Torture Worldwide and the CIA: A UW-Madison Professor’s Book Tells 50-Year Tale of Pyschological Torture Techniques Devised by U.S. Agency

Untitled Document Wisconsin State Journal


Date: Sunday, January 22, 2006

Byline: RON SEELY 608-252-6131

When UW-Madison professor Alfred McCoy first saw the photograph of a hooded Iraqi prisoner from the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, he remembers feeling a sickening shock of recognition.

Hooded, arms outspread, tethered to fake electrical wires, the prisoner was balancing on a small, upended box.

What McCoy saw when he looked at the image was a classic demonstration of torture
techniques pioneered and taught by the Central Intelligence Agency — something McCoy has run across several times around the world during his research on subjects ranging from drugs to revolution. Thus began a trip back in time for McCoy, 60, a sojourn into a dark subject that has surfaced previously in his research and about which he has written, though not in great detail. The subject had so depressed him that he left it behind some years ago.

But after Abu Ghraib, McCoy began his own methodical investigation into the connections between the CIA and torture. The result is a book released this month called “A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror.”

In it, McCoy draws on more than 30 years of research and sometimes dangerous fieldwork to put the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib into a 50-year historical context. His work implicates the CIA in the use and propagation of psychological torture techniques worldwide.

The book comes at a time when the subjects of torture and the gathering of intelligence are much in the headlines. On Wednesday, the international group Human Rights Watch concluded in its annual report that the Bush administration has a deliberate strategy of abusing terror suspects during interrogations. The group based its conclusion on
statements over the last year by senior administration officials.

The White House denied the charges. And last month, Bush signed legislation outlawing torture by U.S. security forces. But critics pointed out that Bush also issued an accompanying “signing statement” in which he said the administration would interpret the new law “in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said afterward that, despite signing the law, Bush had in essence said that “whatever the law of the land might be, whatever Congress might have written, the executive branch has the right to authorize torture without fear of judicial review.”

McCoy’s book has been well received, even in some unexpected places. A review on described the book as “scrupulously documented and grippingly told” and “a devastating indictment of inhumane practices that have spread throughout the intelligence system, damaging America’s laws, military, and international standing.”

Unique niche

McCoy is the J.R.W. Small Professor of History at UW-Madison. Over the last 30 years or so, he has carved out a unique niche for himself (he calls it an “uncommon expertise”) detailing the history of a “covert netherworld” in this country and abroad.

Much of his early work involved the study of the politics of heroin and resulted in two acclaimed books — one on narcotics and organized crime in Australia and another, “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia,” which revealed the role of the CIA in the smuggling of opium out of Laos.

The latter was chosen as one of the 100 most important books of the century by the left-leaning political newsletter Counterpunch, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair.

Also an expert on the history of the Philippines, McCoy has published several books about that country and is well known there for his work on subjects ranging from the Japanese occupation during World War II to the downfall of the Marcos regime. Three of his books on Philippine history have won that country’s National Book Award.

It was never McCoy’s intention to track and detail the activities of the CIA. But, from the jungles of Laos to the palaces and prisons of Manila, the CIA has always been in the shadows where McCoy has traveled and worked.

In his book, and in the essays that preceded it, McCoy drew on his experiences, as well as an extensive search of hundreds of recently declassified documents, to lay the issue of torture on the doorstep of the CIA.

CIA torture research

It started this time with the Abu Ghraib photos.

“There was the hood, the sensory deprivation,” he recalled. “The arms extended for self-inflicted pain. It was all codified CIA from the agency’s covert interrogation manual of 1963, the textbook.”

That document would be one of hundreds McCoy would find himself studying in the following months, many from the National Archives. McCoy said it is remarkable how many documents on the subject are available online. Even the CIA’s interrogation manual, with its ominously titled chapter on “The Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistance Sources,” is available on the National Archives site on the World Wide Web.

Through his study, McCoy traced the origin of the torture techniques seen at Abu Ghraib to CIA research in the 1950s. It was during that time, McCoy reported, that the agency started pumping as much as $1 billion a year into secret research on coercion and the malleability of human consciousness (among that research was the testing of LSD on unsuspecting subjects).

Eventually, the CIA’s research would lead to a new psychological kind of torture. Known as “no-touch” torture, it involved the use of stress positions, sensory deprivation and sexual humiliation.

McCoy supplemented the new material with his extensive knowledge and documentation of the CIA’s work in other parts of the world, primarily the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

In 1986, for example, McCoy spent considerable time interviewing the Filipino military leaders who led a coup against dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

His interview with Col. Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan focused mostly on torture under the Marcos regime, some of which had been carried out by Honasan using techniques learned from the CIA.

” We swam in blood for an hour plus,” McCoy recalled of the interview. “I emerged so shaken I was barely cognizant of what was happening.”

Though not the primary focus of the work he was doing at the time, McCoy listened closely and filed away his notes. His work in the Philippines led to a 1999 book called “Closer Than Brothers: Manhood at the Philippine Military Academy,” which dealt in part with hazing and the lessons of torture passed on there. He found through his research that
two of the top officers at the academy had CIA training. In addition to interviewing military officials who had worked as interrogators, McCoy also sought out victims for their stories.

Thorough research

In early 2005, McCoy’s work on torture and the CIA was published as an essay in The New England Journal of Public Policy, a prestigious forum for scholars published semi-annually by the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Editor Padraig O’Malley, speaking to the Wisconsin State Journal from his home in South Africa, said he has worked with McCoy on other projects and praised the historian not only for the importance of his work but also its accuracy.

Nearly 70 pages of the new book that grew from the essay is taken up by references to documents and interviews McCoy used to make his claims.

“One of the things that immediately attracted me to Mr. McCoy’s work,” O’Malley said, “was the depth of the research. He rarely makes a comment that has not been very thoroughly researched.”

O’Malley said it is also worth noting that McCoy’s essay revealing the CIA’s role in torture in Iraq and elsewhere preceded the revelations that appeared in the popular press, primarily the investigative reporting done by Seymour Hersh for the New Yorker.

Others also speak highly of McCoy’s thoroughness as a researcher and his trustworthiness as a chronicler of history.

Steve Stern, chairman of the UW-Madison History Department, called McCoy a “fearless researcher,” and said the work he is doing is unique and important.

“Al had done research on so many sensitive topics,” Stern said. “He’s a terrific historian on Southeast Asia. And he’s tackled issues that cut across so many different world regions. It’s unusual for someone to be able to do that.”

Dangerous places

McCoy has always had a reputation for ferreting out the precise damning document and for doing his research not just in dusty libraries — but in the field, often in the dangerous places about which he was writing. McCoy was shot at by mercenaries in the Laotian jungle while interviewing Hmong opium farmers.

He’s had run-ins with gangsters and police in Australia while working on a book there on the drug trade. He’s been closely watched by the CIA and other agencies over the years. The CIA’s efforts to suppress his book on the agency’s involvement in the Southeast Asian drug trade was documented in the New York Times by reporter Hersh. And McCoy produced from his records a fat FBI file on his activities, which he secured from the agency through a records request.

In 1981, he secured a teaching job at the University of New South Wales in Australia, where he was able to live a somewhat less scrutinized life. Earlier he had taught at Yale and served as a research fellow at the Research School of Pacific Studies in Australia.

He moved to Madison in 1989, where a position as a professor of history promised the Yale graduate the academic freedom he sought. He has not been disappointed.

“This is one of the only universities in the United States where I could do what I’ve done,” McCoy said. “There is a deep commitment to academic freedom here. And there is a deep respect in this community for people who run against the grain.”

Others familiar with McCoy and his work agree that he and UW-Madison have been a good fit. One of them is Jonathon Knight who works for the American Association of University Professors and heads the program on academic freedom.

Knight said McCoy is correct in his assessment of UW-Madison as a campus that zealously protects work that might be frowned upon elsewhere “Certainly,” Knight said, “the university does have that reputation.”

For all of his travels and his far-reaching work, McCoy has settled comfortably here with his wife, Mary, and their two children.

He figures he has become very much a Madisonian because one of his favorite things to do during a Wisconsin winter is to ski out onto the
middle of Lake Mendota and relish the distance and the remoteness of the

” You could be in the Arctic,” he said.

Library debate

Madison also played a crucial role in the completion of McCoy’s book.

writing the book on the military academy in the Philippines, McCoy had set
the subject of torture aside. It was simply too difficult to
live with for long, he said.

” At that point I was exhausted with the topic,” McCoy said. “It’s
such a
depressing thing to have to sit there and read a detailed report from
Amnesty International, not just to read it but to study the text as
carefully as you would literature or poetry. There’s no salvation in it,
no redemption.”

Years later, nearing completion of “A Question of Torture,” McCoy
it difficult to push ahead with the book. He found inspiration, however,
in an unlikely place.

With the manuscript almost done, McCoy was invited to
speak on the subject to a group of retired professors and professionals at
Sequoya branch of the Madison Public Library.

Two hundred people crammed into
a back room of the library for the talk, which was followed by a rough-and-tumble
debate about whether torture is
justified under some circumstances. McCoy remembered being touched by
the depth and sincerity of emotion among those discussing the issue in
that quiet, storefront library.

In the struggle of that audience, McCoy said,
he glimpsed the struggle of all Americans. After the attacks on the World Trade
Center, McCoy
said, the entire country began to question whether, under certain
circumstances, the use of torture might be justified.

His conclusion? Torture,
in the end, is simply wrong — both because extensive research shows that it
doesn’t work as a tool to extract
information and, more importantly, because the price a society pays for
abiding the use of torture is far too high.

” Torture will not and cannot serve as a bargain-price shortcut to
security,” McCoy writes. “It is a deal with the devil that will leave
Satan holding a balloon mortgage on the American birthright of liberty.”

Reprinted with the permission of the Wisconsin
State Journal

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