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The Birth of Soft Torture
« on: November 20, 2005, 05:24:00 PM »

The Birth of Soft Torture
CIA interrogation techniques?a history.
By Rebecca Lemov
Updated Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2005, at 5:07 PM ET

In 1949, Cardinal Jószef Mindszenty appeared before the world's
cameras to mumble his confession to treasonous crimes against the
Hungarian church and state. For resisting communism, the World War
II hero had been subjected for 39 days to sleep deprivation and
humiliation, alternating with long hours of interrogation, by
Russian-trained Hungarian police. His staged confession riveted the
Central Intelligence Agency, which theorized in a security
memorandum that Soviet-trained experts were controlling Mindszenty
by "some unknown force." If the Communists had interrogation weapons
that were evidently more subtle and effective than brute physical
torture, the CIA decided, then it needed such weapons, too.

Months later, the agency began a program to explore "avenues to the
control of human behavior." During the next decade and a half, CIA
experts honed the use of "chemical and biological materials capable
of producing human behavioral and physiological changes" according
to a retrospective CIA catalog written in 1963. And thus soft
torture in the United States was born.

In short order, CIA experts attempted to induce Mindszenty-like
effects. An interrogation team consisting of a psychiatrist, a
lie-detector expert, and a hypnotist went to work using combinations
of the depressant Sodium Amytal and certain stimulants. Tests on
four suspected double agents in Tokyo in July 1950 and on 25 North
Korean prisoners of war three months later yielded more noteworthy
results. (Relevant CIA documents do not specify exactly what, but
reports later claimed that the special interrogation teams could
hold a subject in a "controlled state" for a long period.)
Meanwhile, the CIA opened the door to pre-emptive psychosurgery: In
a doctor's office in Washington, D.C., one unfortunate man, his name
deleted from documents, was lobotomized against his will during an
interrogation. By the mid-to-late 1950s, experiments using "black
techniques," as the agency called them, moved to prisons, hospitals,
and other field-testing sites with funding and encouragement from
the CIA's Science and Technology Directorate*.
One of the most extreme 1950s experiments that the CIA sponsored was
conducted at a McGill University hospital, where the world-renowned
psychiatrist Dr. Ewen Cameron had been pioneering a technique he
called "psychic driving." Dr. Cameron was widely considered the most
able psychiatrist in Canada?his honors included the presidency of
the World Psychiatric Association?and his patients were referred to
him from all over. A disaffected housewife, a rebellious youth, a
struggling starlet, and the wife of a Canadian member of Parliament
were a few of the more than 100 patients who became uninformed,
nonconsenting experimental subjects. Many were diagnosed as
schizophrenic (a diagnosis since contested in many of the cases).
Cameron's goal was to wipe out the stable "self," eliminating
deep-seated psychological problems in order to rebuild it. He
grandiosely hoped to transform human existence by opening a new
gateway to the understanding of consciousness. The CIA wanted to
know what his experiments suggested about interrogating people with
the help of sensory deprivation, environmental manipulation, and
psychic disorientation.
Cameron's technique was to expose a patient to tape-recorded
messages or sounds that were played back or repeated for long
periods. The goal was a condition Cameron dubbed "penetration": The
patient experienced an escalating state of distress that often
caused him or her to reveal long-buried past experiences or
disturbing events. At that point, the doctor would offer "healing"
suggestions. Frequently, his patients didn't want to listen and
would attack their analyst or try to leave the room. In the 1956
American Journal of Psychiatry, Cameron explained that he broke down
their resistance by continually repeating his message using "pillow
and ceiling microphones" and different voices; by imposing periods
of prolonged sleep; and by giving patients drugs like Sodium Amytal,
Desoxyn, and LSD-25, which "disorganized" thought patterns.
To further disorganize his patients, Cameron isolated them in a
sensory deprivation chamber. In a dark room, a patient would sit in
silence with his eyes covered with goggles, prevented "from touching
his body?thus interfering with his self image." Finally "attempts
were made to cut down on his expressive output"?he was restrained or
bandaged so he could not scream. Cameron combined these tactics with
extended periods of forced listening to taped messages for up to 20
hours per day, for 10 or 15 days at a stretch.
In 1958 and 1959, Cameron went further. With new CIA money behind
him, he tried to completely "depattern" 53 patients by combining
psychic driving with electroshock therapy and a long-term,
drug-induced coma. At the most intensive stage of the treatment,
many subjects were no longer able to perform even basic functions.
They needed training to eat, use the toilet, or speak. Once the
doctor allowed the drugs to wear off and ceased shock treatments,
patients slowly relearned how to take care of themselves?and their
pretreatment symptoms were said to have disappeared.
So had much of their personalities. Patients emerged from Cameron's
ward walking differently, talking differently, acting differently.
Wives were more docile, daughters less inclined to histrionics, sons
better-behaved. Most had no memory of their treatment or of their
previous lives. Sometimes, they forgot they had children. At first,
they were grateful to their doctor for his help. Several Cameron
patients, however, later said they had severe recurrences of their
pretreatment problems and traumatic memories of the treatment itself
and together sued the doctor as well as the U.S. and Canadian
governments. Their case was quietly settled out of court.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, CIA experts thought they
understood the techniques necessary for "breaking" a person. Under a
strict regime of behavioral conditioning, "the possibility of
resistance over a very long period may be vanishingly small,"
several researchers concluded in an analysis used in the CIA's 1963
manual Counterintelligence Interrogation. At the agency, pressure
increased to field-test coercive interrogation tools. The task, as
CIA second-in-command Richard Helms urged, was to test the agency's
techniques on "normal" people. At times, this imperative made the
agency reckless. As part of the now notorious MK-ULTRA program?"one
of the seamiest episodes in American intelligence," according to
journalist Seymour Hersh?the CIA set up a safe house in San
Francisco where its agents could observe the effects of various drug
combinations on human behavior. They were in search of a "truth
serum" and thought LSD might be it. Prostitutes were hired to bring
unwitting johns back to the house, where the women slipped acid and
other strong psychoactive substances into the men's drinks. From
behind a one-way mirror, investigators watched, notebooks and
martinis in hand. Sometimes the men took the drugs and managed to
carry on. Sometimes they babbled or cried. An internal CIA review
condemned these high jinks in 1963, but Congress didn't investigate
them until 1977, after a post-Watergate crisis of confidence in the
At least officially, the CIA ended its behavioral science program in
the mid-1960s, before scientists and operatives achieved total
control over a subject. "All experiments beyond a certain point
always failed," an operative veteran of the program said, "because
the subject jerked himself back for some reason or the subject got
amnesiac or catatonic." In other words, you could create a vegetable
or a zombie, but not a robot who would obey you against his will.
Still, the CIA had gained reliable information about how to derange
and disorient a person who was reluctant to cooperate. An enemy
could quickly be made into a confused and desperate human being.
Since 9/11, as government documents and news reports have made
clear, the CIA's experimental approach to coercive interrogation has
been revived. Last week, as the Washington Post revealed the
existence of secret CIA-run prisons?"black sites"?in Eastern Europe,
Vice President Dick Cheney continued to campaign to ensure that the
agency will not be prevented from using "cruel, inhumane, and
degrading" methods to elicit intelligence from detainees. The
operatives of the 1940s would approve.
Correction, Nov. 18, 2005: The article originally referred to the
CIA's Technology and Science Directorate. The correct title is the
Science and Technology Directorate. Return to the corrected
Related in Slate

Dahlia Lithwick explained the legal definitions of torture here in
2001, and Brendan I. Koerner addressed the issue three years later
here. Information extracted by torture is not very reliable. Is
humane torture possible? In January, Chris Suellentrop wrote about
senators getting testy as they questioned Alberto Gonzales about
Rebecca Lemov, a recent Woodrow Wilson fellow, is the author of
World as Laboratory: Experiments with Mice, Mazes and Men, to be
published next month.
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