Four Publications on Torture

A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Alfred McCoy. Holt, 320 pages.

Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights. Trevor Paglen and A. C. Thompson. Melville House Publishing 208 pages. $23.00

Teaching About Torture, a Curriculum. Peggy Brick. 19 pages. The Quaker Initiative to End Torture; available for free download at:

Khaled E-Masri v George J. Tenet, et al, “The Complaint, Case lodged in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia – Alexandria Division, December 6, 2005.” Published in Council of Europe: Full-text documents submitted to the European Parliament Inquiry, Item #159. Online at:

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” (Hebrews 13:3; NRSV)

Quran 76:5, 8-10: “[5] But the righteous . . . [8] give sustenance to the destitute, the orphan, and the captive, [9] saying: ‘We feed you for God’s sake only; we seek of you neither recompense nor thanks: [10] for we fear from our Lord a day of anguish and of woe.’”

Few subjects are less likely to hold the attention of Americans than torture. As a population, we don’t want to hear about torture, we don’t want to talk about it, and – to come to our current task – we don’t much want to read about it either. And when Americans are obliged to think about torture, they tend to think it’s bad – unless, that is, U.S agencies, or contractors hired by such agencies, are doing it; then attitudes range from a grudging acceptance to the equivalent of “Bring it on!”

I make these observations based both on study, direct observation – and as a confession of my own parallel aversion: I don’t like to think or talk or read about torture either.

But it can’t be helped. Yes, I know that most (all??) governments use or wink at torture, either a lot or a little. And yes, torture should be opposed wherever it occurs. But such declarations are so sweeping as to be platitudes, beyond the practical reach of just about anyone but the higher-level staff of groups like Amnesty International – and even from those rarefied redoubts, it’s an uphill struggle. My hat is off to them, my occasional paltry checks follow, but in that arena, I’m strictly on the sidelines.

Not so in North Carolina. Here the abstractions of media chatter have become very concrete and impossible to ignore, because I live near Ft. Bragg. What I had long thought of as mainly a major army post has in the past two years been revealed as something more: part of the hub of what is best called the Torture Industrial Complex. Like it or not – and I do not – I’m surrounded by it.

A real billboard that was seen all over North Carolina for from 2004-2007.

But while my awareness of this complex is relatively new, the machinery itself is not, and this realization makes me more mindful that 2007 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency. Hardly had the ink of Harry Truman’s signature dried on the National Security Act which created it, when the new agency got into the torture business.

Of course, torture was not the stated goal: the Company’s mandate was to gather and process information. But much of the information they wanted was hidden inside the heads of people who did not want to disclose it. Torture was the traditional last-ditch way of overcoming such reluctance.

Yet if torture was nothing new, with the CIA’s entry on the scene, there came to be something new in torture. Over the next twenty years, the Agency and its numerous partners set about melding some of the most modern aspects of our culture in search of a foolproof cranial-information-extraction technology. In the true spirit of experimental science, the agency spent billions on covert research projects, contracting with hundreds of compliant (or patriotic) academics at scores of major and not-so-major universities.

In the spirit of experimental science, they tried many things. Drugs like LSD seemed promising; but they had the most of what they thought of as success in the field of psychology. Indeed, what appears to have been the key breakthrough in this long quest came in the early 1950s at McGill University in Montreal. Dr. Donald O. Hebb, probably the most important psychologist most of us have never heard of, discovered and tracked the massive traumatic impact of isolation and sensory deprivation on his research subjects. Within a few hours, Hebb could reduce bright and healthy students to a state of terrorized madness, without drugs or physical abuse, and without leaving telltale marks.

This last was important, for agency secrecy if not for results. And Hebb was the archetype of the academic double agents the CIA recruited and cultivated: to the outside world he was a respected and popular professor; but behind closed doors (literally), his skills and intelligence were put to work in secret, often fiendish experiments financed clandestinely by spy agencies in Canada and the United States.

Hebb was exemplary in another way: psychologists seemed especially drawn to such work: several presidents of the American Psychological Association were on the CIA’s covert payroll. Hebb’s pioneering work was later expanded and “perfected” into a modern recipe of what are now called “enhanced interrogation techniques” which its champions assert can, sooner or later, pry the hidden truth from even the most hardened or fanatical adversary.

There is precious little publicly-available evidence to back up this claim of results, and plenty to challenge it. But its destructive impact on the personality is undeniable – as is the protective value for the Agency of the lack of physical scars it leaves. Thus this recipe was well developed by the years of the Vietnam War. But its use has made quantum leaps since September 11, 2001 and the subsequent plunge by the rulers of the US into a permanent war mode. As part of that war, a planet-wide American “Gulag Archipelago” has been created, with a growing infrastructure supporting it. Torture, in both the new “enhanced” variety, combined with old-fashioned beatings and abuse, particularly by “subcontractors” in foreign governments, are its standard operating procedure.

Alfred McCoy, professor at the University of Wisconsin, tells this truly horrifying story in a calm and masterly fashion in his compelling A Question of Torture. As he also shows convincingly, however much torture goes on in other nations (and it does), the U.S. is now the pace-setter, chief legitimizer and exporter of torture in the world today.of Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson fill out this picture by tracking down and identifying the “torture taxis” of their title that are the connective tissue of this evil organism. Their detective work takes them from the Nevada desert, to Afghanistan, and to several other exotic locales.

But after girdling the globe for their book, the focal point for Paglen and Thompson turns out to be right next door to me, where covert CIA airlines, one based in Fayetteville and the other just up Interstate 95, have sent hundreds, perhaps thousands, of torture flights winging from North Carolina on missions of kidnaping and torture in dozens of “black sites” in Afghanistan, Poland, Romania, and other as yet dismally nameless places.

In one such kidnaping-and-torture case, the victim was a German national, Khaled El Masri, who was taken to Afghanistan and tortured for months. But it turned out that he was grabbed due to mistaken identity – the spelling of his name was similar to that of someone else the CIA was seeking, and Masri was eventually freed. A German prosecutor has since issued indictments against thirteen CIA employees, three of whom live not far from me.

The CIA employees named in the indictment all used aliases, and these were used in the German indictments. Since then, however, , an independent investigative center in Madison, Wisconsin has uncovered the identities of the three Carolina residents, and listed them on their website, along with a fascinating, tour-de-force explanation of how their cover was blown.

But the results are unnerving in their banality-of-evil way. Take one of the pilots, Kirk Elarbee: he’s a family man (wife and son), who’s reportedly going bald and has a broad, beaming smile. His house abuts the edge of a suburban golf course; the family recently joined a nearby Methodist church. (

Who among his Carolina neighbors would believe that he was part of a team that grabbed Khaled El Masri in Macedonia? According to the lawsuit El-Masri filed with the help of the ACLU, here’s what happened:

28. After a drive of approximately one hour, the car came to a halt, and Mr. El-Masri could hear the sound of airplanes. He was removed from the vehicle [by Macedonian agents], still handcuffed and blindfolded, and was led to a building. Inside, he was told that he would be medically examined. Instead, he was beaten severely from all sides with fists and what felt like a thick stick. His clothes were sliced from his body with scissors or a knife, leaving him in his underwear. He was told to remove his underwear and he refused. He was beaten again, and his underwear was forcibly removed. He heard the sound of pictures being taken. He was thrown to the floor. His hands were pulled back and a boot was placed on his back. He then felt a firm object being forced into his anus.

29. Mr. El-Masri was pulled from the floor and dragged to a corner of the room. His blindfold was removed. A flash went off and temporarily blinded him. His blindfold was removed. A flash went off and temporarily blinded him. When he recovered his sight, he saw seven or eight men dressed in black and wearing black ski masks. One of the men placed him in a diaper. He was then dressed in a dark blue short-sleeved track suit, and placed in a belt with chains that attached to his wrists and ankles. The men put earmuffs and eye pads on him, blindfolded him, and hooded him.

30. Mr. El-Masri was marched to a waiting plane, with the shackles cutting into his ankles. Once inside, he was thrown to the floor face down and his legs and arms were spread-eagled and secured to the sides of the plane. He felt an injection in his shoulder, and became lightheaded. He felt a second injection that rendered him nearly unconscious.

31. On information and belief, the men dressed in black clothing and ski masks were members of a CIA “black renditions” team, operating pursuant to unlawful CIA policies and at the direction of defendant Tenet. (El Masri, Complaint, page 8-9)

(One detail the ACLU lawsuit neglected to mention is that these CIA teams are not only masked and dressed in black, they also typically do their work in silence, using hand-signals. This of course, makes them impossible to identify as individuals.)

It is one of the life lessons of being a resident of this area of North Carolina that one never knows if the man with receding hair swinging a club on the golf course was shoving a drugged suppository into a helpless, hooded abductee a few days earlier. Or the fellow lustily belting out the Methodist hymn in the next pew – was he the one chaining a “terror suspect” to the floor of the Boeing 737 for a 5000-mile flight headed for Kabul; or that smiling guy putting yogurt into a basket at the supermarket: would we recognize him in a black suit and ski mask, a syringe full of barbiturates in one hand?

A Billboard that has NOT been erected in North Carolina — yet.

But then, Professor Donald Hebb continued his double-tracked career in Montreal for many years before some of his victims recovered enough to blow the whistle and bring an end to the secret part of it; and there were many other academics, equally pillars of respectability, ready to step in when that happened. And as recent reports in The New Yorker have revealed, there are psychologists today working with torture teams in various of the “black sites.”(e.g., Jane Mayer, “The Black Sites,” New Yorker, August 13, 2007; “The CIA’s Travel Agent,” October 30, 2006; “The Experiment,” July 11, 2005; “Outsourcing Torture,” February 14, 2005)

So the Torture Machine rolls on; some of the same planes that have been identified as carrying out torture missions have been spotted and photographed at the Johnston County airport this summer of 2007.
And what is to be done? In North Carolina a small band of activists has gathered under the banner of NC Stop Torture Now, and has been mounting protests outside the hangars of Aero Contractors in Smithfield. Other information about the numerous other tentacles of torture in the region are slowly being assembled. It is not clear that these fitful protests have had any impact as yet; but they are at least poking at the thick curtain of silence which is one of the systems’s major bulwarks.

Among Friends(Quakers), an independent leading to witness against torture surfaced at about the same time, emerging from two decades of work by John Calvi of Vermont as a healer and therapist for trauma victims, including many torture survivors. From this grew two Quaker Conferences on Torture, held fortuitously in North Carolina at Guilford College, and the creation of a Quaker Initiative to End Torture, a loose network which may or may not become an actual organized witness.

It was between the two conferences that attender Peggy Brick of Pennsylvania, a longtime adult educator, was moved to develop and test a Teaching About Torture, a Curriculum. It includes modules for one hour and three hour sessions. An astute observer of her potential audiences, her very first procedural counsel for presenters is to “Welcome group; thank them for coming, acknowledge this is a difficult topic and you appreciate their being willing to confront it.” (Emphasis added.) Managing their uneasy reactions recurs in the instructions.

I have written elsewhere (Friends Journal, September 2007) of the conviction that any serious witness against the new US Torture Industrial Complex will be a long-term enterprise, quite likely comparable to the century of work to end legal slavery, and will not expand on that here. Fortunately, a broader movement of protest is rapidly taking shape, much of it faith-based. This is a good thing, because the only prediction about this task that I feel confident about is that Friends can’t hope to accomplish it, or even much of it, on their own.

It’s also worth mentioning in passing that there are already many more books and reports on this torture complex now available than are mentioned here, and more are being produced as investigators and journalists continue their important work. The titles here are but a small, manageable sampling. But worth continuing attention.

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