Again about Tortures

Linked to our presentation of Alfred McCoy – USA on Jan. 16, 2006.

Alfred W. McCoy is professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is the author of Closer Than Brothers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), a study of the impact of torture upon the Philippine armed forces, and The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, which made the list as one of CounterPunch’s Top 100 books of the last century.; fortesbookclub;;


The Long Shadow of CIA Torture Research, By ALFRED W. McCOY

The photos from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison are snapshots, not of simple brutality or a breakdown in discipline, but of CIA torture techniques that have metastasized, over the past 50 years, like an undetected cancer inside the US intelligence community (See on Counterpunch).

From 1950 to 1962, the CIA led massive, secret research into coercion and consciousness that reached a billion dollars at peak. After experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, electric shocks, and sensory deprivation, this CIA research produced a new method of torture that was psychological, not physical–best described as “no touch torture.”

The CIA’s discovery of psychological torture was a counter-intuitive break-through–indeed, the first real revolution in this cruel science since the 17th century. In its modern application, the physical approach required interrogators to inflict pain, usually by crude beatings that often produced heightened resistance or unreliable information. Under the CIA’s new psychological paradigm, however, interrogators used two essential methods, disorientation and self-inflicted pain, to make victims feel responsible for their own suffering.

In the CIA’s first stage, interrogators employ simple, non-violent techniques to disorient the subject. To induce temporal confusion, interrogators use hooding or sleep deprivation. To intensify disorientation, interrogators often escalate to attacks on personal identity by sexual humiliation.

Once the subject is disoriented, interrogators move on to a second stage with simple, self-inflicted discomfort such as standing for hours with arms extended. In this phase, the idea is to make victims feel responsible for their own pain and thus induce them to alleviate it by capitulating to the interrogator’s power.

In his statement on reforms at Abu Ghraib last week, General Geoffrey Miller, former chief of the Guantanamo detention center and now prison commander in Iraq, offered an unwitting summary of this two-phase torture. “We will no longer, in any circumstances, hood any of the detainees,” the general said. “We will no longer use stress positions in any of our interrogations. And we will no longer use sleep deprivation in any of our interrogations.”

Although seemingly less brutal, “no touch” torture leaves deep psychological scars on both victims and interrogators. The victims often need long treatment to recover from trauma far more crippling than physical pain. The perpetrators can suffer a dangerous expansion of ego, leading to escalating cruelty and lasting emotional problems.

After codification in the CIA’s “Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation” manual in 1963, the new method was disseminated globally to police in Asia and Latin America through USAID’s Office of Public Safety (OPS). Following allegations of torture by USAID’s police trainees in Brazil, the US Senate closed down OPS in 1975.

After OPS was abolished, the Agency continued to disseminate its torture methods through the US Army’s Mobile Training Teams, which were active in Central America during the 1980s. In 1997, the Baltimore Sun published chilling extracts of the “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual” that these Army teams had distributed to allied militaries for 20 years.

In the ten years between the last known use of these manuals in the early 1990s and arrest of Al Queda suspects since September 2001, torture continued as a US intelligence practice by delivering suspects to allied agencies, including Philippine National Police who broke the trans-Pacific bomb plot in 1995.

Once the War on Terror started, however, the US use of “no touch” torture resumed, first surfacing at Bagram Air Base near Kabul in early 2002 where Pentagon investigators found two Afghans had died during interrogation. In reports from Iraq, the methods are strikingly similar to those detailed over 40 years ago in the CIA’s Kubark manual and later used by US-trained security forces worldwide.

Following the CIA’s two-part technique, last September General Miller instructed US military police at Abu Ghraib to soften up high-priority detainees in the initial disorientation phase for later “successful interrogation and exploitation” by CIA and Military Intelligence. As often happens in “no touch” torture sessions, this process soon moved beyond sleep and sensory deprivation to sexual humiliation. In the second, still unexamined phase, US Army intelligence and CIA operatives probably administered the prescribed mix of interrogation and self-inflicted pain–outside the frame of these photographs.

If a fuller inquiry does establish that this is was what happened at Abu Ghraib, then these seven MPs are neither “creeps” nor weaklings who succumbed to the prison pressure-cooker. They are ordinary American soldiers following orders within a standard interrogation procedure. Whatever their guilt, the court martial of these soldiers should be just a first step up the chain of command and beyond to far-reaching reforms.

At home and abroad, the United States has been, for over 50 years a strong voice in the fight against torture. Simultaneously, however, the CIA’s method has become so widely accepted that US interrogators seem unaware that they are, in fact, engaged in systematic torture. From 1970 to 1988, Congress held hearings four times to expose the CIA’s use of torture. But each time, the public did not demand reform and the practice persisted.

But now, through these photographs from Abu Ghraib, we can see the reality of these interrogation techniques. We have a chance to join fully with the international community in repudiating a practice that, more than any other, represents a denial of democracy.


Book Review of ‘Closer than Brothers’:

Closer Than Brothers: Manhood at the Philippine Military Academy, Alfred W. McCoy, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2000, 416 pages, $40.00.

In Closer Than Brothers, Alfred W. McCoy presents a prosopo-graphy of two Philippine Military Academy (PMA) classes: 1940, its first; and 1971, its most controversial. Both classes faced similar political decisions that they collectively and individually handled in markedly different ways. McCoy asks these questions:

How is an officer corps socialized?

What factors promote the social-ization’s collapse?

Why did these two groups of young men, who graduated from the same school under similar curricula, turn out so differently?

Of course, McCoy realizes that the simple answer to all the questions is that internal and external factors unique to each class determine different outcomes. Each class might be subjected to rigorous drill, discipline, and indoctrination, but its mix of personalities and values, influenced by society’s political values and the ruling government’s political agenda, make it unique.

The class of 1940 came of age during the Philippines’ colonial era (1898-1935). The U.S. Army encouraged the Commonwealth government to create an officer corps in its own image—one that was professional but apolitical. From 1945 through the 1970s, the United States regarded the Philippines as a showcase for democracy and discouraged professional officers’ political ambitions.

In the 1970s, however, the United States increased support to Ferdinand Marcos’ constitutional coup with the attendant politicization of the officer corps. In the 1980s, the United States turned against the Marcos government and supported Corazon Aquino, which contributed to the rash of unsuccessful coups led by the class of 1971.

McCoy also concentrates on other variables, including the differing images of masculinity the two classes carried with them and the corrosive effects of politicization on military socialization and professionalism. He also grapples with problems inherent in comparative studies. Although certain external features are comparable, individuals cannot be easily separated from their own contemporary cultural contexts. Does this mean comparative historical works are futile? McCoy would vigorously deny this; although there are similarities, they can cloak profound differences.

McCoy’s interesting, thought-provoking issues include the causes of coups d’etat, military socialization, and how torture affects its practi-tioners. The group biographies are also fascinating. McCoy highlights successes and failures as well as the ways in which cultural change affects institutions. Lewis Bernstein, Historian, Huntsville, Alabama – February 2002. (Read more on CAC).


Out of Tomgram: Alfred McCoy: Around the world — and in the United States — Abu Ghraib has become a byword for our disastrous war in Iraq. The photos of torture, abuses, and humiliations of every sort that e-seeped out of that prison shocked Iraqis, the world, and many Americans. But as is so often the case, images can’t be fully interpreted without context. Below, Alfred McCoy, who in the Vietnam era wrote The Politics of Heroin, a now-classic exposé of Central Intelligence Agency tactics in Southeast Asia, and has been on the Agency’s case every since, offers the necessary — and shocking — historical context.

On the CIA’s road to Abu Ghraib:

He fills us in on a truly shameful story most of us remember, if at all, only in bits and pieces (those Agency experiments with LSD, for instance): A taxpayer-funded CIA, using up to a billion dollars a year for its research, plunged into a universe of torture way back in the 1950s and emerged with a new set of “no-touch” torture techniques which were then codified in manuals, used in Vietnam, and for over two decades taught to allied police forces and militaries around the Third World. It turns out that many of these techniques, some over half-a-century old, have just been paraded before our eyes in the Abu Ghraib snapshots. In other words, the now infamous photos were evidence, for those who could interpret them, of CIA-influence in Abu Ghraib (as the recent report by Major General George R. Fay has confirmed).

In 2001, these CIA torture techniques were let loose again by a Bush administration intent on creating an offshore mini-gulag of “information extraction” in its zeal to pursue its “war on terror.” Overlapping CIA and Pentagon detention systems were set up worldwide where, beyond the oversight of anyone, the “arts of interrogation” could be practiced (and in which they could spread like some malign virus). Unfortunately, what we now call “Abu Ghraib” is but the tip of the iceberg and has largely proved a tale of Bush administration damage control. There have been or are now underway eight investigations of Abu Ghraib (and sometimes of detention practices in Afghanistan as well). All are Pentagon appointed and almost all are military staffed.

Now imagine that we let Enron investigate itself; that Scott Peterson conducted his own trial; that Halliburton could write its own Pentagon contracts (oh, sorry, that more or less happened). Imagine, to offer up an absurd example, that one official Pentagon investigator looking into abuses in Afghanistan actually commanded U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan during the period he was to investigate when the military was holding “ghost detainees” and in his “extensive review” didn’t even mention the matter. Oh gosh, that actually happened in the case of Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek, now the Army’s Inspector General. According to Elise Ackerman of Knight Ridder, “He commanded ground forces in Afghanistan at the time the policy was adopted, but didn’t mention the policy when he told the Senate Armed Service Committee in July that his review had found no evidence of ghost detainees.”

The result of such investigations is clear: Responsibility for these horrors has largely been confined to the lowest ranks and kept close to Abu Ghraib itself. Bush administration accountability is next to nil. The bizarre, pretzeled justifications its best legal minds created, meant to narrow the definition of torture almost to the vanishing point, have been left in the dust. But perhaps most important of all, the attention to and focus on Abu Ghraib and the military has taken almost all attention away from the mini-gulag of prisons the CIA set up in Afghanistan, on aircraft carriers, in remote places like the Indian Ocean Island of Diego Garcia, and in the prisons of torture-friendly allies. This, as McCoy makes clear below, is where it all began and yet no public investigation of the CIA, its torture techniques, or its torture centers is underway.

Much of this, as McCoy demonstrates, was not beyond our power to know. I laid out a good deal of information about what I called “our Bermuda Triangle of injustice” last April with nothing more than a search engine at my command (Into the Shadows). Various human rights organizations have done the same far more authoritatively, as did Human Rights First back in June (U.S. Holding Prisoners in More Than Two Dozen Secret Detention Facilities Worldwide, New Report Says). Now, in a letter to the President, eight retired generals and admirals have most honorably called for a 9/11 Commission-style investigatory body to look into not just Abu Ghraib but “other U.S.-operated detention facilities”; while Human Rights First has just released a new report on all the Abu Ghraib investigations and their limitations. But first read McCoy; then look at those photos again and think about what you’re actually seeing. Tom.

The Hidden History of CIA Torture, by Alfred W. McCoy:

From ancient Rome’s red-hot irons and lacerating hooks to medieval Europe’s thumbscrews, rack, and wheel, for over 2,000 years anyone interrogated in a court of law could expect to suffer unspeakable tortures. For the last 200 years, humanist intellectuals from Voltaire to members of Amnesty International have led a sustained campaign against the horrors of state-sponsored cruelty, culminating in the United Nation’s 1985 Convention Against Torture, ratified by the Clinton administration in 1994.

Then came 9/11. When the Twin Towers collapsed killing thousands, influential “pro-pain pundits” promptly repudiated those Enlightenment ideals and began publicly discussing whether torture might be an appropriate, even necessary weapon in George Bush’s war on terror. The most persuasive among them, Harvard academic Alan M. Dershowitz, advocated giving courts the right to issue “torture warrants,” ensuring that needed information could be prized from unwilling Arab subjects with steel needles.

Despite torture’s appeal as a “lesser evil,” a necessary expedient in dangerous times, those who favor it ignore its recent, problematic history in America. They also seem ignorant of a perverse pathology that allows the practice of torture, once begun, to spread uncontrollably in crisis situations, destroying the legitimacy of the perpetrator nation. As past perpetrators could have told today’s pundits, torture plumbs the recesses of human consciousness, unleashing an unfathomable capacity for cruelty as well as seductive illusions of potency. Even as pundits and professors fantasized about “limited, surgical torture,” the Bush administration, following the President’s orders to “kick some ass,” was testing and disproving their theories by secretly sanctioning brutal interrogation that spread quickly from use against a few “high target value” Al Qaeda suspects to scores of ordinary Afghans and then hundreds of innocent Iraqis.

As we learned from France’s battle for Algiers in the 1950s, Argentina’s dirty war in the 1970s, and Britain’s Northern Ireland conflict in the 1970s, a nation that harbors torture in defiance of its democratic principles pays a terrible price. Its officials must spin an ever more complex web of lies that, in the end, weakens the bonds of trust that are the sine qua non of any modern society. Most surprisingly, our own pro-pain pundits seemed, in those heady early days of the war on terror, unaware of a fifty-year history of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), nor were they aware that their enthusiastic proposals gave cover to those in the Bush Administration intent on reactivating a ruthless apparatus.

Torture’s Perverse Pathology:

In April 2004, the American public was stunned by televised photographs from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison showing hooded Iraqis stripped naked, posed in contorted positions, and visibly suffering humiliating abuse while U.S. soldiers stood by smiling. As the scandal grabbed headlines around the globe, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld quickly assured Congress that the abuses were “perpetrated by a small number of U.S. military,” whom New York Times columnist William Safire soon branded “creeps.”

These photos, however, are snapshots not of simple brutality or even evidence of a breakdown in “military discipline.” What they record are CIA torture techniques that have metastasized like an undetected cancer inside the U.S. intelligence community over the past half century. A survey of this history shows that the CIA was, in fact, the lead agency at Abu Ghraib, enlisting Army intelligence to support its mission. These photographs from Iraq also illustrate standard interrogation procedures inside the gulag of secret CIA prisons that have operated globally, on executive authority, since the start of the President’s war on terror.

Looked at historically, the Abu Ghraib scandal is the product of a deeply contradictory U.S. policy toward torture since the start of the Cold War. At the UN and other international forums, Washington has long officially opposed torture and advocated a universal standard for human rights. Simultaneously, the CIA has propagated ingenious new torture techniques in contravention of these same international conventions, a number of which the U.S has ratified. In battling communism, the United States adopted some of its most objectionable practices — subversion abroad, repression at home, and most significantly torture itself.

From 1950 to 1962, the CIA conducted massive, secret research into coercion and the malleability of human consciousness which, by the late fifties, was costing a billion dollars a year. Many Americans have heard about the most outlandish and least successful aspect of this research — the testing of LSD on unsuspecting subjects. While these CIA drug experiments led nowhere and the testing of electric shock as a technique led only to lawsuits, research into sensory deprivation proved fruitful indeed. In fact, this research produced a new psychological rather than physical method of torture, perhaps best described as “no-touch” torture.

The Agency’s discovery was a counterintuitive breakthrough, the first real revolution in this cruel science since the seventeenth century — and thanks to recent revelations from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, we are now all too familiar with these methods, even if many Americans still have no idea of their history. Upon careful examination, those photographs of nude bodies expose the CIA’s most basic torture techniques — stress positions, sensory deprivation, and sexual humiliation.

For over 2,000 years, from ancient Athens through the Inquisition, interrogators found that the infliction of physical pain often produced heightened resistance or unreliable information — the strong defied pain while the weak blurted out whatever was necessary to stop it. By contrast, the CIA’s psychological torture paradigm used two new methods, sensory disorientation and “self-inflicted pain,” both of which were aimed at causing victims to feel responsible for their own suffering and so to capitulate more readily to their torturers. A week after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, General Geoffrey Miller, U.S. prison commander in Iraq (and formerly in Guantanamo), offered an unwitting summary of this two-phase torture. “We will no longer, in any circumstances, hood any of the detainees,” the general said. “We will no longer use stress positions in any of our interrogations. And we will no longer use sleep deprivation in any of our interrogations.”

Under field conditions since the start of the Afghan War, Agency and allied interrogators have often added to their no-touch repertoire physical methods reminiscent of the Inquisition’s trademark tortures — strappado, question de l’eau, “crippling stork,” and “masks of mockery.” At the CIA’s center near Kabul in 2002, for instance, American interrogators forced prisoners “to stand with their hands chained to the ceiling and their feet shackled,” an effect similar to the strappado. Instead of the Inquisition’s iron-framed “crippling stork” to contort the victim’s body, CIA interrogators made their victims assume similar “stress positions” without any external mechanism, aiming again for the psychological effect of self-induced pain

Although seemingly less brutal than physical methods, the CIA’s “no touch” torture actually leaves deep, searing psychological scars on both victims and — something seldom noted — their interrogators. Victims often need long treatment to recover from a trauma many experts consider more crippling than physical pain. Perpetrators can suffer a dangerous expansion of ego, leading to escalating acts of cruelty and lasting emotional disorders. When applied in actual operations, the CIA’s psychological procedures have frequently led to unimaginable cruelties, physical and sexual, by individual perpetrators whose improvisations are often horrific and only occasionally effective.

Just as interrogators are often seduced by a dark, empowering sense of dominance over victims, so their superiors, even at the highest level, can succumb to fantasies of torture as an all-powerful weapon. Our contemporary view of torture as aberrant and its perpetrators as abhorrent ignores both its pervasiveness as a Western practice for two millennia and its perverse appeal. Once torture begins, its perpetrators, plunging into uncharted recesses of consciousness, are often swept away by dark reveries, by frenzies of power and potency, mastery and control — particularly in times of crisis. “When feelings of insecurity develop within those holding power,” reads one CIA analysis of the Soviet state applicable to post-9/11 America, “they become increasingly suspicious and put great pressures on the secret police to obtain arrests and confessions. At such times police officials are inclined to condone anything which produces a speedy ‘confession’ and brutality may become widespread.”

Enraptured by this illusory power, modern states that sanction torture usually allow it to spread uncontrollably. By 1967, just four years after compiling a torture manual for use against a few top Soviet targets, the CIA was operating forty interrogation centers in South Vietnam as part of its Phoenix Program that killed over 20,000 Viet Cong suspects. In the centers themselves, countless thousands were tortured for information that led to these assassinations. Similarly, just a few months after CIA interrogators first tortured top Al Qaeda suspects at Kabul in 2002, its agents were involved in the brutal interrogation of hundreds of Iraqi prisoners. As its most troubling legacy, the CIA’s psychological method, with its legitimating scientific patina and its avoidance of obvious physical brutality, has provided a pretext for the preservation of torture as an acceptable practice within the U.S. intelligence community.

Once adopted, torture offers such a powerful illusion of efficient information extraction that its perpetrators, high and low, remain wedded to its use. They regularly refuse to recognize its limited utility and high political cost. At least twice during the Cold War, the CIA’s torture training contributed to the destabilization of two key American allies, Iran’s Shah and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos. Yet even after their spectacular falls, the Agency remained blind to the way its torture training was destroying the allies it was designed to defend.

CIA Torture Research:

The CIA’s torture experimentation of the 1950s and early 1960s was codified in 1963 in a succinct, secret instructional booklet on torture — the “KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation” manual, which would become the basis for a new method of torture disseminated globally over the next three decades. These techniques were first spread through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Public Safety program to train police forces in Asia and Latin America as the front line of defense against communists and other revolutionaries. After an angry Congress abolished the Public Safety program in 1975, the CIA worked through U.S. Army Mobile Training Teams to instruct military interrogators, mainly in Central America.

At the Cold War’s end, Washington resumed its advocacy of universal principles, denouncing regimes for torture, participating in the World Conference on Human Rights at Vienna in 1993 and, a year later, ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture. On the surface, the United States had resolved the tension between its anti-torture principles and its torture practices. Yet even when Congress finally ratified this UN convention it did so with intricately-constructed reservations that cleverly exempted the CIA’s psychological torture method. While other covert agencies synonymous with Cold War repression such as Romania’s Securitate, East Germany’s Stasi, and the Soviet Union’s KGB have disappeared, the CIA survives — its archives sealed, its officers decorated, and its Cold War crimes forgotten. By failing to repudiate the Agency’s propagation of torture, while adopting a UN convention that condemned its practice, the United States left this contradiction buried like a political land mine ready to detonate with such phenomenal force in the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Memory and Forgetting:

Today the American public has only a vague understanding of these CIA excesses and the scale of its massive mind-control project. Yet almost every adult American carries fragmentary memories of this past — of LSD experiments, the CIA’s Phoenix program in Vietnam, the murder of a kidnapped American police adviser in Montevideo who was teaching CIA techniques to the Uruguayan police, and of course the Abu Ghraib photographs. But few are able to fit these fragments together and so grasp the larger picture. There is, in sum, an ignorance, a studied avoidance of a deeply troubling topic, akin to that which shrouds this subject in post-authoritarian societies.

With the controversy over Abu Ghraib, incidents that once seemed but fragments should now be coming together to form a mosaic of a clandestine agency manipulating its government and deceiving its citizens to probe the cruel underside of human consciousness, and then propagating its discoveries throughout the Third World.

Strong democracies have difficulty dealing with torture. In the months following the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, the United States moved quickly through the same stages (as defined by author John Conroy) that the United Kingdom experienced after revelations of British army torture in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s — first, minimizing the torture with euphemisms such as “interrogation in depth”; next, justifying it on grounds that it was necessary or effective; and finally, attempting to bury the issue by blaming “a few bad apples.”

Indeed, since last April, the Bush administration and much of the media have studiously avoided the word “torture” and instead blamed our own bad apples, those seven Military Police. In July, the Army’s Inspector General Paul T. Mikolashek delivered his report blaming 94 incidents of “abuse” on “an individual failure to uphold Army Values.” Although the New York Times called his conclusions “comical,” the general’s views seem to resonate with an emerging conservative consensus. “Interrogation is not a Sunday-school class,” said Republican Senator Trent Lott. “You don’t get information that will save American lives by withholding pancakes.” In June, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 35% of Americans felt torture was acceptable in some circumstances.

In August, Major General George R. Fay released his report on the role of Military Intelligence at Abu Ghraib. Its stunning revelations about the reasons for this torture were, however, obscured in opaque military prose. After interviewing 170 personnel and reviewing 9,000 documents, the general intimated that this abuse was the product of an interrogation policy shaped, in both design and application, by the CIA.

Significantly, General Fay blamed not the “seven bad apples,” but the Abu Ghraib interrogation procedures themselves. Of the 44 verifiable incidents of abuse, one-third occurred during actual interrogation. Moreover, these “routine” interrogation procedures “contributed to an escalating ‘de-humanization’ of the detainees and set the stage for additional and severe abuses to occur.”

After finding standard Army interrogation doctrine sound, General Fay was forced to confront a single, central, uncomfortable question: what was the source of the aberrant, “non-doctrinal” practices that led to torture during interrogation at Abu Ghraib? Scattered throughout his report are the dots, politely unconnected, that lead from the White House to the Iraqi prison cell block: President Bush gave his defense secretary broad powers over prisoners in November 2001; Secretary Rumsfeld authorized harsh “Counter-Resistance Techniques” for Afghanistan and Guantanamo in December 2002; hardened Military Intelligence units brought these methods to Iraq in July 2003; and General Ricardo Sanchez in Baghdad authorized these extreme measures for Abu Ghraib in September 2003.

In its short answer to this uncomfortable question, General Fay’s report, when read closely, traced the source of these harsh “non-doctrinal methods” at Abu Ghraib to the CIA. He charged that a flouting of military procedures by CIA interrogators “eroded the necessity in the minds of soldiers and civilians for them to follow Army rules.” Specifically, the Army “allowed CIA to house ‘Ghost Detainees’ who were unidentified and unaccounted for in Abu Ghraib,” thus encouraging violations of “reporting requirements under the Geneva Conventions.” Moreover, the interrogation of CIA detainees “occurred under different practices and procedures which were absent any DoD visibility, control, or oversight and created a perception that OGA [CIA] techniques and practices were suitable and authorized for DoD operations.” With their exemption from military regulations, CIA interrogators moved about Abu Ghraib with a corrupting “mystique” and extreme methods that “fascinated” some Army interrogators. In sum, General Fay seems to say that the CIA has compromised the integrity and effectiveness of the U.S. military.

Had he gone further, General Fay might have mentioned that the 519th Military Intelligence, the Army unit that set interrogation guidelines for Abu Ghraib, had just come from Kabul where it worked closely with the CIA, learning torture techniques that left at least one Afghani prisoner dead. Had he gone further still, the general could have added that the sensory deprivation techniques, stress positions, and cultural shock of dogs and nudity that we saw in those photos from Abu Ghraib were plucked from the pages of past CIA torture manuals.

American Prestige:

This is not, of course, the first American debate over torture in recent memory. From 1970 to 1988, the Congress tried unsuccessfully, in four major investigations, to expose elements of this CIA torture paradigm. But on each occasion the public showed little concern, and the practice, never fully acknowledged, persisted inside the intelligence community.

Now, in these photographs from Abu Ghraib, ordinary Americans have seen the reality and the results of interrogation techniques the CIA has propagated and practiced for nearly half a century. The American public can join the international community in repudiating a practice that, more than any other, represents a denial of democracy; or in its desperate search for security, the United States can continue its clandestine torture of terror suspects in the hope of gaining good intelligence without negative publicity.

In the likely event that Washington adopts the latter strategy, it will be a decision posited on two false assumptions: that torturers can be controlled and that news of their work can be contained. Once torture begins, its use seems to spread uncontrollably in a downward spiral of fear and empowerment. With the proliferation of digital imaging we can anticipate, in five or ten years, yet more chilling images and devastating blows to America’s international standing. Next time, however, the American public’s moral concern and Washington’s apologies will ring even more hollowly, producing even greater damage to U.S. prestige.

Alfred W. McCoy is professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Politics of Heroin, CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, an examination of the CIA’s alliances with drug lords, and Closer Than Brothers, a study of the impact of the CIA’s psychological torture method upon the Philippine military. He will publish a fuller version of this essay in The New England Journal of Public Policy (Volume 19, No. 2, 2004). Copyright C2004 Alfred W. McCoy.


Interview with Alfred McCoy, November 9, 1991, by Paul DeRienzo – Alfred W. McCoy is professor of Southeast Asian History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Educated at Columbia and Yale, he has spent the past twenty years writing about Southeast Asian history and politics. Mr. McCoy participated in Causes and Cures: National Teleconference on the Narcotics Epidemic Saturday, November 9 1991, at Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan.

PD: How did you come to write The Politics of Heroin; CIA Complicity In The Global Drug Trade?

AM: In 1971 I was a graduate student doing Southeast Asian History at Yale University. An editor at Harper & Row, Elisabeth Jakab, read some articles in a volume I had edited about Laos, which made some general references to the opium trade in Laos.

She decided this would be a great idea for a book and asked me to do a background book on the heroin plague that was sweeping the forces then fighting in South Vietnam. We later learned that about one third of the United States combat forces in Vietnam, conservatively estimated, were heroin addicts.

I went to Paris and interviewed retired general Maurice Belleux, the former head of the French equivalent of the CIA, an organization called SDECE [Service de Documentation Exterieure et du Contre-Espionage]. In an amazing interview he told me that French military intelligence had financed all their covert operations from the control of the Indochina drug trade. [The French protected opium trafficking in Laos and northern Vietnam during the colonial war that raged from 1946 to the
French defeat in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu.]

The French paratroopers fighting with hill tribes collected the opium and French aircraft would fly the opium down to Saigon and the Sino-Vietnamese mafia that was the instrument of French intelligence would then distribute the opium. The central bank accounts, the sharing of the profits, was all controlled by French military intelligence.

He concluded the interview by telling me that it was his information that the CIA had taken over the French assets and were pursuing something of the same policy.

So I went to Southeast Asia to follow up on that lead and that’s what took me into doing this whole book. It was basically pulling a thread and keep tucking at it and a veil masking the reality began to unravel.

PD: What was the CIA’s role in heroin trafficking in Southeast Asia?

AM: During the 40 years of the cold war, from the late 1940’s to this year, the CIA pursued a policy that I call radical pragmatism . Their mission was to stop communism and in pursuit of that mission they would ally with anyone and do anything to fight communism.

Since the 1920’s the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, and the United States have prohibited opium and cocaine products from legal sale. These products had already emerged as vast global commodities with very substantial production zones and large markets, large demand for those commodities both in the third world and the first.

The historic Asia opium zone stretches across 5,000 miles of Asian mainland from Turkey to Laos along the southern borders of the Soviet Union and the southern border of communist China. It just so happened that one of the key war zones in the cold war happened to lay astride the Asian opium zone.

During the long years of the cold war the CIA mounted major covert guerilla operations along the Soviet-Chinese border. The CIA recruited as allies people we now call drug lords for their operation against communist China in northeastern Burma in 1950, then from 1965 to 1975 [during the Vietnam war] their operation in northern Laos and throughout the decade of the 1980’s, the Afghan operation against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

Powerful, upland political figures control the societies and economies in these regions and part of that panoply of power is the opium trade. The CIA extended the mantle of their alliance to these drug lords and in every case the drug lords used it to expand a small local trade in opium into a major source of supply for the world markets and the United States.

While they were allied with the United States these drug lords were absolutely immune to any kind of investigation. If you’re involved in any kind of illicit commodity trade, organized crime activity like drug trafficking, there is only one requisite for success, immunity, and the CIA gave them that. As long as they were allied with the CIA, the local police and then the DEA stayed away from the drug lords.

Finally, if there were any allegations about the involvement of their allies in the drug trade, the CIA would use their good offices to quash those allegations.

This meant that these drug lords, connected with the CIA, and protected by the CIA, were able to release periodic heroin surges, and [in Latin America] periodic cocaine surges. You can trace very precisely during the 40 years of the cold war, the upsurge in narcotics supply in the United States with covert operations.

PD: How does the CIA’s policies affect drug interdiction? I’ve spoken for example to former Drug Enforcement Administration officer Michael Levine, who has expressed anger that he was pulled off cases because he got too close to someone who, while being a big trafficker, was also an asset of the CIA.

AM: Mike Levine speaks from personal experience. In 1971 Mike Levine was in Southeast Asia operating in Thailand as an agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA]. At the same time I was conducting the investigation for the first edition of my book.

Mike Levine said that he wanted to go up country to Chiangmai, the heroin capital of Southeast Asia at that point, the finance and processing center and hub of an enterprise. He wanted to make some major seizures. Through a veiled series of cut outs in the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, instructions were passed to his superiors in the DEA, who told him he couldn’t go up and make the bust. He was pulled off the case.

He said it wasn’t until he read my book a number of years later that he understood the politics of what was going on and he realized why he had been pulled off. All of the upland drug lords that were producing the narcotic, the heroin, were in fact CIA assets. Now he understands it.

That is not just a single incident, so let’s go back to basics. What is the institutional relationship between the DEA an the CIA? The Federal Bureau of Narcotics [FBN] was established in 1930 as an instrument of the prohibition of narcotics, the only United States agency that had a covert action capacity with agents working undercover before World War II. During the war when the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] was established, which is the forerunner of the CIA, key personnel were transferred from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to train the OSS officers in the clandestine arts.

That close institutional relationship between the DEA [direct descendant of the FBN] and the CIA continues up to the present day. The long time head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a man named Harry Anslinger, who headed that bureau from 1930 until his retirement in 1962, was a militant anti-communist who spent a lot of his time in counter-intelligence operations. There’s a very close relationship between the two agencies.

During the cold war the main priority abroad for the United States government was anti-communism, and whenever theCIA mounted an operation, every other U.S. agency was subordinated to the CIA’s covert operations.

That meant that when the CIA was running one of its covert action wars in the drug zones of Asia, the DEA would stay away. For example, during the 1950’s the CIA had this ongoing alliance with the nationalist Chinese in northern Burma. Initially mounting invasions of China in 1950-51, later mounting surveillance along the border for a projected Chinese invasion of Southeast Asia. The DEA stayed out of Southeast Asia completely during that period and collected no intelligence about narcotics in deference to the CIA’s operation.

Let’s take two more examples that bring it right up to the present. [First] the Afghan operation: from 1979 to the present, the CIA’s largest operation anywhere in the world, was to support the Afghan resistance forces fighting the Soviet occupation in their country. The CIA worked through Pakistan military intelligence and worked with the Afghan guerilla groups who were close to Pakistan military intelligence.

In 1979 Pakistan had a small localized opium trade and produced no heroin whatsoever. Yet by 1981, according to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith, Pakistan had emerged as the world’s leading supplier of heroin. It became the supplier of 60% of U.S. heroin supply and it captured a comparable section of the European market. In Pakistan itself the results were even more disastrous.

In 1979 Pakistan had no heroin addicts, in 1980 Pakistan had 5,000 heroin addicts, and by 1985, according to official Pakistan government statistics, Pakistan had 1.2 million heroin addicts, the largest heroin addict population in the world.

Who were the manufacturers? They were all either military factions connected with Pakistan intelligence, CIA allies, or Afghan resistance groups connected with the CIA and Pakistan intelligence. In May of 1990, ten years after this began, the Washington Post finally ran a front page story saying high U.S. officials admit that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar [leader of the Hezbi-i Islami guerilla group], and other leaders of the Afghan resistance are leading heroin manufacturers.

This had been known for years, reported in the Pakistan press, indeed in 1980 reported in McClean’s magazine. In fact in 1980 a White House narcotics advisor, Dr. David Musto of Yale University, went on the record demanding that we not ally with Afghan guerilla groups that were involved in narcotics. His advice was ignored and he went public in an op-ed in the New York Times.

Another example: Let’s take the cocaine epidemic. In 1981 as cocaine began surging north into the United States, the DEA assigned an agent named Tomas Zepeda, in June 1981, to open up an office in Honduras. By 1983 Zepeda was collecting very good intelligence indicating that the Honduran military were taking bribes to let the aircraft through their country to come to the United States.

Zepeda was pulled out of Honduras and that office was closed by the DEA. They didn’t open another office in Honduras until 1987 because Honduras was a frontline country in the contra war. If Zepeda’s reports about involvement of the Honduran military had been acted upon, the DEA would have been forced to take action against the Honduran military officers who were working with the CIA to protect the contras.

In short, there was a conflict between the drug war and the cold war. Faced with the choice, the United States government chose the cold war over the drug war, sacrificing a key intelligence post for the DEA in Honduras.

The same thing happened in Afghanistan. During the 1980’s from the time that heroin trade started, there were 17 DEA agents based in Pakistan. They neither made nor participated in any major seizures or arrests. At a time when other police forces, particularly Scandinavian forces, made some major seizures and brought down a very major syndicate connected with former president Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan.

PD: What is the role of banking in the heroin trade? What, if any, are the connections to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) scandal.

AM: There have been three times in the past 15 years in which the CIA’s money transfer activities have surfaced. The first came in the late 1970’s when the Internal Revenue Service, the IRS, investigated a Nassau bank called the Castle Bank. It’s a very interesting bank. It was set up by a man named Paul Helliwell, a very senior CIA operative who had retired from the agency. He set up this bank and it grew into a Latin American network of banks. It was used by the CIA to launder money.

In essence, what appears to emerge from the investigation of the Castle Bank in the late 1970’s, was that the CIA did not want to move operational funds for covert operations through normal banking channels, where they could be uncovered, either by the United States or abroad, where they could come to the knowledge of opponents of the agency.

They preferred to work through allied banks. Banks that were secure, that were a little bit loose in their accounting procedures. When the Castle Bank was uncovered, the IRS announced a major investigation of the bank’s money laundering activities. Suddenly the IRS cancelled the investigation and the Wall Street Journal was told by informed sources in the IRS that the CIA had blocked the investigation.

As soon as Castle Bank collapsed, a small merchant bank based in Australia, operating offshore between Australia and southeast Asia, suddenly mushroomed into a global network of banks, acquiring Latin American and European structures that had belonged to Castle Bank. This bank in Australia called the Nugan-Hand Bank began very quickly in the late 1970’s, to acquire a board of retired U.S. intelligence officials, either CIA or various military intelligence services.

The most prominent example, the former Director of Central Intelligence, William Colby, became the legal council of Nugan-Hand Bank. The bank was founded by Frank Nugan, an insecure and incompetent Australian lawyer, and by Michael John Hand, a man with a high school degree who had gone to Vietnam with the Green Berets. He had served in Laos in the 1960’s as a contract CIA operative, fighting with three of the people who became very prominent in the CIA’s privatized operations, Thomas Clines, Theodore Shackley and Richard Secord, all very big names in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Michael John Hand was the one who worked with William Colby as legal counsel. One of their big operations was to buy a former U.S. naval base in the Turks and Caicos islands in the Caribbean. Australian police investigators who examined that contract, drawn up by William Colby for Michael John Hand, concluded that the plausible explanation they could discover for that contract was to establish a way-station for cocaine smuggling between Colombia and the United States.

We do know the bank was pioneering in the smuggling of heroin between Southeast Asia and Australia. In the late 1970’s Australia had very strict banking laws, and anytime you got foreign exchange you had to account for it. The Nugan-Hand Bank helped Australian organized crime figures get their money overseas so they could buy heroin and ship the heroin back to Australia.

The Australian police investigators documented that Michael John Hand worked very closely with Australia’s top criminal drug traffickers to finance the first shipments, the pioneering shipments, of heroin to Australia from Southeast Asia.

In 1980 that bank went belly-up and it collapsed, Frank Nugan committed suicide, and then a really amazing event occurred. Thomas Clines, the former CIA chief of station from Laos, a man of great prominence in the Iran-Contra scandal, flew to Sydney, Australia and exfiltrated Michael John Hand, who disappeared in the United States and was never seen since.

Then we come to BCCI. Although we haven’t gotten to the bottom of it by any means, we haven’t even begun to ask the questions, much less get the answers. BCCI mushroomed in the 1980’s and seemed to serve as a similar conduit as Castle Bank and Nugan-Hand Bank. The Manchester Guardian published an expose saying that the CIA paid its operations in the United Kingdom through BCCI, and it’s known that the CIA paid the Afghan guerrillas, who were based in Pakistan, through BCCI.

There’s one rather large question that nobody is asking about BCCI. It’s a Pakistani bank, it booms during the 1980’s, in exactly the same period that Pakistan emerges as the world’s largest heroin center. We know the Pakistan military officers involved in the drug trade had their accounts with BCCI. There’s a three way relationship that really cries out, screams, demands, a congressional investigation.

The relationship between BCCI and the CIA operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan; how much money was the CIA moving through those accounts? Secondly, the relationship between the Pakistan military connected with that operation and BCCI. Thirdly, the relationship between the booming heroin trade of Pakistan and BCCI. I think what we’ll possibly discover is that the CIA was shipping its funds into Pakistan through BCCI, protecting BCCI thereby from serious investigations elsewhere in the world. That the Pakistan military were in fact banking their drug profits, moving their drug profits from the consuming country back to Pakistan though BCCI. In fact the boom in the Pakistan drug trade was financed by BCCI.The interrelationship between the Afghan resistance and the CIA and the Pakistan drug trade can all be seen through the medium of BCCI, the banker to both operations, the resistance and the drug trade.

PD: What are the alternatives to the drug war?

AM: In the 1980’s, indeed over the last 20 years, society has been given two choices in the drug war. The escalating repression against the drug trade by Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush while the media gave airtime and space to only one sustained critique.That critique put forth by the Drug Policy Foundation argues that the drug war wasn’t working and therefore we should pursue a policy of legalization. Simply turn the whole policy of repression on its head, instead of trying to wipe out the drug trade we legalize it.

Let me first of all review the drug war. Is it working? No it’s not. The current drug war budget is $11 billion, a very large amount of money. Of that $11 billion, 86% is devoted to the suppression of cocaine trafficking between the United States and Colombia and cocaine trafficking in the U.S. as well. However, while we’re devoting 86% of our drug war budget to cocaine, use of cocaine has gone up by 15 percent. Every single indicator shows cocaine addiction is rising at the same time we are fighting this drug war.

The White House is claiming victory in the drug war, William Bennet, the drug czar who retired several months ago, claimed a victory, President Bush has alluded to a victory in the drug war, and so has the current drug war czar, Mr. Bob Martinez. What they claim as a victory is a victory over casual drug use. Well let’s face it casual drug use doesn’t count, if some kid tries drugs and doesn’t like it that’s nice but that’s not the problem.

The problem is repeated use, and every single indicator says repeated use is up. The drug war is not working. It’s filling up our prisons. The prison population doubled under President Reagan, and we now have over 400 prisoners per 100,000 population versus 35 per 100,000 in Holland. We have the largest prison population per capita in the world and it’s going up. At the same time our heroin use is going up and our cocaine use is going up.

The reason why is because our effort in the drug war has been concentrated in interdicting the supply of drugs in the United States and over the last 20 years we have fought this drug war on a bilateral basis. The United States in 1972 went into Turkey and said “wipe out your opium trade” and in the 1980’s they went into Colombia and said “wipe out your cocaine processing industry”. In the early 1980’s the U.S. went into Bolivia and said “wipe out coca cultivation in the western part of your country”. This is bilateral interdiction, where the U.S. as a sovereign power deals with another sovereign state and applies pressure on that sovereign state to get action on drugs.

There is a misperception about the nature of heroin and cocaine. These are not petty vices, these are complex global commodity trades involving vast areas of production and enormous consumption. It’s a commodity comparable in every respect to coffee or tea.

When you bring down the baton of law enforcement on a complex global commodity trade something curious and something paradoxical, something almost magical happens. The genius of capitalism, its magic, its alchemy, transform the lead of repression into the gold of stimulus. Every time we apply repression upon narcotics production on this bilateral basis we stimulate production, and ultimately we stimulate consumption because of the law of supply and demand.

In 1972 President Richard Nixon wiped out the Turkish opium crop with his first drug war, the grandmother of drug wars. This grandmother of drug wars totally wiped out Turkish opium production, and for a while it disrupted the French connection between Turkey, which had supplied French labs in Marseille, which in turn supplied New York.

It looked like victory until you see what really happened. Turkey only grew 7% of the worlds opium. Across the 5,000 mile band of mountains from Turkey in the west to Laos in the east lay the rest of the worlds opium production, the other 93 percent.

Turkey had a shortfall of production, that meant there was a shortfall in supply of illicit opium. So the price went up as would always happen, short supply and the price goes up. That meant farmers elsewhere in the opium zone, from Iran, Afghanistan increased their production as happens every single time. The repression creates a shortfall in supply which raises price and then stimulates production everywhere around the world.

What then is the solution to the problem? Somewhere between the poles of repression and legalization there is an alternative strategy which I call regulation. I don’t think we should really fool ourselves to consider legalization. It’s politically impractical, it’s never going to happen.

If we legalize the drug we are not going to legalize it for kids, this is a country that just raised the drinking age for the socially acceptable drug, alcohol from 18 to 21. You give me the name right now of one legislator who is going to stand up and say “I favor crack for kids, vote for my bill,” nobody will ever introduce such a bill. Even if by some miracle you got a legalization bill it would exclude 21 year olds and it would mean that the big drug, crack cocaine would have 89% of its clientele excluded from legalization.

I favor regulation because if cocaine and heroin are commodities let’s deal with them as such. You don’t repress commodities, you regulate them. Accept the fact that there is no quick fix to this trade, it’s been around for 200 years as a major global commodity, as an illegal commodity it’s been around for 70 years and it’s likely to be around for another 70, maybe 200 years.

Recognizing that you then cancel your bilateral interdiction efforts and transfer your funds to the multilateral effort being run by the United Nations. The multilateral effort by the United Nations actually does reduce production slowly, painfully over a period of decades.

Ultimately we’re going to have to seek an amelioration, not a solution, on the streets. We’re going to have to address the complex of causes as to why people use drugs. That is where we have to concentrate our money.

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