Review of A Question of Torture by Alfred W. McCoy
By Jason Miller
torture, sleep deprivation, brutality, severe sexual humiliation, and
murder summon visions of a dank dungeon in a remote region of
pre-invasion Iraq, Iran, or North Korea, replete with evil inquisitors
and hooded executioners. However, those manifestations of horror did
not spring forth from the Axis of Evil. They are actually drawn from
official post-9/11 US policy. Despite its fabled commitment to human
rights, the United States government has been committing and enabling
acts of torture for half a century. Not even Superman had the power to
snatch "Truth, Justice and the American Way" from the crushing jaws of
imperialistic ambition and avarice.
Ironically titled, Albert McCoy’s A Question of Torture probes
and exposes the extent of "the Land of the Free’s" involvement in human
torture over the years. Only a mainstream media 90% controlled by five
major corporations (whose executives and major stockholders are amongst
the de facto rulers of the America’s so-called republic) could so
effectively maintain the illusion that the United States is the world
leader in protecting human rights. Somewhere out there, David
Copperfield is burning with envy. Rest easy, David. They are running
out of magic. Destroying our Constitution and reversing the
humanitarian gains achieved by millions of Americans with a social
conscience throughout our nation’s history, the Bush Regime is
extinguishing the candle of hope America once offered to humanity.
Despite the exhaustive efforts of the media hand-maidens, people are
From our nation’s birth, many fine Americans
labored vigorously to attain a higher moral plane by ending slavery and
advancing the rights of children, minorities, women, and workers.
Contrary to the fairy tale of America’s benevolent government "of the
people", many amongst the plutocracy and emerging corporatocracy fought
the American evolution of human rights tooth and nail. Rumsfeld,
Gonzales, and company have taken that resistance to new heights and are
plunging the United States into an abyss of evil, at home and abroad.
Minority Americans, Native Americans, and citizens of other nations
have been aware of this descent for years, even before the Neocon
catalyzed acceleration. However, as the ruthlessly brazen disciples of
Strauss have fervently attacked human rights, many amongst America's
indoctrinated White working class are smelling the coffee, and it is
not the best part of waking up.
On March 8, 2006, the US State Department released its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2005,
in which it detailed human rights abuses occurring in over 190 nations.
In an act of supreme hypocrisy, they excluded themselves. As one can
readily discern simply from reading McCoy's expose' of human torture
committed by the United States since 1950, the United States is far
from being a bastion of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness".
"Torture is evil, pure and simple,"
is the powerful lesson Peggy Piel imparted to her son, Alfred McCoy.
Having spent a year of her childhood in Nazi Germany, this erudite
Jewish American knew a bit about the subject of torture. Despite his
mother's moralistic viewpoint, McCoy penned his examination of the
history of torture committed and facilitated by the United States in a
detached, analytical manner, without imposing a moral judgment. Noting
over 30 pages of sources, McCoy meticulously researched his chilling
glimpse into America's Heart of Darkness, yet still maintained relative
objectivity. No easy task in light of the virtually countless egregious
violations of human rights and acts of murder committed by the American
Empire and its proxies.
In 1950, the intelligence organization
of the "leader of the free world" began to take a strong interest in
research involving psychological torture.
1950 to 1962, the CIA became involved in torture through a massive
mind-control effort, with psychological warfare and secret research
into human consciousness that reached a cost of a billion dollars
annually—a veritable Manhattan Project of the mind."
the United States was trumpeting its deep devotion to universal human
rights, the CIA was busily developing and funding research to yield
"new and improved" torture tactics with which they could extract
information from Cold War enemies. Utilizing its unique capacity to
wield tremendous power clandestinely, the United States’ intelligence
juggernaut infiltrated and exploited hospitals, divisions of the
military, and universities to enable its research.
Many of the
nauseating acts of inhumanity depicted in the Abu Gharib photos reflect
the rotten fruits of CIA labors. Years of study and experimentation
determined that torture involving physical pain lacked efficacy. The
CIA found that strong subjects usually responded by stiffening their
resistance and weaker ones often gave false information just to end the
pain. Psychological torture, including sensory deprivation, sensory
disorientation, assault on personal identity and self-inflicted pain
appeared to provide a much richer yield of information. The Abu Gharib
photos are a window through which one can view the CIA-created world of
psychological torture. Hooding, stress positions, extreme intimidation
with ferocious dogs (for which a soldier was convicted on 3/21), and
sexual humiliation are recurring images in the Abu Gharib pictures and
are powerful examples of CIA torture protocol. Other techniques of
psychological torture the US military and CIA have used on detained
suspects in the "War on Terror" are sleep deprivation, isolation, and
dietary manipulation. As the Command Responsibility report
by Human Rights First indicates, 45 detainees in the US "War on Terror"
have been murdered or have died as a result of physical abuse. As McCoy
argues, there is a fine line between psychological torture and physical
torture, and as the American Gulag has demonstrated, torturers usually
cross that line.
As an aside, it is important to remember that
there are currently over 14,000 "suspected terrorists" or "enemy
combatants" in US custody. These individuals have been charged with no
crime and have been denied due process. Guilty until proven innocent.
Now that is justice the American way. Abu Gharib is only an aberration
because the torturers were caught. Inflicting severe psychological and
mental anguish on suspected enemies of the Empire is now official
policy and has taken place at Bagram Air Base, Camp Cropper, Guantanamo
Bay and throughout the American Gulag. As for the McCain Anti-Torture
Law, Bush and his fellow war criminals are already inventing ways to
Abu Gharib is simply a public display of the
psychological and physical torture the CIA has been implementing and
practicing for years. From 1962 to 1974, the CIA sharpened its talons
through a federal entity called the Office of Public Safety, a branch
of US AID. According to McCoy, the OPS trained one million police
officers in 47 countries. Not surprisingly, it was not long before
these same law enforcement entities began committing severe human right
rights abuses and acts of torture
It was morally repugnant
enough that the United States killed three million Vietnamese civilians
in their imperialistic escapade into Southeast Asia, euphemistically
labeling them as "collateral damage". However, McCoy describes torture
policies and techniques which resulted in the murder of tens of
thousands more Vietnamese. The Phoenix program was implemented by the
CIA to eradicate the Vietcong underground. Under CIA administration and
supervision, the PRUs (aka Provincial Interrogation Centers) of the
Phoenix program degenerated into a collection of South Vietnamese
murderers, thugs and criminals who accepted bribes, presumed guilt
based on gossip, and murdered their detainees after they completed
their interrogation. Ultimately, (if one is gullible enough to take the
word of former CIA director William Colby), the Phoenix program
murdered 20,587 "Vietcong". Saigon’s government puts the figure at
The CIA also bears responsibility for the creation of
SAVAK, the Shah of Iran’s ruthless secret police force. SAVAK killed
20,000 Iraqi "dissidents" during the Shah’s reign. In the Philippines,
CIA instruction resulted in 3,257 murders and 35,000 victims of torture
by the Ferdinand Marcos regime.
After its defeat in Vietnam, the
United States government infiltrated Latin America with a vengeance (to
stop the spread of the "Communist threat"). Project X, represented
another CIA endeavor to impart their wisdom in the arts of torture to
ruthless US allies Not satisfied with their 1963 torture manual called Kubark, the CIA wrote a sequel in Spanish entitled Handling of Sources, Interrogation, Combat Intelligence, and Terrorism and the Urban Guerilla.
Of the sequel, McCoy writes,
from these cold-blooded tactics of kidnapping, murder, beatings, and
betrayal, the manual evidences, in its 144 single-spaced pages, an
amorality, a studied willingness to exploit an ally without restraint
or compunction, hardened on the anvil of the Vietnam conflict."
located in Panama, an odious US Army institution known as the School of
Americas (sometimes called the School of Assassins) bestowed the CIA’s
torture wisdom upon hundreds of Latin American military officers. The
School of Americas fell under the auspices of Project X and provided
the "hands on" training to accompany the CIA torture manuals.
Interestingly, by 1983 the CIA had begun to re-emphasize the use of
psychological over physical torture when it wrote its Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual.
A laundry list of CIA-trained Latin American military personnel and
dictators murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands thanks to the
tutelage of Project X.
McCoy notes that the United States took a
break and out-sourced torture to its allies throughout the 1990’s.
Unfortunately for the world, the Bush Regime opportunistically seized
9/11 to begin its PNAC inspired quest for global military dominance. In
the process, the administration implemented torture as official United
States policy. Desperately attempting to fend off critics and preserve
the crumbling façade of moral superiority, America’s ruling class has
sacrificed several from amongst those near the bottom of the food
chain. However, calling the prosecution and conviction of a handful of
military personnel justice would be a farce. Those ultimately
responsible for America’s abject torture continue to act with impunity.
McCoy has vividly illustrated, America’s "grunts" at Abu Gharib and
throughout the American Gulag were acting under the orders of the Bush
Regime and under the supervision of the CIA:
1. On September 11,
2001, George Bush told Donald Rumsfeld and his staff, "Any barriers in
your way, they are gone." When they reminded him of legal constraints,
Bush shouted, "I don’t care what the international lawyers say; we are
going to kick some ass."
2. Six days later, Bush authorized the CIA to begin rendition of terror suspects to nations known to commit torture.
3. On November 13, the President determined that Al Qaeda suspects would be denied access to domestic or international courts.
Close to the end of 2001, Bush’s Justice Department approved the use of
"sleep deprivation and deployment of 'stress factors’" for
5. Bush decided the Geneva Conventions did not apply to his "War on Terror" on January 8, 2002.
On January 9, 2002, John Woo of the Justice Department crafted a memo
denying application of the Geneva Conventions and the US War Crimes Act
to suspected members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, whom he characterized
as "enemy combatants". Since they were now neither soldier nor citizen,
the articles of the Geneva Convention barring "cruel treatment and
torture" and "humiliating and degrading treatment" did not apply to
them (according to Yoo’s perverse logic).
7. As Afghans captured
in the "War on Terror" started populating Guantanamo Bay prison on
January 11, Donald Rumsfeld stated that those "unlawful combatants do
not have any rights under the Geneva Convention."
8. On January
18, the man Bush later elevated from White House legal counsel to
Attorney General (for his loyalty to the Empire) informed the President
that the Justice Department "had issued a formal legal opinion
concluding that the Geneva Convention III on the Treatment of Prisoners
of War does not apply to the conflict with Al Qaeda."
following day, Rumsfeld advised his field commanders that "Al Qaeda and
Taliban individuals under the control of the Department of Defense are
not entitled to prisoner of war status for purposes of the Geneva
Conventions of 1949."
10. January 22, 2002: Assistant Attorney
General Jay Bybee presented Alberto Gonzales with a 37 page memo which
outlined the means to implement "coercive interrogation" without legal
consequences, affirming that "neither the federal War Crimes Act nor
the Geneva Conventions would apply to the detention conditions of al
Qaeda prisoners", and that Bush had the Constitutional power to suspend
US treaties with Afghanistan.
11. Behind the scenes, Bush and
Rumsfeld approved an SAP or "special-access program" within the CIA. By
its very nature, only a handful of top level government officials are
aware of the existence of an SAP. This particular SAP endowed the CIA,
Navy Seals, and Army Delta Force with the power to assassinate, kidnap
and, of course, to torture. Concurrently, the CIA began creating the
American Gulag by establishing secret prisons in places like Diego
Garcia Island and Thailand.
12. The Bush administration
entrusted the CIA with "operational command" of its long coveted "War
on Terror", which enabled the United States to abandon FBI and military
restrictions on torture.
13. In August of 2002, Bybee, Yoo, and
Vice Presidential counsel David Addington created another Justice
Department memo "legitimizing" torture. Employing reasoning which
defied the laws of reality, this trio determined that federal law and
the UN anti-torture conventions only prohibited torture that was
"specifically intended to inflict severe pain or suffering, whether
mental or physical." They concluded that to be a crime, the torture
must "be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious
physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function,
or even death." Utilizing this memo, the CIA could evade responsibility
for torturing "enemy combatants" simply by claiming they were
attempting to gain information rather than to inflict pain. The memo
also constructed a very strict definition of psychological torture,
interpreting many CIA techniques as legal. Most significantly, in
defiance of the Supreme Court’s decision in Youngstown Sheet and Tube et al vs. Sawyer,
Bybee and his cohorts asserted that restraints on Bush’s directives to
interrogate would "represent an unconstitutional infringement of the
President’s authority to conduct war."
14. At about the same
time as the release of the Bybee memo, the Justice Department gave the
CIA classified permission to utilize harsher interrogation tactics than
the military, including water boarding, a practice which leads the
victim to believe they are drowning.
Bush and his murderous
cabal gave the authorization, the CIA provided supervision, and the
military carried out the "coercive interrogation". A Question of Torture
sheds significant light on the culpability of Generals Miller and
Sanchez in implementing the policy of inflicting excruciating
psychological and physical pain on "enemy combatants" throughout the
military prison system in Iraq, the nation America "rescued" from
Saddam Hussein. America’s leaders condoned torture and ordered their
subordinates to carry it out. In the tradition of monsters like Pol
Pot, they continue to wallow in the benefits of money, power, and
impunity. Small wonder much of the world hates the American Empire, and
particularly its de facto rulers.
The CIA has repeatedly
demonstrated that they are slow learners. Brutality, abuse, and
torture, whether physical or psychological, are not only gross
violations of a person’s inalienable human rights; they are ineffective
means of extracting information or modifying behavior. The FBI is one
of the few federal law enforcement or military entities not implicated
in the web of torture emerging in the "War on Terror" and, according to
McCoy’s research, its agents’ legal, humane interrogation tactics were
yielding respectable results before Bush superseded them with the CIA.
lacking value beyond its capacity to satisfy a primal urge for revenge,
torture is a double-edged sword which harms both perpetrator and
victim. McCoy points out that committing torture intoxicates one with
power. Organizations and governments engaging in mass torture
deteriorate as the rule of law and respect for humanity disintegrates,
breaking down their political and social structures. Objectifying and
inflicting suffering upon helpless human beings leaves deep scars upon
the souls of the torturers and creates monstrous sociopaths Contrary to
the wishful thinking of the Bush Regime, the United States will reap a
bitter harvest once the noxious weeds of torture grow to maturity.
except in the minds of those who tenaciously cling to their
indoctrination from the American Empire, there is no question that the
United States egregiously violates human rights on a frequent basis.
For a more thorough examination of the cancer of torture ravaging the
United States, read A Question of Torture by Alfred McCoy.
Miller is a 39 year old activist writer with a degree in liberal arts.
When he is not spending time with his wife and three sons, researching,
or writing, he is working as a loan counselor. He is a member of
Amnesty International and an avid supporter of Oxfam International and
Human Rights Watch. He welcomes responses at email@example.com or comments on his blog, Thomas Paine's Corner, at http://civillibertarian.blogspot.com/.