The Wide World of Torture
by Alexander Cockburn
The Nation magazine, November 26, 2001
Open the November 5 edition of Newsweek and here's Jonathan
Alter, munching on the week's hot topic, namely the propriety
of the FBI torturing obdurate September 11 suspects in the bureau's
custody here in the United States. Alter says no to cattle prods,
but continues the sentence with the observation that something
is needed to "jump-start the stalled investigation."
The tone is lightly facetious: "Couldn't we at least subject
them to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or
high-decibel rap?" There are respectful references to Alan
Dershowitz (who's running around the country promoting the idea
of "torture warrants" issued by judges, and to Israel,
where "until 1999 an interrogation technique called 'shaking'
was legal. It entailed holding a smelly bag over a suspect's head
in a dark room, then applying scary psychological torment....
Even now, Israeli law leaves a little room for 'moderate physical
pressure' in what are called 'ticking time bomb' cases."
As so often with unappealing labor, Alter arrives at the usual
American solution: outsource the job. "We'll have to think
about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies,"
What's striking about Alter's commentary and others in the
same idiom is the abstraction from reality, as if torture is so
indisputably a dirty business that all painful data had best be
avoided. One would have thought it hard to be frivolous about
the subject of torture, but Alter managed it.
Would one know from his commentary that under international
covenants-signed and ratified by the United States-torture is
illegal? One would not, and one assumes that as with the war against
the Taliban's Afghanistan, Alter regards issues of legality as
entirely immaterial. Would one know that in recent years the United
States has been charged by the UN and. also by human rights organizations
such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International with tolerating
torture in prisons, by methods ranging from solitary, twenty-three-hour-a-day
confinement in concrete boxes for years on end, to activating
50,000-volt shocks through a mandatory belt worn by prisoners?
Would one know that one of the darkest threads in postwar
US imperial history has been the CIA's involvement with torture,
as instructor, practitioner or contractor?
Remember Dan Mitrione, kidnapped and killed by Uruguay's Tupamaros
and portrayed by Yves Montand in Costa-Gavras's film State of
Siege? In the late 1960s Mitrione worked for the US Office of
Public Safety, part of the Agency for International Development.
In Brazil, so A.J. Langguth (a former New York Times bureau chief
in Saigon) related in his book Hidden Terrors, Mitrione was among
the US advisers teaching Brazilian police how much electric shock
to apply to prisoners without killing them. In Uruguay, according
to the former chief of police intelligence, Mitrione helped "professionalize"
torture as a routine measure and advised on psychological techniques
such as playing tapes of women and children screaming that the
prisoner's family was being tortured.
Alter expresses a partiality for "truth drugs,"
an enthusiasm shared by the US Navy after the war against Hitler,
when its intelligence officers got on the trail of Dr. Kurt Plotner's
research into "truth serums" at Dachau. Plotner gave
Jewish and Russian prisoners high doses of mescaline and then
observed their behavior, in which they expressed hatred | for
their guards and made confessional statements | about their own
| As part of its larger MK-ULTRA project the CIA gave money
to Dr. Ewen Cameron, at McGill University. Cameron was a pioneer
in the sensory-deprivation techniques for which Jonathan Alter
has issued his approval. Cameron once locked up a woman in a small
white box for thirty-five days, deprived of light, smell and sound.
The CIA doctors were amazed at this dose, knowing that their own
experiments with a sensory deprivation tank in 1955 had induced
severe psychological reactions in less than forty hours.
Start torturing, and it's easy to get carried away. Torture
destroys the tortured and corrupts the society that sanctions
it. Just like the FBI today, the CIA in 1968 got frustrated by
its inability to break suspected leaders of Vietnam's National
Liberation Front by its usual methods of interrogation and torture.
So the agency began more advanced experiments, *n one of which
it anesthetized three prisoners, opened their skulls and planted
electrodes *n the* brains. They were revived, put in a room and
given knives. The CIA psychologists then activated the electrodes,
hoping the prisoners would attack one another. They didn't. The
electrodes were removed, the prisoners shot and the* bodies burned.
Alter can read about it in Gordon Thomas's book Journey into Madness.
The Israelis? They're still torturing. In July, AP and the
Baltimore Sun relayed charges from the Israeli human rights group
B'tselem of "severe torture" by police: Palestinian
youths as young as 14 being badly beaten, their heads shoved into
toilet bowls and so forth. But Israel outsourced too. After Israel
finally retreated from its "security strip" in southern
Lebanon, run by its puppet South Lebanese Army, the journalist
Robert Fisk visited Khiam prison. His report for The Independent,
May 25, 2000, began thus: "The torturers had just left but
the horror remained. There was the whipping pole and the window
grilles where prisoners were tied naked for days, freezing water
thrown over them at night. Then there were the electric leads
for the little dynamo-the machine mercifully taken off to Israel
by the interrogators-which had the inmates shrieking with pain
when the electrodes touched the fingers or penises. And there
were the handcuffs which an ex-prisoner handed to me yesterday
afternoon. Engraved into the steel were the words: 'The Peerless
Handcuff Co. Springfield, Mass. Made in USA.' And I wondered,
in Israel's most shameful prison, if the executives over in Springfield
knew what they were doing when they sold these manacles."
If handcuffs are sold these days to the FBI's subcontractor
of choice, at least the executives will know they have Jonathan
Alter to explain the patriotic morality of the bottom line.
Policy and Pentagon