Re: New York Times 26 August, 2009: Records Show Strict Rules for CIA Interrogations

Gentle Reader –

This was a letter in response to an article in the NYT.  I had hoped to clarify an issue for the authors.  They didn’t reply.  Oh well.



Messers Shane and Mazzetti:

I applaud you for your series in the Times related to CIA interrogation / abuse. There seemed to be a piece missing, as I read your work, so I wanted to send you this brief note.

Your article, cited above, talks about the tight control of physically abusive maneuvers. You refer to “…overwhelming control exercised from CIA Headquarters and the Department of Justice – control Bush administration officials say was intended to ensure that the program was safe and legal…” [NYT 26 August, 2009, page A1, paragraph 4, lines 6 – 12]. You further go on to detail an almost clinical level of control dictated by “…doctors and lawyers…” [ibid, column 1, paragraph 4, lines 1 – 2], a level that is chillingly similar to other state-sponsored torture of which we are all aware.

Of particular interest to me is the utilization of psychological torture – to which you briefly refer [NYT 26 August, 2009, page A1, column 2, paragraph 3, lines 1 – 7; page A10, column 3, paragraph 5, lines 1 – 12, column 4, paragraph 1, lines 1 – 8] – rather than the physical torture that was so tightly controlled.

During the Korean War, our government, through the CIA and Department of Defense, became quite concerned by what appeared to be the ability of the Chinese military to force confessions from our captured troops. This – together with the recollection of the Moscow Show trials, and the automaton-like behavior of Hungarian Josef Cardinal Mindszenty at his trial – led us to begin a program to ensure we would not be outdone in psychological warfare.

Initially the CIA worked on pharmacological agents – LSD, mescaline, and so forth – to little avail. Almost accidentally, the psychological approach was discovered. Based upon work by Doctors D.O. Hebb, A. Biderman, I.L. Janis, H. Wolff, and L. Hinkle, the CIA found that with a combination of isolation / sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain, we were able to psychologically break individuals in hours to days, rather than in weeks to months when physical methods were used. In fact, these authors and others that followed noted that physical torture – similar to some of what your article notes was so carefully controlled – often made the prisoner more able to resist their captors, rather then less so. Psychological techniques, on the other hand, were able to break even the strongest individual.

The “defensive” behavioral research program was termed MKUltra by our CIA. In 1963 this work was published as the Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation manual. This work – utilizing sensory deprivation and self inflicted pain – was used by the Office of Public Safety in Viet Nam and Latin America. It was shared with our British colleagues and used in the Irish civil war in the 1970s. These techniques – torture – are used today by our forces.

In 1984, the UN Convention against Torture was passed; it defined torture as either physical or psychological [Article 1]. President Reagan put together a 4-part reservation that had the effect of allowing psychological torture; President Clinton signed this into law.

The argument in the papers as to whether or not we torture is a false one. The procedures and techniques we have used define torture. We may be better at it than was the Inquisition, but it is no less torture.

It would be of use, I think, to emphasize this apparent discrepancy. We keep debating whether or not torture techniques were / are used in Iraq and Afghanistan; they were ands are. Sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain ARE torture. We can see this on any day on any news program. We have been using these techniques for decades. We are better than this.

I hope this is of help to you.

A. Joseph Layon, MD

1. New York Times [national edition] 26 August, 2009
2. McCoy AW: A Question of Torture – CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Metropolitan Books, New York. 2006
Milgram S: Obedience to Authority – An Experimental View. Perennial Classics. New York, 2004 [originally published 1974].

About AJ Layon

AJ Layon was, for 28 years, at the University of Florida College of Medicine, in the Division of Critical Care Medicine, in Gainesville, FL. For the approximately 10 years until September 2011, he was Professor and Chief of Critical Care Medicine at UF; In September of 2011 he became System Director and Co-Chairman of Critical Care Medicine in PA; this ended in 2017. He served as a Physician in the Surgical Group with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors without Borders) through 2018 and is presently an intensivist in Florida, struggling through the SARS-CoV-2 crisis. While his interests are primarily related to health care, health care reform, and ethical issues, as a citizen of our United States and our world, he will occasionally opine on issues of our "time and destiny". Follow on Twitter @ajlayon
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