Remembering the U.S. Torture Regime

Ron Berger —

Abu Ghraib

In the spring of 2004, during the early years of the Iraq War launched by the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, reports of widespread abuse, humiliation, and outright torture of Iraqi prisoners held by US intelligence operatives, military personnel, and private contractors in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq hit the news. Some of the interrogators had taken photos of abused and beaten prisoners that were disseminated on the Internet for the entire world to see, undermining the credibility of the United States. Naked prisoners had been forced to feign homosexual acts and form a pile of naked bodies as smiling interrogators looked on. Prisoners were shown in stress positions, with electrical wires attached to their bodies and growling dogs standing by.

These practices, however, were not unique to Abu Ghraib. They also occurred at US facilities in Afghanistan, Guantánamo (Cuba), and other sites. Although the administration blamed these actions on maverick interrogators who had gone too far, and some lower level personnel were punished, the practices were systematically sanctioned by high-ranking officials—including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney, and President Bush himself. Moreover, little useful intelligence was gathered from what administration officials called “enhanced interrogation,” and the large majority of Iraqis and other Muslims who were victimized were completely innocent bystanders to the malaise of the Middle East.

Donald Trump’s selection of Gina Haspel to head the Central Intelligence Agency has been a recent reminder of American’s torture legacy, as Haspel was in charge of a “black site” prison in Thailand that was the location of US torture practices. Although Haspel has said she does not think the CIA program of  “enhanced interrogation” should have been undertaken, and has vowed not to renew it, she has been unwilling to say it was illegal or immoral. President Trump, in turn, has said he is sympathetic to such methods and believes they are effective in in eliciting valuable information. In this article, I offer a brief history of the US torture regime as a reminder of the need to remain vigilant in our commitment to not return to those dark days.

The Emergence of the US Torture Regime

What happened at Abu Ghraib and other US sites in the 2000s did not take place in an historical vacuum, but were an outgrowth of long-standing US policies that began in the early years of the Cold War following World War II. According to historian Alfred McCoy, at that time and in the years thereafter the US exhibited a contradictory stance toward torture. On the one hand, the US was a leader in the international movement for human rights, opposing torture before the United Nations and other international organizations, and signing treaties such as the Geneva Conventions that outlawed torture. On the other hand, the newly formed CIA ignored these humanitarian precepts and instead propagated the practice of torture throughout the world. The rationale for these latter actions was the belief that we faced an unscrupulous enemy in the form of Communism and the Soviet Union.

In the 1950s, the CIA commissioned a review of Nazi interrogation techniques, including hypnosis, drugs, electroshock, and psychosurgery, and then began a program of extreme cognitive experimentation on witting and unwitting subjects, with the latter including military personnel and hospital patients who were subjected to experimentation without their consent. Through trial and error and in collaboration with non-agency researchers, the CIA identified what would become the hallmarks of the modern psychological paradigm of “no touch” torture that is aimed, according to one CIA report published in 1963, at “inducing regression of the personality to whatever earlier and weaker level is required for the dissolution of resistance and the inculcation of dependence.” The report noted that all interrogation techniques, whether physical or psychological, “are essentially ways of speeding up the process of regression” until the assault on the target’s identity becomes “mentally intolerable” and they comply with their captor’s wishes. Research at the time had found that sensory deprivation, for example, which could be achieved through prolonged isolation, was especially effective at inducing the psychological equivalent of acute psychosis in as little as two days. 

Self-inflicted pain, a technique learned from the Communists, was another method of “no touch” torture adapted by the CIA. A seminal agency study of Communist interrogation methods in the mid-1950s reported that simply forcing subjects to stand for 18 to 24 hours could cause “excruciating pain,” as ankles double in size, blisters erupt oozing “watery serum,” heart rates soar, kidneys shut down, and delusions set in—outcomes that the CIA described as “nonviolent.” The technique of forcing prisoners into stress positions such as wall-standing was also adopted, whereby subjects are made to stand spreadeagled against a wall, with fingers high above their head against the wall, legs spread apart and feet back, “causing them to stand on their toes with the weight of the body mainly on the fingers.” These “self-inflicted” techniques are designed to make a person “feel responsible for their own suffering, thus inducing them to alleviate their agony by capitulating to the power of their interrogators.” Other “no touch” torture methods included sleep deprivation, subjection to extremely loud noise and extreme heat and cold, sexual humiliation, and denial of food, liquid, and toileting privileges. Water boarding, in which water is poured down a prisoner’s throat to induce a sense of drowning, also became part of the CIA’s torture regime. As we shall see, however, a problem with these techniques, besides their moral reprehensibility, is that they may elicit compliant behavior without accurate information, as subjects will tell interrogators whatever they want to hear in order to alleviate their suffering.

Exporting Torture  

According to McCoy, once a torture regime is unleashed, it becomes difficult to control, as it typically spreads from a limited number of high-valued targets to countless innocent victims. It also tends to move beyond “no touch” techniques to harsher physical methods, as it did during the Vietnam War through the murderous Phoenix program, where specially trained South Vietnamese counterinsurgency teams, often under the direct supervision of the CIA, tortured and summarily executed Vietcong prisoners. The torture techniques that were used included electroshock to men’s testicles and women’s vaginas. Overall, an estimated 41,000 Vietcong were killed by this program.

The Phoenix program was a seminal experience for the entire US intelligence community, serving as a model for later counterinsurgency training in Latin America. In the mid-1960s, US Army Intelligence launched Project X, which, according to a confidential Pentagon memo, was designed “to develop an exportable foreign intelligence package to provide counterinsurgency techniques learned in Vietnam to Latin American countries.”  A manual that was used at the Army Intelligence School provided training in the use of sodiopentathol, physical beatings, abduction of family members, and execution. For the next quarter century, the US Army propagated these tactics—through direct training and dissemination of manuals—to the militaries of at least 10 Latin American countries.

By the 1980s, international outrage led the United Nations to unanimously approve the Convention Against Torture (CAT), which broadly defined torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purpose as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.” In 1988, President Ronald Reagan asked the US Congress to approve the CAT and, in his words, “bring an end to the abhorrent practice.” At the same time, the Reagan administration proposed 19 reservations that stalled Congressional ratification for six years. The main focus of the reservations concerned the issue of psychological torture. The administration thought the definition of “mental pain” in the UN Convention was too vague and drafted a four-part diplomatic exception as a condition of US approval, defining psychological torture as limited to “prolonged mental harm” caused by: “(1) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering; (2) the administration … of mind-altering substances … (3) the threat of imminent death; or (4) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death … or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the sense of personality.” In essence, these exceptions were designed to protect the US “no touch” torture paradigm from international sanction.

Abu Ghraib

Nevertheless, in 1992 US Army Intelligence revised its interrogation field manual to more fully comply with the Geneva Conventions and evolving international standards, banning not only physical torture such as beatings and electroshock, but also prolonged stress positions, food deprivation, sleep deprivation, and mock executions. While violation of these guidelines could be prosecuted as crimes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the manual also stated that torture was not only immoral but ineffective, yielding “unreliable results [that] may damage subsequent collection efforts, and … [inducing] the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.” Moreover, it stated that public disclosure of “torture by US personnel will bring discredit upon the US and its armed forces” and undermine domestic and international support of US foreign policy.

The War on Terror  

 In September 2002, Cofer Black, counterterrorism chief of the CIA, told Congress: “All you need to know … is that there was a ‘before 9/11’ and there was an ‘after 9/11.’ After 9/11, the gloves came off.” Apparently this meant a reversal of even the limited restrictions that had been imposed by the Reagan administration. One mechanism of this change was the development of a legal framework that restricted legal compliance to state actors rather than to non-state actors such as Al-Qaida, who were not, in the Bush administration’s view, subject to the protections afforded to conventional prisoners of war.

In conjunction with the CIA and other intelligence agencies, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld launched a highly classified program, in McCoy’s words, that gave “prior authorization for kidnapping, assassination, and torture” of high-valued targets. The program included the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” whereby suspects were sent to countries like Egypt and Syria to be tortured by agents of foreign governments. The question remained, however: How much pain and suffering were US personnel allowed to inflict? In an important legal memorandum, assistant attorney general Jay Bybee, in collaboration with vice presidential counsel David Addington, answered this question, defining the parameters of permissible actions to include anything other than physical pain that was the “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”

Abu Ghraib

When the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke in Spring 2004, administration officials were forced to condemn the actions of a few “bad apples,” while also denying that they had approved the “no touch” techniques, which, at the same time, they denied as constituting torture. President Bush epitomized this double speak when he remarked: “[T]his country does not believe in torture.  We do believe in protecting ourselves.”

By the end of the year, however, several FBI e-mails from Guantánamo that disputed the official denials were made public. One FBI agent had written the FBI director an “urgent report,” complaining that prisoners were being subjected to “strangulation, beatings, placement of lit cigarettes into the detainee’s ear openings and unauthorized interrogation.” Another agent reported, “I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor with no chair, food or water. Most times they had urinated or defecated on themselves and had been left there for 18 to 24 hours.”

Other FBI agents noted that the torture techniques were producing no intelligence of value, while also compromising their own (more effective) rapport-building efforts. As one senior agent said, “every time the FBI established a rapport with a detainee, the military would step in and the detainee would stop being cooperative.” Former agent Dan Coleman, who worked closely with the CIA on counterterrorism cases and was the first FBI case agent to be assigned to bin Laden in the mid-1990s, was appalled by these methods. “Have any of these guys ever tired to talk to someone who’s been deprived of his clothes?” he asked. “He’s going to be ashamed and humiliated, and cold. He’ll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back. There’s no value in it. … Brutalization doesn’t work. We know that. Besides, you lose your soul.”

But what about the case of the so-called “ticking time bomb,” where there is an imminent threat of an attack from weapons of mass destruction that could possibly maim and kill thousands of people? In McCoy’s view, this fanciful scenario rests on certain assumptions that are largely fictional.

It assumes an improbable, even impossible, cluster of variables that runs something like this. First,  the FBI or CIA captures a terrorist. Second, the capture takes place at the precise moment between plot’s launch and bomb’s burst. Third, the interrogators somehow have sufficiently detailed knowledge of the plot to know they must interrogate this very person and do it now. … Fourth, these  same officers who have sufficient intelligence to know all about this specific terrorist and his ticking bomb are, for some unexplained reason, missing just a few critical details that only torture can divulge. … Such an extraordinary string of circumstances probably never has and never will occur.


During her Senate confirmation hearing, Gina Haspel was equivocal regarding her views on the effectiveness of torture. On the one hand she said, “I don’t believe that torture works.” On the other hand she said that valuable information was obtained from Al-Qaida detainees who were subjected to harsh interrogation methods. Donald Trump has said he would defer to his top advisors about whether he would authorize a renewal of US torture practices. If they don’t want to go down that road, he said, “that’s fine.” But, he added, “If they do want to do it, I will work toward that end. I want to do everything within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally. But do I feel it works? Absolutely I feel it works.”

Trump’s assertions notwithstanding—and besides the fact that most experts believe that torture does not work—the practice of torture undermines our democracy and the foundational values of our society. As McCoy concludes:

[A] nation that sanctions torture in defiance of its democratic principles pays a terrible price. For nearly two millennia, the practice has been identified with tyrants and empires. For the past two centuries, its repudiation has been synonymous with the humanist ideals of the Enlightenment and democracy. When any modern state tortures even a few victims, the stigma compromises its majesty and corrupts its integrity. Its officials must spin an ever more complex web of lies that, in the end, weakens the bonds of trust and the rule of law that are the sine qua non of a democracy. … Torture is evil, pure and simple.


Ronald J. Berger. 2011. White-Collar Crime: The Abuse of Corporate and Government Power. Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Seymour  M. Hersh. 2004. Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib. HarperCollins.

James Masters. 2017.  “Donald Trump Says Torture ‘Absolutely Works’—But Does It?” CNN Politics (Jan. 26),

Jane Mayer. 2009. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. Anchor Books.

Alfred M. McCoy. 2006. A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Metropolitan Books.

3 thoughts on “Remembering the U.S. Torture Regime

  1. As a great many observers have noticed, the tones emanating from the White House today bring out the worst in people. Little wonder that so many Americans are concerned about a return to torture.


  2. With Iraq’s newly elected leader Muqtada Al-Sadr (who was opposed to & persecuted by Saddam Hussein), it will be interesting to see what the next chapter of the saga brought on by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bolton, et al (whose regime targeted Al-Sadr for elimination) yields . . .


  3. Tony Lagouranis learned Arabic in the US Army and, in his late 20s, was assigned duties as an interrogator in Iraq from January 2004 into 2005. In his 2007 book “Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey Through Iraq,” Lagouranis describes in detail typically how prisoners, detainees, and “suspects” were handled while detained or jailed. Lagouranis comes through as intelligent, probing, sensitive, and caring in his accounts. He expresses guilt and shame for the occasions he allowed himself to operate at borderline legal/ethical or amoral standards—mainly his willing (though skeptical & hesitant at times) participation in torture. He cites a context of purposeful rationalization and murkiness in orders from above regarding Geneva protocols and US military guidelines. Descriptions of what he routinely experienced and observed are numerous in Ron’s piece.

    Lagouranis makes a point of it to clearly state that it took complicity by many at multiple levels of the military and Bush-Cheney administration for all this to have occurred so obscenely; he also thinks the media and American public should share in some of the accountability. He believes some war can be justifiable, but makes it evident from his personal experiences and those of others (American & Iraqi) that the Iraq invasion, occupation, and poorly thought out policies and operations were inexcusable—a sadly dark chapter in US history and shameful to national character.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are encouraged.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s