CIA torture research and its applications, from MKULTRA to Abu Ghraib

For years, there has been a lot of debate about whether or not the United States government “really” tortures, or if it is doing something that is supposedly more benign (“harsh interrogation”, “psychological pressure”, etc). However, anyone who takes an honest look at history will have no doubt that the U.S. does torture.


The U.S. government has used beating, burning, cutting, rape, electrocution,  dismemberment, solitary confinement, hooding, stress positions, shackling, etc. — anything their sadistic minds can come up with to get what they want. Let’s take a minute to explore some history of torture by people working for the the U.S. government.

South Vietnamese soldier tortures VC prisoner
January 9, 1964: a South Vietnamese soldier uses the end of a dagger to beat a farmer for allegedly supplying government troops with inaccurate information about the movement of Viet Cong guerrillas in a village west of Saigon

As part of the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War, the United States military and CIA captured, tortured, and murdered tens of thousands of civilians. Common methods of torture in the CIA interrogation centers included:

“Rape, gang rape, rape using eels, snakes, or hard objects, and rape followed by murder; electric shock (‘the Bell Telephone Hour’) rendered by attaching wires to the genitals or other sensitive parts of the body, like the tongue; the ‘water treatment’; the ‘airplane’ in which the prisoner’s arms were tied behind the back, and the rope looped over a hook on the ceiling, suspending the prisoner in midair, after which he or she was beaten; beatings with rubber hoses and whips; the use of police dogs to maul prisoners.”‘

State terrorism and neoliberalism: the North in the South

Military intelligence officer K. Milton Osborne witnessed the following use of torture in Vietnam:

“The use of the insertion of the 6-inch dowel into the canal of one of my detainee’s ears, and the tapping through the brain until dead. The starvation to death (in a cage), of a Vietnamese woman who was suspected of being part of the local political education cadre in one of the local villages … The use of electronic gear such as sealed telephones attached to … both both the women’s vaginas and men’s testicles [to] shock them into submission.”

Vietnam: the (last) war the U.S. lost

Hooded prisoner, wired up for electroshock torture -- Abu Ghraib
Hooded prisoner, wired up for electroshock torture — Abu Ghraib

This was not limited to Vietnam. The CIA and U.S. military trained thousands of Latin American police and military personnel in torture techniques. Here’s some testimony from a trainee in El Salvador:

“The officers said ‘We are going to teach you … how to teach a lesson to these guerrillas’. The officers who were teaching us this were the American Green Berets … then they began to torture this young fellow. They took out their knives and stuck them under his fingernails. After they took off his fingernails, they broke his elbows. Afterwards they gouged out his eyes. They took out their bayonets and made all sorts of slices in his skin … They then took his hair off and the skin off his scalp. When they saw that there was nothing left to do with him, they threw gasoline on him and burned him … the next day they started the same thing with a 13 year old girl. “
— Witness testimony from El Salvador, Covert Action Information Bulletin, March 1982

The corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi -- Abu Ghraib prison, 2003
The corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi — Abu Ghraib prison, 2003

However during the 1960s, in a quest for more effective interrogation techniques, the CIA began funding a large number of psychological-control/torture experiments using human subjects in the United States. These experiments, known by their CIA cryptonym “MKULTRA”, determined that physical pain, while certainly a vital tool, was not actually the most effective method for achieving psychological dominance over an unwilling subject (the ultimate goal of all torture).

What worked better than using physical abuse alone, was to use techniques that were carefully designed to break people down psychologically, making them feel totally helpless and dependent upon the torturer. Shame/degradation, solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, heavy doses of pharmaceuticals, and self-inflicted pain were actually found to work better than just ripping someone’s fingernails off and electrocuting their genitals. This is not to say that physical abuse has stopped (as you can see from the photos here), but rather that these physical methods are much more effective when combined with advanced, scientifically tested psychological torture techniques.

For example, one of the MKULTRA subprojects most relevant to the torture camps of today (Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, etc.) is Project ARTICHOKE, which was described by the CIA as follows:

Project Artichoke -- excerpt from CIA internal memo

The goal of ARTICHOKE was to find answers to the question:

“Can we get control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation?”

— De-classified 1952 Project ARTICHOKE memo

I’ve been reading a book recently, called A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror, by Alfred McCoy, which is talking about the history of the CIA’s torture techniques — how they were developed, where they have been applied, and what legal/political issues have arisen as a result. McCoy points out that when people talk about MKULTRA, they often focus on the fact that government agents dosed people will LSD and other such things, that just sound weird or crazy, for example:

[…] There were at least three CIA safe houses in the Bay Area where experiments went on. Chief among them was 225 Chestnut on Telegraph Hill, which operated from 1955 to 1965. The L-shaped apartment boasted sweeping waterfront views, and was just a short trip up the hill from North Beach’s rowdy saloons. Inside, prostitutes paid by the government to lure clients to the apartment served up acid-laced cocktails to unsuspecting johns, while martini-swilling secret agents observed their every move from behind a two-way mirror. Recording devices were installed, some disguised as electrical outlets.

Abu Ghraib guard punching bound and hooded prisonersTo get the guys in the mood, the walls were adorned with photographs of tortured women in bondage and provocative posters from French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The agents grew fascinated with the kinky sex games that played out between the johns and the hookers. The two-way mirror in the bedroom gave the agents a close-up view of all the action […]”

— “Operation Midnight Climax: How the CIA Dosed San Francisco Citizens with LSD

A prisoner at Abu Ghraib, with feces smeared all over his body. Humiliation and sexual abuse/degradation are key components of the CIA’s psychological torture system
A prisoner at Abu Ghraib, with feces smeared all over his body. Humiliation and sexual abuse/degradation are key components of the CIA’s psychological torture system

This is certainly disturbing: federal agents dosing San Francisco residents with LSD, without their knowledge, and then having them enact  bondage/rape/torture … watching through a one way mirror, chugging martinis, in order to develop more effective torture techniques … It lays waste to the claim that they are concerned with “protecting” the public. The people that were doing it certainly didn’t have any illusions that this was what they were up to:

“… it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape and pillage with the sanction and bidding of the All-highest?”

— 1971 letter to MKULTRA overseer Sidney Gottlieb, from George Hunter White, who oversaw the Operation Midnight Climax experiments

But while the things that were done during Operation Midnight Climax were horrible, they become even more repulsive when viewed in the wider context of all of the MKULTRA experiments, and the overarching ends towards which Midnight Climax was aiming.

Even here, in what are are often referred to as “LSD experiments”, the air of a torture chamber is clearly present. The bondage porn, photographs of tortured women on the walls to “get the guys in the mood” … men watching from behind two-way mirrors at the torture scene inside, which they are directing …

Abu Ghraib prisoner covered in shitThe solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, sexual abuse, sleep deprivation, humiliation (being rubbed in feces, etc.), threats of violence against loved ones, and other forms of psychological torture employed today at places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib (which are combined with traditional methods like rape, electrocution, beatings, etc.), are all elements of a torture system designed — with funding from the CIA and military — in the science labs of U.S./Canadian universities, in mental hospital electroshock chambers, and in covert experiments on civilians such as Operation Midnight Climax.

The techniques developed during these experiments were later integrated into the CIAs KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual and other training programs, and are still being used by the U.S. and fascist police forces around the world.

“The frequent screams of the patients that echoed through the hospital did not deter Cameron or most of his associates in their attempts to depattern their subjects completely.”

Ewen Cameron‘s psychological torture/control experiments done as part of MKULTRA

Another victim of torture at Abu Ghraib, 2003
Another victim of torture at Abu Ghraib, 2003, displaying his wounds/scars

Federal officials were aware that these experiments, and their desire to torture people, would be repulsive to the public; so they took active steps to hide the existence of these programs from them, and continued the programs with the full knowledge that they were unethical and illegal:

The concepts involved in manipulating human behavior are found by many people both within and outside the Agency to be distasteful and unethical. […] Public disclosure of some aspects of MKULTRA activity could induce serious adverse reaction in U.S. public opinion.

— John Earman, CIA Inspector General

“While I share your uneasiness and distaste for any program which tends to intrude upon an individual’s private and legal prerogatives, I believe it is necessary that the Agency maintain a central role in this activity.”

— Richard Helms, CIA Deputy Director of Plans

We should never fall into the trap of believing that when some horrendous example of U.S. torture is leaked to the public, that it is just a problem caused by “a few bad apples”. The system used by the Bush and Obama administrations is simply the “state of the art” in torture technique, based on decades of careful experimentation. The use of torture by the U.S. government is nothing new. What is new is the techniques and strategies they are using, and the way they talk about torture.

Good times in Abu Ghraib -- necrophilia
Good times in Abu Ghraib