[When the practice of torture by US forces is forced by events into the public eye, the US media and politicians routinely frame the practice as an exceptional response to difficult, extreme situations and conditions. But new reports on official US training materials and “how to” primers, designed for use by US forces and distributed for use by CIA surrogates and embryonic agents in foreign militaries, reveals a longstanding historic policy which has continued without regard to circumstance or time. These primers were the sort of instructions provided along with US prisoners “renditioned” — ‘outsourced’ — to other countries, as a service to the US, for torture and interrogation. And, it must be said,among the countries providing such services to the US in recent years, were Gaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria. — Frontlines ed.]
rom The Jadaliyya Ezine by Lisa Hajjar
The FBI primer favourably invokes the KUBARK manual as a resource to illustrate the value of isolation “for several days before you begin interrogation” as well as during the “multi-session, multi-day process” as a means of prolonging a prisoner’s fear prior to interrogation. The encouragement of fear-production through isolation is disturbing for (at least) two reasons. First, it indicates that some elements of the CIA’s psychological torture model continue to have currency, despite the scandalous record of US prisoner abuse in the “war on terror” and the Obama administration’s pledge to end torture.
One of the many victims of the US extraordinary rendition programme, Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was shipped from New York to Syria in 2002, responded to the FBI primer’s advocacy of isolation with the following tweets: “That’s called torture. I say this from experience. Isolation 4 long time becomes worse than physical beating.” “1 thing isolation inflicted on me is that my cognitive skills have been greatly & permanently diminished.” And “If u want 2 know what solitary confinement does 2 humans try locking urself in the bathroom 4 only 24hrs. Please tweet about ur findings.”
Arar’s failed attempt to obtain justice in a US court for the abuses to which he was reportedly subjected by and at the behest of the US government is one of many markers of this nation’s refusal to deal seriously with the legacy of torture. No wonder, then, that the FBI section chief in the counterterrorism division who is understood to have written the primer would feel no compulsion not to craft current policy from this unaccountable recent past.
The second disturbing element is the primer author’s apparent unawareness – or disregard – for the ignominious history of KUBARK, and the CIA record more generally. Did he or she never read Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy, or Alfred McCoy’s A Question of Torture, or Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine to name but a few of the many studies that detail and critique that history? Since KUBARK continues to be an operable model, it is worth recalling some highlights (or lowlights) of that history in order to put the 2011 primer into context.
KUBARK’s shadowy past
KUBARK was the product of the CIA’s “mind control” research programme, which was prompted by the terrible mistreatment of US prisoners of war during the Korean War. Many soldiers who were captured by the North Koreans were beaten, starved, put into forced labour, marched to death, or summarily executed. China, which fought alongside North Korea, also committed war crimes against POWs, but added a new tactic to their repertoire of mistreatment: after starving prisoners into a weakened state, they subjected them to communist indoctrination. That history was immortalised in John Frankenheimer’s (1962) political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, which features a character who was “brainwashed” to become an assassin for an international communist conspiracy.
The CIA took a lesson from the Korean War. Fearful that a communist regime might achieve a breakthrough in the art of brainwashing, in 1953 the agency established the MK-ULTRA programme and invested in mind-control research. This began with experiments in hypnosis, electroshock, and hallucinogenic drugs – including LSD. The CIA programme evolved into psychological torture, which fuses tactics of sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain (ie: stress position abuse). Unlike beatings and other tactics that violently attack the body, this combination, as McCoy explains, targets the mind and “causes victims to feel responsible for their suffering and thus capitulate more readily to their torturers”. The 1963 KUBARK manual explains the purposes and uses of various combinations of tactics – including isolation – that systematically attack all of the human senses to produce effects of “debility, disorientation and dread”.
By the late 1950s, the US viewed the conflict in Vietnam as critical to the Cold War goal of containment and rollback of communism. The US started sending forces to South Vietnam in the early 1960s. To root out Southern guerillas (Viet Cong) who were allied with the North, the CIA trained more than 85,000 South Vietnamese police, who operated a network of interrogational torture sites across the country. The CIA developed the Phoenix programme, which typified terroristic torture in its combination of brutal interrogations and extrajudicial executions. Although the Phoenix programme was an intelligence-gathering failure (and more than 26,000 prisoners were either tortured to death or summarily executed), the model lived on.
In the Western Hemisphere, US anxieties about the spread of communism spiked following Fidel Castro’s 1959 victory in the Cuban revolutionary war and the installation of a communist government allied to the Soviet Union. The counter-insurgency warfare models honed in Vietnam were transported to Latin America in the 1960s through Project X, a secret training programme of Army Intelligence for militaries and police. The Phoenix programme model was incorporated into the curriculum of the School of the Americas.
Starting with Brazil in 1963, right-wing military leaders across Latin America seized power from democratically elected governments, with US encouragement and assistance. Through the School of the Americas and other US institutions (including the philanthropic Ford Foundation), regional military and political leaders were educated about the free market theories of Milton Friedman, an economics professor at the University of Chicago. Friedman and his acolytes, nicknamed the Chicago Boys, were opposed to any state involvement in the economy. They believed that for the market to be truly “free”, government regulation of industry, subsidies, and social welfare programmes should end.
In The Shock Doctrine, Klein explains how Friedman’s fascination with the 1950s CIA-funded research into electric shock therapy to turn individuals’ minds into empty slates that could be inscribed with new information (brainwashing) inspired his theories about how whole societies could be shocked to accept (unpopular) free market policies of privatisation, deregulation, and the termination of social programmes. In 1973, Friedman advised Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who had just seized power (with US assistance) from the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, to impose economic shock therapy while Chilean society was in shock from the coup. Thus, Chile became the first place where the Chicago Boys’ theories could be applied in the real world.
Those economic shock policies instituted by the Pinochet regime and emulated by other Latin American military dictatorships were a disaster. In the short term, the gutting of public services and popular social welfare programmes sparked unrest as people protested the declining standards of living. Over the longer term, national revenues diminished as multinational corporations bought up de-nationalised industries and transported profits to shareholders abroad. To defend their policies and subdue unrest, these military regimes embarked on national wars against domestic subversives and enemies, which they regarded as part of the West’s war against international communism.
In these “dirty wars”, the people targeted by the region’s military regimes were depicted as traitors and communists, or guilty by association with leftist political movements. As Lawrence Weschler explains in A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers, the doctrine of national security guiding these military regimes was “a fearsome piece of work… The enemy – the International Communist Movement – is perceived as covertly operating everywhere, all the time, in all fields of human endeavour”.
Although it is impossible to know exactly how many people were tortured by these military regimes from the 1960s through the 1980s, experts estimate the number between 100,000 and 150,000, tens of thousands of whom were killed. In some countries, following the collapse of these regimes, their records became the subject of investigations and published reports that took as their titles “never again”. Since 1990, a number of leaders of the former military regimes have faced prosecution for torture and other crimes committed while they were in power.
The US has not had its “never again” reckoning, neither for the historic role of aiding other countries in their torture nor for our own history of torture. The FBI, which distinguished itself during the Bush years for refusing to cooperate with the CIA when illegal (and ineffective) tactics were used in the interrogation of prisoners, has now, apparently, decided to embrace some of the measures it had repudiated not long ago.
[This article was originally published on Al Jazeera.]