U.S. Has a History of Using Torture

In April 2004, Americans were stunned when CBS broadcast those now-notorious photographs from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, showing hooded Iraqis stripped naked while U.S. soldiers stood by smiling.  As this scandal grabbed headlines around the globe, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted that the abuses were “perpetrated by a small number of U.S. military,” whom New York Times’ columnist William Safire soon branded “creeps”–a line that few in the press had reason to challenge.


When I looked at these photos, I did not see snapshots of simple brutality or a breakdown in military discipline. After more than a decade of studying the Philippine military’s torture techniques for a monograph published by Yale back 1999, I could see the tell-tale signs of the CIA’s psychological methods. For example, that iconic photo of a hooded Iraqi with fake electrical wires hanging from his extended arms  shows, not the sadism of a few “creeps,” but instead the two key trademark’s of the CIA’s psychological torture. The hood was for sensory disorientation. The arms were extended for self-inflicted pain. It was that simple; it was that obvious.


After making that argument in an op-ed for the Boston Globe two weeks after CBS published the photos, I began exploring the historical continuity, the connections, between the CIA torture research back in the 1950s and Abu Ghraib in 2004. By using the past to interrogate the present, I published a book titled A Question of Torture last January that tracks the trail of an extraordinary historical and institutional continuity through countless pages of declassified documents. The findings are disturbing and bear directly upon the ongoing bitter debate over torture that culminated in the enactment of the Military Commissions law just last October.


From 1950 to 1962, the CIA led a secret research effort to crack the code of human consciousness, a veritable Manhattan project of the mind with costs that reached a billion dollars a year. Many have heard about the most outlandish and least successful aspect of this research — the testing of LSD on unsuspecting subjects and the tragic death of a CIA employee, Dr. Frank Olson, who jumped to his death from a New York hotel after a dose of this drug. This Agency drug testing, the focus of countless sensational press accounts and a half-dozen major books, led nowhere.