, at least, is the conclusion suggested by two new books on the modern history of American torture. 

A Question of Torture, by historian Alfred W. McCoy, traces the influence of “mind control” research conducted by and for the CIA in the 1950s in shaping the interrogation techniques used by American agents and allies ever since. 

Truth, Torture, and the American Way, by lawyer and human-rights advocate Jennifer K. Harbury, highlights parallels in the practices of U.S. government operatives and their local “assets” in the current conflict and in the civil wars that wracked Central America in the 1980s and early 1990s. 

While both books summarize the Bush administration’s record of brutality toward detainees, neither author offers new revelations in this area. As McCoy puts it, “There is no longer any need, well into the war on terror, to ask whether the United States has engaged in the systematic torture of suspected terrorists.” 

(If you are not already acquainted with the evidence, the best source remains Mark Danner’s 2004 compendium, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror, supplemented by the new evidence that appear regularly on the Web sites of such organizations as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, Amnesty International, and the American Civil Liberties Union.) 

The heart of McCoy’s book is his account of what he calls “a veritable Manhattan Project of the mind” coordinated by the CIA and carried out by behavioral scientists at leading universities and hospitals in the years 1950-1962. Some of the most lurid aspects of this research—such as the government’s experiments with LSD as a truth serum—have been reported before. 

But previous accounts have paid little attention to the real fruits of the program: the CIA and its academic front men made two discoveries that soon became the basis of the U.S. approach to the handling of enemy captives. The first was the devastating effect on the human personality of sensory disorientation, implemented through simple tools such as hoods, bright lights, and loud music. 

The second was the power of pain caused simply by forcing prisoners into unnatural positions for long periods of time. (McCoy and his sources call this “self-inflicted pain,” though I find that term misleading.) 

Together, the author argues, these discoveries amounted to “a major scientific turning point … the first real revolution in the cruel science of pain in more than three centuries.” 

Practically, they provided the conceptual foundation for a new approach he sums up as “psychological torture”—a way of delivering “a hammer-blow to the fundamentals of personal identity,” as he puts it, without breaking bones or spilling blood. 

CIA operatives translated these scientific insights into a set of procedures elaborated in a 1963 CIA manual, which in turn served as the basis for textbooks used later in CIA and U.S. military programs—including the infamous School of the Americas—where friendly locals from around the world were taught the techniques of counterinsurgency. 

In one of the most interesting sections of the book, McCoy shows that even as the U.S. government adopted a series of treaties and laws ostensibly outlawing torture, presidents from Reagan to Clinton insisted on language and “reservations” designed to provide subtle legal cover for the CIA-discovered approach. And as even a casual glance at accounts emerging from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo suggests, these techniques have emerged in the 21st century as essential components in the George W. Bush administration’s handling of detainees. 

At times McCoy leans so heavily on his thesis that he seems to imply that “no-touch” torture has completely replaced physical pain in the American interrogators’ arsenal. He admits, however—and supplies plenty of confirming evidence from Vietnam, the Philippines, Latin America, and now Afghanistan and Iraq—that “under actual field conditions, the CIA’s psychological paradigm … was often supplemented by conventional physical tactics,” such as beating, burning, and electric shock. 

“With the physical thus compounding the psychological,” he writes in a passage that perhaps undermines his argument but matches the facts at hand, “medieval and modern methods sometimes seemed indistinguishable.” 

That’s an analysis I’m sure Harbury would accept. Compared to McCoy’s, her book is based less on documentary sources and more on the testimony of victims, and in the picture that emerges, there’s no doubt that old-fashioned physical torture plays a central role. 

Perhaps that’s because most of her examples come from Central America’s “dirty wars,” which make the current conflict look like a Sunday-school picnic. (Some 200,000 people were murdered or forcibly “disappeared” in Guatemala alone.) 

There’s plenty of evidence, though, that physical abuse has also been a common feature in the war on terror, even though the documented beatings and killings seem to have had less impact on American public opinion than the sexual humiliation practiced by Lynndie England and her friends. 

(Neither Harbury nor McCoy has much to say about the sexual dynamics that figure so centrally in the modern history of torture, nor about the ways the CIA—with help from Israel—has tried to “refine” its techniques to take advantage of specifically Muslim cultural sensitivities.) 

Many of the stories Harbury tells—including those of her late husband Everardo, a Guatemalan resistance leader kidnapped, tortured, and finally murdered by a team whose leader was on the CIA payroll, and of Sister Dianna Ortiz, a United States-born nun gang-raped and burned in 111 places—have been told before, including in Harbury’s previous books. But these horrifying reports—and the dozen other individual stories told in less detail here—bear retelling for the light they shed on the current situation, especially because nearly all the victims have testified that North Americans were directly involved in their ordeals. 

A Harvard-trained lawyer, Harbury also includes a useful summary of U.S. and international law on torture. On the one hand, she demonstrates the breadth and depth of legal strictures against the practice; on the other hand, she outlines the loopholes that have long ensured the CIA “de facto impunity for crimes against humanity.” 

Both Harbury and McCoy end their books with chapters making the case, in effect, that torture “doesn’t pay.” For one thing, they argue, history shows that it rarely produces useful information. Both authors devote special attention to demolishing the “ticking bomb” argument—the contention, regularly advanced by torture proponents (from Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz to Fox’s “24”) that it’s an effective and even necessary answer to terrorism. 

Both authors also remind us of torture’s many costs: its lasting physical and psychological effects on victims and their families, its corrupting influence on the men and women who carry it out, and the corrosive cultural effects it tends to have on the societies that experience it. On this score evidence McCoy presents from the Philippines is every bit as wrenching as Harbury’s from Central America. 

Neither author offers any advice on building a movement to force our government to abandon torture. All they do is give us a better appreciation of what we’re up against. The rest is up to us. 


Henry Norr was arrested in San Francisco on March 20 for taking part in civil disobedience, organized by a new Bay Area group called Act Against Torture (, to protest torture, indefinite detention, and the war in Iraq. 




A QUESTION OF TORTURE: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror 

By Alfred W. McCoy 

Metropolitan Books, 292 pages, $25 



TRUTH, TORTURE, AND THE AMERICAN WAY: The History and Consequences of U.S. Involvement in Torture 

By Jennifer K. Harbury 

Beacon Press, 227 pages, $14