A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror

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A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror, by Alfred W. McCoy (New York: Metropolitan/Henry Holt), 2006, 290 pp., $25.00.

"We have met the enemy and he is us."

- Pogo

At least two Pogo-truths apply to the content of this book. The first is that in the so-called war on terror it is often we who are acting terribly. I am disturbed and saddened by this truth. I am not a U.S. intelligence agent tasked with getting information from a person of interest, nor am I a soldier or reservist encouraged to "soften up" a detainee prior to interrogation. Nevertheless, as a citizen of a democracy, I am ultimately responsible for torture inflicted by representatives of my government.

The second Pogo-truth is even more difficult for me as a psychologist, particularly one who specializes in the psychology of interrogations and confessions. This truth is that not only is torture carried out in our name (by and "for" Americans) but the theory and techniques of modern CIAstyle torture have their roots in North American Psychology and Psychiatry.

Some questions about torture:

* Is torture an efficient, accurate means for extracting information vital to national security? (Does it work?)

* Do the infamous photos of hooded prisoners in uncomfortable positions reflect the twisted imagination of a few bad apples -"sadistic hillbillies on the night shift" (Wolf, 2006) -or a carefully developed plan designed to facilitate the gathering of intelligence?

* How did the modern practices of psychological torture develop, and how did they drift from being used on a few specific targets in settings declared to be separate from the Geneva Conventions to widespread use on mostly innocent people (caught up in neighborhood sweeps and taken in for questioning) in places where there was no question that the Geneva Conventions applied?

* When people are captured and tortured, the resulting information is not admissible in court, so what do you do with those people after you've gotten all the information from them you're going to get-that is, if we don't just summarily execute them?

* Torture -what do we do, why do we do it, does it work, what does it do to those tortured, and how does it affect the torturers and the society that tortures?

This carefully documented book explores all these questions and provides answers to most of them. In A Question of Torture, McCoy describes the development of the art and science of torture, and he manages to do so clearly without writing luridly. This is essential reading for military service persons, reservists, civilian government employees, citizens, professionals interested in the psychology of interrogations and confessions, and anyone who wants to understand who we Americans are, including some things that everyone else in the world understands already.

In exploring the hidden history of torture in the USA over the past half century, McCoy notes that "Among the practices of the modern state, torture is the least understood, one that lures its practitioners, high and low, with fantasies of power and dominion" (pp. 12-13). He details "five intertwined aspects of [torture's] perverse psychology" (p. 13):

* Torture unleashes a profound capacity for cruelty in human nature.

* States that initially sanction torture of a few special targets often proceed to torture more and more suspected enemies.

* Perpetrators of torture focus on the initial appearance of quick, efficient information extraction. They may ignore evidence of torture's limited utility and high political cost.

* Torturers are rarely prosecuted for their crimes.

* Nations that sanction torture in defiance of democratic principles do so at a terrible price.

McCoy notes that from the very beginnings of the CIA in 1947, the agency was disturbed by the Soviet Union's ability to extract public confessions "in ways that hinted at secret mind-control techniques" (p. …