As is characteristic of it, the Bush Administration, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, has managed to persuade most Americans that the torture problem has been solved: the wrongdoers have been punished, torture is no longer tolerated, and Abu Ghraib is closed. The public’s gullibility notwithstanding, however, there remains the criminal truth. Not only are the perpetrators of the torture policies still at large and in power, a recent report indicates that, in fact, more Iraqis are now imprisoned than ever before: over 51,000 now languish in American and Iraqi prisons. Indeed, the “surge” has meant mainly a surge in prisoners: the number of Iraqis held by Americans rose 70% in 2007 from 14,500 to 24,700, while the Iraqi government now holds more than 26,000 of its own people prisoners. (“The Surge of Iraqi Prisoners,” by Clara Gilmartin, Foreign Policy in Focus, 5/7/08.) Are we supposed to believe that none of these 50,000 now gets the “interrogation treatment” that made Abu Ghraib famous?
A look at two books—"A Question of Torture," by Alfred McCoy, and "The Lucifer Effect," by Philip Zimbardo--should quickly dispel any such notion, for each proves, in its own way, that torture by American agencies is not some recent innovation in response to the “war on terror,” but rather a longstanding government policy, and perhaps an unavoidable feature of imprisonment itself.
Begin with McCoy, in his book subtitled "CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror." What McCoy demonstrates is that “Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Kabul are manifestations of a long history of distinctive U.S. covert-warfare doctrine developed since WWII, in which psychological torture has emerged as a central facet of American foreign policy” (p. 7). That is, in response to Cold War fears that both the Russians and the Chinese were engaging in “mind control” experiments that could force captives to reveal state secrets and, indeed, to commit criminal acts, the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s embarked on a massive program to develop mind-control tactics of its own. Its new paradigm focused on two elements: sensory disorientation, and self-inflicted pain. These methods were meant to substitute for more primitive, physical methods of torture, which not only have the negative characteristic of leaving visible marks on their victims, but also fail, in many cases, to break the will of captives to resist. With the psychological methods (often enhanced by physical methods where necessary), resistance almost always vanished.
To accomplish its task, the CIA elicited the help and funded the work of several university researchers in psychology. Donald Hebb, of McGill University in Canada, supplied the first element: sensory deprivation. Several Americans—Albert Biderman, Irving L. Janis, Harold Wolff and Lawrence Hinkle—provided data on the role of self-inflicted pain. And Stanley Milgram, whose obedience experiments at Yale became legendary, provided the third element—that almost anyone could be trained to inflict torture.
Hebb started in 1951, under a CIA-funded contract, to provide data on sensory deprivation. Paying college students to just lie in his “black box” 24 hours a day with all sensory stimuli blocked by translucent goggles, soundproofing, and thick gloves, he discovered that “even short-term deprivation produced a devastating impact on the human psyche.” After only a few days, the subject’s identity “began to disintegrate.” In other words, a varied environment was found to be so essential for humans that without it, subjects could be brought to a state of “acute psychosis,” with brain function seriously impaired.
The CIA also financed the research of another Canadian, D. Ewen Cameron, who was fond of a procedure he called “depatterning.” Working on his patients at the Allan Institute, Cameron used drug-induced comas, electroshock treatments, and repeated taped messages for long periods to induce breakdown. By 1964, Cameron was considered a crackpot, but by then he had so maimed several patients that he was sued, with the CIA paying an out-of-court settlement of $750,000 to nine patients, with the Canadian government adding another $180,000.
Still, the CIA was not discouraged and financed the research of Hinkle and Wolff into self-inflicted pain techniques. They reportedly found that the Russian KGB used a simple method—making victims stand still for 18 to 24 hours—that produced excruciating pain wherein ankle size doubled, blisters erupted, heart rates climbed, kidneys shut down and delusions emerged. The “best” part of all this was that, contrary to torture where the interrogator inflicted the pain—thus increasing the will of the victim to resist—self-inflicted pain had the opposite effect. The victims seemed to blame themselves for the pain, and hence could summon less will to resist.
The CIA was quite excited by this, as well as by the results from the experiments of Stanley Milgram at Yale (McCoy produces circumstantial evidence to suggest that Milgram was in the orbit of the CIA and the Office of Naval Research). There, ordinary citizens were induced and encouraged to shock “subjects” in order to make them learn. Though the subjects were not actually being shocked, but were acting, the shockers did not know this. They found themselves administering higher and higher voltages, encouraged always by the authority figures urging them on, up to and including the most excruciating pain available. The conclusion demonstrated that anyone—especially the police and military of foreign allies, such as those in Latin America, where the CIA was ‘fighting communism’—could be easily persuaded to torture those deemed in possession of useful information.
All these results were not simply academic exercises. The CIA put them into training manuals and implemented them worldwide for the next 40 years. In 1963, for example, the CIA produced its "Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation" handbook. It embraced the two-part form of torture—sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain—its paid research had uncovered. As McCoy puts it, the “fundamental hypothesis” of Kubark is that interrogation involves “methods of inducing regression of the personality to whatever earlier and weaker level is required for the dissolution of resistance and inculcation of dependence” (p. 51). All interrogation is a way of “speeding up the process of regression,” to the point where the assault on personal identity becomes “mentally intolerable.” The methods researched by Hebb and Cameron, among others, are laid out in full, with techniques such as “hooding” or “sleep denial” used to disorient the prisoner, and “personal or sexual humiliation” used to attack personal identity. It also pointed out that pain which the person “seems to inflict on himself” diminishes resistance much more rapidly than pain from without.
The CIA then proceeded to use Vietnam as its own personal laboratory for these and other techniques. Its main venue was the Phoenix program, meant to destroy the Vietcong underground. Information was crucial, and so all its new techniques, and many old ones such as the simple, old fashioned killing of captives, were employed. One of these ‘experiments’ deserves mention. In 1966, the CIA shipped to Vietnam an electroshock machine along with three psychiatrists, including Dr. Lloyd Cotter, to test the depatterning techniques of Ewen Cameron. Cotter applied electroconvulsive treatment to Vietnamese patients and was “impressed” with the results. The results with Vietcong prisoners were even more impressive: the CIA psychiatrists applied 12 electroshocks the first day, and as many as 60 during the next seven days, until one of the prisoners died. Undaunted, the electroshocks continued until the rest of the prisoners died several weeks later. At that point, the CIA operatives simply left; experiment over.
The result of all this was enemy “neutralization” estimated, in 1972, at 81,740 eliminated, with 26,369 detainees simply killed. As McCoy points out, this killing of suspects left over is necessary to avoid indefinite jailing of captives who can no longer offer information; hence his conclusion: “In effect, the logical corollary to state-sanctioned torture is state-sponsored murder” (p. 196). In Iran under the Shah (whom the U.S. installed after organizing the downfall of the democratically-elected Mossadegh government), the CIA, with help from Israeli intelligence, used its new torture doctrine to organize and train the Savak, the Shah’s secret police. According to Iranian poet Reza Baraheni, “at least half a million people” were beaten, whipped or tortured in Iran by Savak (p. 75).
Still, the United States did not want to appear to approve of torture, so it signed international agreements such as the 1984 UN Convention against Torture. However, the Reagan Administration posted reservations to the new treaty, which were effected when President Clinton finally signed it in 1994. These reservations, in the form of “clearer” definitions of what constituted psychological torture, limited it to such things as using mind-altering substances and the threat of imminent death. These narrow definitions, McCoy points out, made no mention of “sensory deprivation (hooding), self-inflicted pain (stress positions) and disorientation (isolation and sleep denial)—the very techniques the CIA had been refining for decades” (p. 100). Hence, even after the United States had signed the 1984 Convention, the CIA felt free to use its psychological techniques while U.S. officials could continue to say, “We do not torture.”
Thus we see that far from being an aberration, or a radical departure from previous interrogation practices, the Bush Administration’s announcement that the “gloves were coming off” after 9/11 meant mainly that, for America’s spy agencies, it would be business pretty much as usual. The departure from prior practice—for there was one—came with the extension of CIA torture techniques to the military: those interrogators at U.S. military installations who have since become so famous. In order to implement this “force drift,” however, the administration had to outflank its military officers, particularly those in the Advocate General’s office, who raised loud and persistent objections to what they saw going on at Guantanamo, Bagram Air Force Base, and later, Abu Ghraib. All, without exception, said such tactics violated military interrogation manuals and should be halted. In response, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, aided by the White House neocons like David Addington and lawyers in the Justice Department like John Yoo and Jay Bybee, organized a Defense Working Group to provide him and the military the cover and authority they needed.
As intended, Rumsfeld’s DWG produced a memo in March of 2003 approving of the extreme interrogation methods. They read like a reprint of the Kubark manual, especially when specified by General Geoffrey Miller for Guantanamo: a 72-point matrix for stress and duress, using “harsh heat or cold; withholding food; hooding for days at a time; naked isolation in cold, dark cells for more than 30 days; and stress positions designed to subject detainees to rising levels of pain” (p. 129). Miller also added forms of psychological torture specific to Arab culture which, since Abu Ghraib, have become disgustingly familiar—the conscious strategy of sexual humiliation and other forms of assault on Muslim cultural inhibitions. And though the International Red Cross, in 2004, declared such methods to be “tantamount to torture,” and hence violations of international law, the U.S. military simply dismissed these charges.
This open contempt marked another departure, according to McCoy: instead of using such psychological techniques covertly, as it had for half a century, the United States government under George W. Bush now “defied the international community by openly defending the techniques and denying that they constituted torture” (p. 157). Put another way, that which started out as a series of psychological methods to break any human being—but secretly, thus acknowledging their heinous nature—had now become something publicly and defiantly accepted, a kind of torture about which an American administration seemed almost proud.
What Philip Zimbardo’s "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil," adds to this discussion is the notion that, given the right situation, almost anyone can turn into a perpetrator of horror. In short, where most of us, particularly in the United States and the West, tend to attribute evil actions to “dispositional factors,” i.e. the alleged bad or evil inherent in a specific person whose evil disposition leads him to “sin”, Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) took the opposite tack: evil behavior stems mainly from the situation in which people find themselves. In the SPE, average college students were chosen at random to be either “guards” or “prisoners.” A pretend prison was set up in the basement of Stanford’s psychology building, and a situation created in which the guards were to control and discipline the prisoners for a set period. No physical force was to be used, but other means, such as humiliation, isolation, harassment, and so on were legitimate methods for the guards to use. Zimbardo summed up the design and purpose of the experiment as follows: “our research will attempt to differentiate between what people bring into a prison situation from what the situation brings out in the people who are there.” His assistant put it more succinctly: “You’re putting good people in an evil situation to see who or what wins.”
What stunned the experimenters, and stuns the reader, is how quickly the situation won, i.e. how rapidly the neutral students fell into their assigned roles. Within a matter of days, the prisoners become docile and obedient. The guards, many of them student radicals themselves, become authoritarian, brutal disciplinarians. As one “prisoner” put it afterward: “The guard role promotes sadism. The prisoner role promotes confusion and shame” (p. 189). Even more astonishing is the degree to which not just the students but the psychologists and graduate students running the experiment themselves seemed to forget the make-believe nature of the situation and became that which they were supposedly miming. The most dramatic example of this latter takes place when one of the prisoners, Doug-8612, becomes so overwrought that he must be released after his second day in “prison.” In response, the “warden” and Zimbardo himself as “superintendent” begin to worry that Doug-8612’s “breakdown” might have been just playacting designed so that he could gather other students outside the experiment to stage a ‘breakout’ of his fellow prisoners. Worse, they begin to analyze their screening methods to see if somehow they had allowed a “flawed” or “damaged” person to slip into their experiment. The irony is striking: in a “study designed to demonstrate the power of situational forces over dispositional tendencies, we were making a dispositional attribution” (i.e. Doug-8612 was a “bad apple” who had slipped into the group of “good” subjects. ed note)
Among many notable moments in this experiment, one of the most troubling, given our experience with Abu Ghraib, is the point near the end when one of the guards, Hellmann, on his own, adds sexual harassment of prisoners to his repertoire of control tactics: “’See that hole in the ground? Now do twenty-five push-ups, fucking that hole! You hear me!’ One after another, the prisoners obey, as Burdan shoves them down to do their duty.” Then the secondary guard, Burdan, makes the prisoners do the camel game—forcing three prisoners to play female camels, bending over, baring their behinds beneath their short prison smocks, while ordering the others to “Stand behind the female camels and hump them” (p. 172).
Fortunately for Philip Zimbardo and his subjects, an outside observer, his future wife Christina Maslach, intervened. Having seen what was happening, she objected heatedly, insisting that “What you are doing to those boys is a terrible thing!” This forced the researcher to admit his responsibility for having created this little “prison,” thereby leading his students into a tangled knot of dominance and submission that was deeply affecting their psyches, and to call off his experiment after only one week (it was originally scheduled to last two weeks.) It also led him to reflect, when writing his book 30 years later, on where the ultimate responsibility for evil behavior, especially in the real world, lies. In brief, though each individual should be held responsible for his actions, the situation in which those actions take place controls behavior far more than any of us realizes. Perhaps more important, it is the System that creates the action-inducing situation which is ultimately responsible. Zimbardo puts it thus:
“The negative power on which I had been running for the past week, as superintendent of this mock prison, had blinded me to the reality of the destructive impact of the System that I was sustaining….While I was focused on the abstract conceptual issue, the power of the behavioral situation vs the power of individual dispositions, I had missed seeing the all-encompassing power of the System that I had helped create and sustain.
The System includes the Situation, but it is more enduring, more widespread, involving extensive networks of people, their expectations, norms, policies, and, perhaps laws…Each System comes to develop a culture of its own, as many Systems collectively come to contribute to the culture of a society.” (p. 179)
Elsewhere, Zimbardo also includes a System’s ideology in the nexus of key factors that sustains it—ideology such as: America is a nation chosen by and protected by God, America is the model democracy, America is the home of liberty and justice for all, America is that singular nation which never attacks or exploits but always helps others, etc.
Now we need to contrast this Systemic-situational view with the one that has pertained in the Bush Administration (and throughout American culture to a greater or lesser degree) when faced with the consequences of Abu Ghraib and its war on terror. Zimbardo quotes Condoleeza Rice in an interview with Jim Lehrer in July of 2005 to illustrate the latter:
“When are we going to stop making excuses for the terrorists and saying that somebody is making them do it? No, these are simply evil people who want to kill…This isn’t about some kind of grievance. This is an effort to destroy rather than to build. And until everybody in the world calls it by name—the evil that it is---stops making excuses for them, then I think we’re going to have a problem.” (p. 311)
The administration attitude (these are simply evil people) pertained, of course, not just to the terrorists, but also to the guards who committed the photographically-documented outrages at Abu Ghraib. It was the “bad apples,” not the barrel, who were responsible. And the “bad apples” got punished—Sgt Chip Frederick, Lynnde England, Charles Graner—while the barrel itself, and those who had created the barrel, got off scot free. In the most immediate sense, this means Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who, according to Mark Danner (Torture & Truth: American, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror), issued directives about preparing detainees for interrogation that included the following recommended methods:
“Use of stress positions for 4 hours in isolation up to 30 days; Hooding during transportation and questioning; Deprivation of light and auditory stimuli; Removal of all comfort items (including religious ones); Forced grooming; Removal of clothing.; Using detainees’ individual phobias (fear of dogs) to induce stress.” (p. 408)
In the largest sense, it means all those, both appointed and elected, who helped to direct and justify and implement the system.
Thus, by examining American torture policies in light of his own Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo leads us to the conclusion that the situation trumps almost any individual disposition in leading the way to evil actions. And the System that creates the situation should bear the most responsibility of all. He liberally cites the memos noted above—memos that were designed to not only place the detainees in U.S. custody beyond the reach of any court or law, including the Geneva Conventions, but also to protect those implementing the policies from any liability for war crimes—to buttress his case. He also points out that a System is implemented by individual actors, to be sure, but it is not underlings like Sgt. Frederick and Pvt. England who bear most culpability; rather it is those actors who hold the power positions in that system—the Rumsfelds, the Cheneys, the Addingtons, the Yoos, the Bybees, the Rices, the entire Bush White House torture cabal including the President himself. As Zimbardo puts it:
"I believe that a system consists of those agents and agencies whose power and values create or modify the rules of and expectations for “approved behavior” within its sphere of influence. In one sense, the system is more than the sum of its parts and of its leaders, who also fall under its powerful influences. In another sense, however, the individuals who play key roles in creating a system that engages in illegal, immoral and unethical conduct should be held accountable despite the situational pressures on them.” (p. 438)
It is such a system, Zimbardo suggests, that allowed Nazis like Adolph Eichmann to commit his crimes while feeling all along that he was just “doing his job.” The extent to which a similar type of system has been created in the United States of America under all of our noses and with our tax dollars is the extent to which all of us who support and sustain and allow that system to continue are guilty. Not as guilty, perhaps, as the Bush administration high officials, who should, who must be held to account for their crimes—but guilty nonetheless.