The recent US Senate report on the CIA’s interrogation programme is a disturbing insight into the Agency’s use of torture between 2001 and 2009. While the full Committee Study, which totals more than 6,700 pages, remains classified, a redacted summary has been released to the public that outlines the CIA’s abuse of prisoners. It reveals that captives were subjected to forced ‘rectal feeding’, waterboarding, and week-long sleep deprivation. Some captives were chained to walls for days, one prisoner died of suspected hypothermia, while another was threatened with a drill and pistol. On many occasions, the CIA failed to adequately justify imprisonment, threats were made to prisoners’ families, and one man was held solely as a means of pressuring a family member into providing information. In some cases, cruelty combined with incompetence as CIA officials tortured two of the Agency’s own informants.
In response to the Committee’s report, the White House has condemned CIA actions, arguing that they undermine the US government’s ‘moral authority’. In recent years, US political figures have similarly contended that Washington’s ethical standing has been eroded by a steady stream of reports detailing the abuse of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and various secret ‘black sites’ around the world. Yet claims that this recent use of torture is an aberration that undermines Washington’s customary morality appear to ignore the CIA’s historic behaviour.
Certainly the CIA was not constrained by conventional morality during the Cold War when it worked to overthrow elected governments, support death squads and assist brutal dictatorships as part of the US government’s global effort to ‘contain’ communism. In 1963, the Agency produced the KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual that provided guidelines for interrogation and ‘particularly the counterintelligence interrogation of resistant sources.’ 1 The manual outlined the ‘principal coercive techniques of interrogation’, which were deemed to be ‘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.’ 2
CIA agents were told that these techniques ‘should be chosen for their effects upon the individual and carefully selected to match his personality’ while, subsequently, the ‘pressures of duress should be slackened or lifted after compliance has been obtained, so that the interrogatee’s voluntary cooperation will not be impeded.’ 3 The manual warned that headquarter approval ‘must be obtained for the interrogation of a foreign national against his will under any of the following circumstances: (1) if bodily harm is to be inflicted; (2) if medical, chemical, or electrical methods or materials are to be used to induce an acquiescence; or (3) if the detention is locally illegal and traceable’. 4
The CIA’s 1983 Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual went over much of the same ground and was used to instruct Latin American officials from at least seven countries. It emphasised that ‘solitary confinement acts on most persons as a powerful stress’ and that once ‘the stress and anxiety become unbearable’ interrogators could then take advantage of the situation ‘by assuming a benevolent role.’ 5 After Congress and the press began to investigate the use of CIA training techniques in Central America, the manual was hand-edited sometime between 1984 and early 1985. For example, the section originally stating that ‘Deprivation of sensory stimuli induces stress and anxiety. The more complete the deprivation, the more rapidly and deeply the subject is affected’ was altered to read ‘Extreme deprivation of sensory stimuli induces unbearable stress and anxiety and is a form of torture. Its use constitutes a serious impropriety and violates policy.’ 6
In fact, the senior agent who was selected as the CIA’s head of interrogations in 2002 provided interrogation training in Latin America during the early 1980s and was criticized for ‘inappropriate use of interrogation techniques’. 7 Furthermore, in 1984, the US government investigated allegations of misconduct on the part of two Agency officers who were involved in interrogations and the death of one individual. 8 During the same period one CIA agent played Russian Roulette with a prisoner. 9 In March 1985, a new coversheet was included in the manual which warned that ‘exposure to inhumane treatment of any kind as an aid to interrogation … is neither authorized nor condoned’. 10 Nevertheless, in 1986, the CIA ended its interrogation training programme in Latin America amid revelations that US-trained agents had tortured prisoners. 11
With knowledge of the CIA’s history, its use of torture appears less of a shocking irregularity but, rather, the predictable behaviour of a secretive and powerful government agency with little accountability and a long-held belief that ends justify means. That is not to say that we should become conditioned to accept the CIA’s human rights abuses but we ought to understand that there is little chance of Washington gaining any ‘moral authority’ while the Agency still exists.
Mark Seddon completed his PhD at the University of Sheffield in 2014. His research focuses on British and US interventions in Latin America during the Second World War and Cold War. You can find him on twitter @MarkSedd0n.
- CIA KUBARAK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual, July 1963, p. 1. ↩
- CIA KUBARAK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual, July 1963, p. 85. ↩
- CIA KUBARAK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual, July 1963, p. 103. ↩
- CIA KUBARAK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual, July 1963, p. 8. ↩
- CIA Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983, K-6, K-7. ↩
- CIA Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983, K-7. ↩
- US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, Executive Summary, 3 December 2014, p. 19. ↩
- CIA Inspector General Special Review, Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities (September 2001 – October 2003), 7 May 2004, p. 9. ↩
- US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, Executive Summary, 3 December 2014, p. 424, n. 2380. ↩
- CIA Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983, ‘Prohibition Against Use of Force’. ↩
- CIA Inspector General Special Review, Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities (September 2001 – October 2003), 7 May 2004, p. 10. ↩