In April 2004, the American public was first exposed to the grisly and riveting images of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison, some with hoods over their faces, others contorted in humiliating positions, yet others apparently subject to attack by growling dogs, all under the auspices of - occasionally smiling - United States (U.S.) soldiers. This clearly disturbing state of affairs has given rise to many questions concerning the activities of U.S. security personnel and the practice of torture. Were the disquieting pictures that Americans had all seen the outcome of the handiwork of a few “rotten apples?” Was torture systematically used by U.S. security personnel to procure information from detainees? If torture was routinely used by U.S. personnel, then with whom did the proverbial buck stop as far as its authorization is concerned? Are U.S. interrogation procedures consistent with the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners? The purpose of this book is to shed light on these sorts of questions.
The author begins his discussion by chronicling the paranoia felt within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the early 1950s by the threat from Soviet and more generally Communist mind-control activities. The CIA felt that it had to forcefully respond and thereby defend the United States against Soviet mental interrogation and espionage activities that involved the then-novel use of psychoanalytic methods such as electroshock and psychosurgery. In response to this Communist threat, over the next several years and sometimes with the assistance of eminent academic psychologists, the CIA invested billions of dollars in all manner of mind-control projects. The objectives of this massive investment activity were twofold. First, the CIA wanted to improve its ability to conduct psychological warfare to influence entire societies. Second, it wanted to have access to better techniques with which to interrogate selected individuals. Over time, these better techniques evolved to focus on two key features, namely, “sensory deprivation” and “self-inflicted pain.” In other words, the idea here was to isolate prisoners, to hood them, to keep them standing for hours, to manipulate their sense of time, to subject them to wildly fluctuating temperatures, and to thereby destroy their sense of personal identity.
Armed with these new psychological techniques, the CIA (and occasionally other U.S. security personnel) went about their task of defending the United States against all manner of foreign threats. The author focuses extensively on the CIA and points out that this Agency - with programs like the dreaded Phoenix program in Vietnam - was particularly ruthless in first tormenting and then exterminating opponents wherever it found them. We are told that even though the United States lost the war in Vietnam, the fact that it won the Cold War gave it a certain sense of smugness. As a result, the United States felt free to support the global transition to democracy, with substantial funds for electoral reform, press freedom, and human rights. This notwithstanding, the United States never looked within to ask whether fighting the Cold War abroad might not have injured democracy at home. In particular, there was no general debate about the need for and the utility of the torture methods that the CIA in particular had adopted during the Cold War. As a result, these methods lay dormant, ready to be utilized in a future crisis, and indeed they were utilized with a vengeance in the harrowing aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001.
The author claims that only after witnessing the terrible images of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib did Americans in general and the Congress in particular systematically discuss the propriety of using torture, particularly psychological torture, to break opponents. This part of the author’s discussion is very lucid, and McCoy does a fine job of pointing to the bad faith demonstrated by the Bush administration in its dealings with Congress and others in matters concerning its desire to sanction the use of torture by selected agencies such as the CIA.
In sum, this is a well-researched book that sheds useful light on a subject of great contemporary relevance. On occasion, the author relies on the opinion of journalists to corroborate claims about psychological matters in which journalists have no obvious expertise. On other occasions, the author makes unsubstantiated claims and thereby lets his zeal get the better of him. The author’s discussion of torture is asymmetrical in the sense that he pays no attention to either the torture of Arab citizens by their own erstwhile leaders or to the torture of U.S. prisoners by foreign governments. Finally, the author’s discussion of why the practice of torture has persisted over time and across nations is, at best, incomplete. These caveats notwithstanding, the author is surely right when he quotes the Roman jurist Ulpian and tells us that “the strong can resist torture and the weak will say anything to end their pain.” If not for any other reason, then for this reason alone, the United States ought to carefully consider whether the benefits from torture outweigh the costs.