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American Torture: the US and the abuse of prisoners

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The US has a history of abusing prisoners for its own ends, says author Michael Otterman
Issue 2049
 (Art: Eric Drooker/
(Art: Eric Drooker/

Abusing hooded prisoners is not the work a few rogue soldiers, but a systemic US policy of torture that dates back to the start of the Cold War. The US military watched with interest the Russian show trials of the 1930s and 1940s, in which opponents of the regime stood up and admitted to anything and everything they were accused of.

In addition, they looked at human experimentation that the Nazis were involved in. In 1945, the US Navy recruited Dr Kurt Plotner, who had supervised human experimentation at the Dachau concentration camp, to continue his interrogation “research”.

During the Korean War of 1950-3 US pilots who were shot down over North Korea made statements that the US was committing war crimes.

This created a fear in the military. When prisoners of war returned to the US after the Korean War, over 70 percent of these prisoners had signed confessions. The military genuinely believed the Chinese communists had worked out some form of mind control.

US president Dwight Eisenhower appointed a secret panel which concluded, “It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game… If the US is to survive, long standing US concepts of ‘fair play’ must be reconsidered.”

The military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) embarked on a quest to find sharper tools to break down prisoners and extract confessions.


The US military quickly found it was not exotic potions that worked. It is rather that if you put someone in a room, strip them naked and don’t give them food for a week or two, they will be willing to confess to anything. The military found that after 12 hours participants became susceptible to suggestion.

The US military launched its Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (Sere) programme – supposedly designed to inoculate soldiers against the stress of torture.

Starting in 1953, students in Sere were hooded, nearly drowned, positioned into painful and sexually explicit positions, subjected to abuse focusing on their race and religion, and held in solitary confinement for days at a time.

The methods centred on self-inflicted pain, sensory deprivation and humiliation to render victims delirious, dependent and highly suggestible. Training camps were opened around the world – in South Korea in 1953 and in Britain in 1954.

While the US military tortured its own soldiers, the CIA embarked on a programme to discover powerful drugs to control the body and mind, mostly using LSD. After these programmes failed miserably, the agency turned to the techniques used by the military.

In 1958 the CIA’s in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence, printed an article by an agent under the pseudonym Don Compos, “The Interrogation of Suspects Under Arrest”.

The article begins with ominous advice, “The recalcitrant subject of an intelligence interrogation must be ‘broken’, but broken for use like a riding horse, not smashed in the search for a single golden egg.”

The article suggested interrogators “control the psychological factors in every aspect of the subject’s life from the earliest possible stage”. Methods such as sensory deprivation and constantly changing cell conditions were central to ensuring “a continuing flow of information”.

It continues, “Everything possible must be done to impress upon the subject the unassailable superiority of those in whose hands he finds himself and therefore the futility of his position.”

According to the CIA’s 1963 Kubark counter-intelligence interrogation training manual, techniques “succeed even with highly resistant sources [by] inducing regression of the personality to whatever earlier and weaker level is required for the dissolution of resistance”.


From the late 1950s, the CIA and US military exported their torture methods to US allies in south east Asia and importantly Latin America via counter-insurgency training programmes.

By 1971 more than 100,000 foreign officers had been trained in torture.

Torture techniques were deployed in the Vietnam War in the form of the Phoenix programme, which aimed to “root out the Communist infrastructure in Vietnam”. It was a CIA creation.

It targeted civilians sympathetic to the Viet Cong – essentially every civilian in North Vietnam. It was, as they called it, “a programme of terror” to sow fear and doubt – 20,000 civilians were killed.

In 1983, the CIA produced a new guidebook, the Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, which made the 1963 version seem tame. This manual advocated the use of physical violence, extreme sensory deprivation and sexual humiliation to break down suspects.

Ronald Reagan and the first Bush administrations kept Sere techniques legal for the CIA and the military by inserting narrow definitions of torture into the UN Convention Against Torture and various domestic statutes.

Before 9/11, while all the torture techniques were used, they were never officially justified – it was always done behind closed doors.

What changed after 9/11 is that you started to get official open approval of torture. George Bush claimed that the US’s torture techniques are an “alternate set of procedures”, vital tools needed “to protect the US people and our allies”.

Richard Clark, the Bush administration’s then counter-terrorism chief, reported that in the evening after the 9/11 attacks, Bush told his top staff, “Everything is available for the pursuit of this war. Any barriers in your way, they’re gone… I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.”

In 2002 the military survival schools’ interrogators were sent to Guantanamo Bay to teach the interrogators their techniques. The knowledge was outsourced and people started using the methods all over the place.

The techniques have now become so commonplace that interrogators later charged with murdering detainees have successfully defended themselves in court by claiming that their actions were no worse than what US soldiers themselves endure during training.

Making a pyramid of naked people is not authorised explicitly – but enforced nakedness and ritualising humiliation is. Sleep deprivation is authorised by the commanding generals as is the use of dogs against Muslims.

The Military Commissions Act of 2006 legalised these methods of torture for use by the CIA in secret prisons. Today hypothermia, forced standing, sleep deprivation and simulated drowning are legal tools in the interrogator’s toolbox.

Since 2001, more than 800 allegations of abuse have surfaced and at least 34 US-held prisoners have been murdered while in custody.

Sleep deprivation and forced standing inflict enormous damage. Although it sounds innocuous, sleep deprivation is one of the cruellest forms of torture. Waterboarding, a form of mock execution, cruelly fuses both the mental and physical.

In October 2006, then vice president Dick Cheney confirmed that waterboarding is one of the CIA’s “alternative techniques”. Using it on suspected terrorists, he said, is a “no-brainer”.

According to a former Sere instructor, “Waterboarding is a torture. Period. I ran a waterboard team at Sere and administered dozens of students through the process as a tool to show what the worst looks like, short of death.

“This is why there is a doctor and a psychologist standing right next to the student to do it safe and to help the student recover. It is not a simulation. When applied you are, in fact, drowning at a controlled rate. We just determine how much and how long till you break. Everyone breaks.”

The idea of counter-terror, which fuelled the Phoenix programme, is dishing out on enemies what we say they are dishing out on us.

Torture is also about sending a message about what we will do to you.

Torture is the worst way to get accurate information. Before 9/11 torture in the US media was done by the bad guys. But post-9/11 you get the television series 24 where Jack Bauer gets the information and saves the day by torturing the bad guys – peddling the myth that torture works.


Interrogaters going into Iraq and Afghanistan partly hold views based on fiction. The reality is that what torture does is get people to say anything you want.

US military field manuals carry the following caveats, which acknowledge reality but do little to enforce it, “Use of torture and other illegal methods is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.

“Revelation of use of torture by US personnel will bring discredit upon the US and its armed forces while undermining domestic and international support for the war effort.”

If, and it is if, torture wins the battle it certainly loses the war. The same methods were used by Britain in Northern Ireland and it should be a cautionary tale. When the British used torture, as when it was used in Algeria, it radicalised the population.

The US holds over 14,000 prisoners in a vast gulag of prisons across the world. The US contends that it can hold these prisoners until the “war on terror” ends.

According to former secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, “That very likely will go on for many years, much like the Cold War went on for many years.” As long as they are in US custody, these prisoners are fodder for US interrogators authorised and trained to use torture.

Michael Otterman spoke to Socialist Worker. His book American Torture will be available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, from 7 May. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to


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