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5.0 out of 5 stars A State of Depravity, 17 April 2014
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This review is from: A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (American Empire Project) (Paperback)
Alfred McCoy wrote this short history of the use of torture by the United States in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal that erupted in 2004, which along with various other scandals relating to the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, American prison camps in Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Airbase and a number of other locations, dogged the US government for a number of years.

McCoy starts with a cursory account of Tortures lengthy pedigree in Europe and the West, before moving on to a detailed study of his period which runs from the end of the second world war to the date of publication (2006). During the Korean conflict (1950-53) there was much noise generated about the supposed effectiveness of the Communists at interrogation and "brain-washing" particular giving the performance of American prisoners. It was this sense of the Soviets/Communist states being ahead, a torture/brain washing gap if you like, that gave impetus for CIA backed research and experimentation into coercive interrogations. This became a major program despite the fact that the US authorities were well aware that Soviet/Communist interrogation techniques were crude.

There seems to have been no shortage of psychiatrists and psychologists willing to carry out experiments conducive to CIA aims (their heirs would eventually participate in assisting interrogators/torturers in Guantanamo Bay). Efforts were originally focussed on the use of drugs (mainly LSD and various "truth" serums) before psychological approaches took precedence, particularly after the Canadian Psychologist Dr Ewan Cameron's experiments relating to sensory deprivation appeared to yield promising results. Dr Cameron held his drug addled patients in conditions of extreme sensory deprivation, up to at least five weeks in one definite case, and perhaps up to a maximum of twelve weeks, causing grotesque long term psychological and physical damage. His perverse experiments were generously funded by the American Government via the CIA.

Dr Cameron's research, amongst others, coalesced into the so called Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation Handbook. This formed the basis of a 10 year training program for CIA operatives, and for forty years it was the basis of CIA practice, and overseas training programs, in a number of 3rd world countries. The main testing ground for US's new "interrogation" doctrines was Vietnam where the CIA run Phoenix program functioned with boundless impunity, going way beyond the Kubark manuals psychological torture. 20,000+ Vietnamese eventually died under its auspices, often brutally murdered after lengthy periods of horrific physical and psychological torture. From Vietnam this plague spread across the world to wherever the US felt its client regimes were under threat, particularly in Latin and Central America, where Project X (who thinks up these names?) ran from 1966-91. There was even a systematic mail order program posting out a variety of interrogation (psychological torture) manuals to members of the security forces and militaries of US client regimes.

One of the distinctions McCoy makes is that between psychological and physical torture. Clearly the psychological variety, though it doesn't leave physical marks, is - in terms of long term effects - at least as disastrous for its victims as physical torture. For those who doubt this, the testimony of a Philippine Priest, a high ranking navy officer and a student give a vivid and horrifying sense of what the reality of psychological torture is, and the long term nature of its effects.

McCoy goes on to makes a case for a lull in direct US use of torture between the end of the cold war and the start of the war on terror, though no doubt alumni of US interrogation training (especially the School of the Americas) still kept the light burning through those years. After September the 11th 2001, and with the CIA as the lead organisation in operations against Al-Qaeda and associates, incidents of torture of both types increased, culminating (at least in the public mind) with the events at Abu Ghraib. McCoy carefully makes clear that it was not a few bad apples, but orders from on high (The Whitehouse) set the scene for the depraved acts at Abu Ghraib, as well as the extraordinary rendition program, and all the rest of the sordid and grotesque acts carried out across the globe by American forces and their fellow travellers in a number of countries. The books final chapter "The Question of Torture" asks a number of questions regarding torture, and comes to the conclusion that it is generally ineffective, the circumstances in which its supporters make their strongest case (eg. Alan Dershowitz's ticking bomb) hasn't presented itself in the real world. Moreover even if the targets are limited to those identified as being important members of Al Qaeda (or the Vietcong in Vietnam, or the Bath party in Iraq) the practice will soon spread, and move from purely psychological to include physical torture. This is particularly true when the US sets against organisations that have a great deal of popular support and finds itself on the back foot. It is no coincidence that the most murderous campaign of interrogation and intelligence gathering occurred in Vietnam where the Viet Cong had a great deal of popular support.

In "A Question of Torture" Alfred McCoy has written a clear and concise history of the United States use of torture in the period from 1945-2006, how its doctrines developed, and spread via client regimes across the globe. It is a book that I'd strongly recommend to anyone who wishes to know how the leading self proclaimed Liberal Democracy behaves in reality. For UK readers I would also recommend Ian Cobains excellent Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture which performs the same role vis-à-vis Britain. Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, which cites this book, is also worth reading for its detailed account of the aforementioned Dr Cameron's experiments, as well as on its own merits.
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S Wood
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