Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: see also "CIA Manual Explains Mystery of 'Disappeared'" in news section.]

On the American View of Torture

by Lucy Komisar

Do Americans not want to admit that U.S. troops are capable of torture?
(AR) NEW YORK -- Something seemed wrong to me when I saw television reports of the U.S. Marines who had been videotaped grinding or hammering the pins of jump wings into the chests of paratrooper school graduates at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in 1991 and 1993.

Secretary of Defense and others said that day, January 31, that they were disgusted by this "hazing" ritual. The commentators also talked about hazing.

Something wrong here, I thought. Something didn't click. What was it?


What we saw was "torture." T-o-r-t-u-r-e. Its dictionary definition is "Infliction of or subjection to extreme physical pain."

Is there some reason those news reporters and government officials all used the word hazing? The Los Angeles Times properly said "torture" in its editorial; perhaps other papers did so too. But why didn't government officials or the network broadcaster see what I saw?

Do Americans not like to recognize that torture exists, to see what it looks like, to replicate the grimaces and screams they saw on television to thousands of other faces that experience that pain every day in countries across the world? Including in countries whose governments are Washington allies?

I did a Reuters web search on "hazing" and came up with the marine report. Then I did a search for "torture." No American marines -- just Palestinians, Turks, various Latin American governments, and the Nazi, Herman Goering.

Do Americans not want to admit that U.S. troops are capable of torture? Years ago, I interviewed Vietnam veterans who described tortures by U.S. troops which they had witnessed.

The use of "physical strain" and other "coercive" techniques during interrogation
Ironically, a few days before the "hazing" incident, the CIA admitted -- as the result of a lawsuit threatened by the Baltimore Sun -- that it had trained foreign agents in torture techniques. It declassified a 1963 Vietnam era interrogation manual and a 1983 manual based on it that was used to train security forces in at least five Latin American countries.

The "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual -- 1983," written by the CIA's clandestine Operations Directorate, talked about the use of "physical strain" and other "coercive" techniques during interrogation.

The manual directed that prisoners be blindfolded, stripped and given a thorough medical examination, "including all body cavities." It recommended keeping them blindfolded and naked and interrogating them in rooms that were dark and soundproof, without windows, and lacking toilets. It said that prisoners should be deprived of food and sleep, and made to stand at attention for long periods.

The CIA discussed inflicting pain or the threat of pain, noting, "The threat to inflict pain may trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain. In fact, most people underestimate their capacity to withstand pain." It said of a victim that "pain which he feels he is inflicting upon himself is more likely to sap his resistance."

Or the torturers could deprive the victim of sensory stimulation to cause stress and anxiety, the CIA manual said. "The more complete the deprivation, the more rapidly and deeply the subject is affected," the agency advised.

The earlier manual, "KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation -- July 1963," ordered agents to adhere to proper procedures when they carried out the prescribed brutality. Specifically, it said, "prior Headquarters approval ... must be obtained for the interrogation of any source against his will and 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 acquiescence.

3. (deleted)"

What horrible measures were so much worse than electrical torture that they were deleted from the declassified document? Was it "If death is expected to result?"

The instructions were apparently also put to use in the U.S. too
The manual's suggested practices including use of threats, fear, "debility, pain, heightened suggestibility and hypnosis, narcosis [drugs] and induced regression."

To assure easy access to the torturer's favorite tool --- electric current -- the book advised: "If a new safehouse is to be used as the interrogation site, it should be studied carefully to be sure that the total environment can be manipulated as desired. For example, the electric current should be known in advance, so that transformers or other modifying devices will be on hand if needed."

The Baltimore Sun reported: "An intelligence source told The Sun, 'The CIA has acknowledged privately and informally in the past that this referred to the application of electric shocks to interrogation suspects.'"

According to The Sun, that manual was apparently used to teach Honduran military how to torture leftists in the early 1980's. The instructions were apparently also put to use in the U.S., too. In one case, a Soviet intelligence officer who defected to the United States in 1964 -- and was suspected of being a double agent -- was imprisoned outside Washington in a tiny cell and interrogated relentlessly and continuously for five years. Such abusive treatment was, of course, illegal under American law. The CIA never proved him to be a double agent.

Only a day before the revelation of the incident with the Marine paratroopers, the State Department published its annual report of human rights abuses around the world. Foreign governments have often decried the arrogance of Americans for issuing this "report card" on their governments.

The country reports are important, however, and should continue to be published; they raise the consciousness of the world's public about egregious abuses of power and often force governments to modify their behavior.

Americans, no less than others, need to be sensitized about torture. They need to be told it happens here, under the auspices of their own government. The next country report should include a section on the United States.

Lucy Komisar, a New York journalist, is writing a book about U.S. foreign policy and human rights in the 1970's and '80s

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Albion Monitor February 18, 1997 (

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