CIA Largely in the Dark on Interrogation Tactics?

The Washington Independent is a new online magazine, mostly about Beltway politics. Spencer Ackerman has an intriguing piece on how the CIA had to learn interrogation and torture techniques from Middle Eastern countries after 9/11 has its own staff were largely untrained in them.

But 9/11 changed all that. Despite having nearly no off-the-shelf experience, the CIA was tasked by President Bush to come up with a robust interrogation program for the most important al-Qaeda captives. So the agency turned to its partners for assistance in designing its interrogation regimen: Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia—all countries cited by the State Department for using torture—among others. Additionally, as Mark Benjamin has reported for Salon, two psychologists named Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who worked as contractors for CIA, helped the agency “reverse-engineer” the military and CIA training on resisting torture for use on detainees. Suddenly, waterboarding, an illegal practice of simulating or in some cases inducing drowning, became an American-administered practice.

I’m not sure how this can make that much sense — didn’t the CIA provide the torture training and interrogations manuals to Iran’s SAVAK in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as Latin American dictatorships? To be fair Ackerman briefly mentions the supposedly Nazi-inspired KUBARK Manual, but there was also the 1983 “Human Resources Exploitation” Manual used in Pinochet’s Chili and elsewhere. Moreover, the idea that CIA and other US staff were distant from actual interrogation in the rendition countries is not true. Last year I interviewed a senior intelligence officer in a rendition program country who said the Americans from the CIA and FBI routinely walked in and out of the interrogation rooms and detention centers. Not to mention that interrogation and torture does not seem to have been a problem for the people at Guantanamo. One can’t help getting the feeling that the people that Ackerman spoke to pulled a fast one on him. The idea that torture has only been used under the Bush administration, while perhaps self-serving for CIA officials with careers that will outlive the administration, is quite laughable. The US, France, Japan and many others have been using these techniques (notably against anti-colonial movements and in counter-communism policies) for a long, long time.

Also read: Watching torture and this book, Torture and Democracy [Amazon], by Darius Rejali, which appears to be one of the more thorough discussions if the issue out there. From the book’s blurb:

As the twentieth century progressed, he argues, democracies not only tortured, but set the international pace for torture. Dictatorships may have tortured more, and more indiscriminately, but the United States, Britain, and France pioneered and exported techniques that have become the lingua franca of modern torture: methods that leave no marks. Under the watchful eyes of reporters and human rights activists, low-level authorities in the world’s oldest democracies were the first to learn that to scar a victim was to advertise iniquity and invite scandal. Long before the CIA even existed, police and soldiers turned instead to “clean” techniques, such as torture by electricity, ice, water, noise, drugs, and stress positions. As democracy and human rights spread after World War II, so too did these methods.

Also see this interview of Rejali.

0 thoughts on “CIA Largely in the Dark on Interrogation Tactics?”

  1. I recently read Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, “Shock Doctrine”, which traces neoliberal economic policies and what she terms “disaster capitalism” from Pinochet through Iraq. I highly highly recommend this fast-paced, rigorously sourced, despondence-inducing book.

    According to the early chapters of the book, many of the methods that were transfered to Chile (and all over the world subsequently) and ended up in the KUBARK manual, were developed by a psychiatrist (something Cameron) working at McGill (in Canada) in the 50s. He apparently believed that the problems his patients faced were caused by negative connections in the brain and that by shocking the patients into a clean slate, he could then rebuild them positively. To achieve this he tried to erase patient’s links with themselves and other people, so that they wouldnt have an anchor point. He experimented with all sorts of nasty tricks to sever these negative ties, arguably the least heinous of which is electric shock. They included all sorts of drugs, sensory deprivation, screwing around with time perception and so on.

    Dr Cameron’s research was mostly funded by the CIA. I think this was with the ostensible, at least in part, goal of developing methods of resisting Soviet torture. It was, in fact, out of this research that they developed the CIA (and military) torture resistance methods and eventually produced KUBARK.

    Also, the book mentions the exact same story being told time and again from Latin America that you got from the rendition country. Whether they could see them or not, detainees consistently reported on Americans, speaking in English, walking in and out of torture and interrogation sessions.

    So, yes, it is extremely suspect (read: Load of Bull Shit) that the CIA hired someone to reverse-engineer something they quite literally wrote the book on.

  2. Quite right, torture is not new to the yanks. When the Abu Ghraib pictures came out, many recognized the hooded man with wires attached to his hands as a standard technique used on the Vietnamese. Anyone familiar with the “School of the Americas” and has read Philip Agee’s “CIA Diary” knows the claim is a load of Bu**sh**.

    The US, however, did learn torture techniques from one nation for the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel has developed and honed methods of humiliation and dehumanization used for decades against the Palestinians and others in the region.

    This includes the public destruction of crops of farmers who don’t collaborate with the Israelis, to the less visible methods used at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, such as using women and menstrual blood, defiling the koran, feeding them pork, not providing means for washing before prayers, etc.

    Many of these practices, techniques and attitudes toward prisoners by Israel are reminiscent of those used against jews in decades and centuries past.

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