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Psychological Torture—The CIA and the APA1

A review of

A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror
by Alfred W. McCoy

New York: Metropolitan Books/Holt, 2006. 290 pp. ISBN 0-8050-8041-4 (hardcover); 0-8050-8248-4 (paperback). $25.00, hardcover; $14.00, paperback

Reviewed by
Jean Maria Arrigo

In A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror, historian Alfred W. McCoy traces the development and spread of psychological torture, which he largely attributes to machinations of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). His CIA torture paradigm has two core elements: sensory disorientation (through hooding, sleep deprivation, isolation, etc.) and self-inflicted pain (through forced maintenance of stressful postures, restraint of urination, etc.). Sensory disorientation commonly leads to psychosis. Self-inflicted pain tends to demoralize the interrogatee, in contrast to direct assault, which tends to elicit resistance. Cumulatively, these techniques can damage the subject more than physical torture. From the perpetrators’ perspective, psychological torture has the added advantages of eluding detection and minimizing moral objections.

McCoy displays compelling similarities among the CIA's early Cold War behavioral modification research, the 1963 CIA KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual, and the Army's 1983 Human Resources Manual for counterinsurgency—all unmistakably grounded in psychological research. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, McCoy speculates, there was a hiatus in U.S. operations. In response to September 11, 2001, though, the Bush Administration revived the CIA torture paradigm. Recent government memoranda on interrogation at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib exhibit the KUBARK lineage.

Numerous eminent psychologists and psychiatrists contributed to the development of psychological torture, including former American Psychological Association (APA) presidents Donald Hebb (in 1960) and Charles Osgood (in 1963). Hebb's sensory deprivation experiments, for instance, were directed not toward railway accident prevention, as originally reported, but toward brainwashing. McCoy brings strong evidence for the overall irrationality and inefficacy of torture interrogation as a means of gathering intelligence. He concludes with a public appeal to "repudiat[e] a practice that, more than any other, represents the denial of democracy" (p. 208).

Support From Psychological Science

Scientific psychology could strengthen McCoy's argument on some important points. For example, he inveighs against citizens, scientists, universities, and congressmen who failed to protest torture. He could have handled this leitmotif nicely with one of the psychological schemas of bystanders’ contributions to wrongdoing, such as Ervin Staub's (1989) steps along the continuum of destruction in mass atrocities. Furthermore, McCoy attributes the persistence of state-sponsored torture to “its deep psychological appeal, to the powerful and the powerless alike, in times of crisis” (p. 207). Traumatic stress studies might ground this rhetorical finale.

A Question of Torture as Human Rights Research

As a human rights researcher, McCoy proceeds in the venerable tradition of exposing and shaming. He identifies appointees of the Bush Administration, U.S. military authorities, the CIA, members of Congress, public intellectuals, and the APA as collaborators in psychological torture. Dozens of Web logs, alternative and mainstream news media, and human rights venues celebrate McCoy's history of the CIA torture paradigm, attesting to its potential as a grassroots call to action. He is justifiably hailed as a champion of antitorture activists.

Yet as McCoy passes from historical to human rights research, I have misgivings. It is difficult to terminate secret programs through public pressure. Even in the post-Vietnam War era, as McCoy notes, public fervor for government truth telling, exposé of the CIA assassination program in Vietnam, and investigation of the CIA's mind control project MKULTRA did not terminate psychological torture. Stigmatized programs can simply go underground. Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner testified to the Senate in 1977: “The [mind control] programs that are of greatest concern have stopped” (U.S. Senate, 1977, p. 1). The Senate should have demanded, “By what specific organizational procedures did the CIA terminate these programs, and where is the evidence?”

I cannot envision a means of advancing ethics in U.S. intelligence agencies that does not engage the moral understanding and commitments of insiders. Some recent human rights researchers have looked beyond the blunt technique of public shaming to “target their advocacy more precisely and work deeper within government structures” (Mertus, 2004, p. 23). They seek “private meetings and cooperative information sharing,” providing “concrete policy proposals” and “technical assistance” (p. 23). A Question of Torture does not support this strategy. First, McCoy's simplified historical schema obscures organizational processes that might provide access. Second, his systematic selectivity in reading documents alienates insiders who might otherwise serve as allies.

A Simplified Historical Schema

The notion that the evil of psychological torture must have a correspondingly evil cause creates the problematic simplification in McCoy's book. Systems theory contradicts the general belief that a big effect must have a big cause (Tesser, 2004). In social systems, small changes can have big effects: through recursive processes, as in a birth rate change from 2.3 to 2.0; through independent small acts, such as beachcombers’ collection of shells; or through mutual causation, as with scarcity and hoarding. The increasingly psychological approach to social control may contribute recursively to the escalation of psychological torture. The widespread desire to exploit detainees with impunity may instigate psychological torture at independent sites. In addition, opposing efforts to expose torture and to conceal torture drive innovations in psychological torture. McCoy partly tracks but does not fully explain the spread of psychological torture.

Attribution of extraordinary powers to the CIA also contributes to oversimplification. A CIA veteran (active in intelligence ethics education) whom I consulted objected to McCoy's unrealistic presumption of CIA power over military and government agencies. He faulted McCoy for exaggerating connections among historical events, such as the LSD experiments, the Phoenix assassination program in Vietnam, and the Abu Ghraib tortures. In these events, McCoy sees “a clear mosaic of a clandestine agency manipulating its government and deceiving its citizens to propagate a new form of torture throughout the Third World” (p. 12). Of course, unmasking massive CIA deceptions may require speculation by investigators. I know survivors of government-sponsored mind control projects and have conducted an oral history of one (Arrigo, 2004). McCoy's schema of the CIA's unique and seminal role in psychological torture contravenes the wide range of government agencies and criminal organizations alleged by these survivors.

Systematic Selectivity in Reading of Documents

McCoy showcases passages that heighten the image of the CIA as the evil cause of psychological torture and neglects passages that temper this image. (An impartial reading of such disturbing documents would surely be difficult.) To mention one key source, the infamous KUBARK manual did not just codify the CIA psychological torture paradigm, as McCoy intimates (pp. 10, 50). The manual also presented an absurd nine-element character typology of interrogatees and elaborate theatrical routines for tricking interrogatees into releasing information. There were admonitions against the “damaging consequences for KUBARK” of “interrogations conducted under compulsion or duress” (p. 8), injunctions not to conduct coercive interrogation without authorization from superiors, and recognition of the “profound moral objection to applying duress past the point of irreversible psychological damage” (p. 84). Interrogators were asked to have “real familiarity with the language to be used” and “extensive background knowledge about the interrogatee's native country” (p. 10). The KUBARK manual indeed articulated the CIA psychological torture paradigm and cited despicable applications of behavioral research by scientists with varying degrees of involvement. But the manual did not point directly to Abu Ghraib, where incompetence of interrogators, physical abuse, failure of military command, and illegal executive demands also figured strongly.

McCoy's exposure of CIA atrocities does not constitute bias; rather, the bias is in his inference of evil intentions throughout. For example, he states, “Once the CIA completed its research into no-touch torture… the agency then set about disseminating the new practices worldwide” (pp. 10-11). From an intelligence perspective, the intent was to extract information from detainees. Psychological torture was not an end in itself but a (terrible) response to detainees’ resistance or ignorance.

Psychological Torture and the APA

McCoy thoroughly denounces the APA for “its long involvement in military research and CIA behavioral experiments” (p. 183). Logically, he should demand that psychologists engaged in classified work be denied APA membership, for the APA cannot monitor ethics in such work, and psychological ethics has not evolved to accommodate political context. Kurt Lewin, a founder of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in the 1930s, developed during World War II a survival program for spies on their way to occupied Europe (Levi, 2005). Political cause, more than psychological ethics, justified his secret work for the win-at-any-cost Office of Strategic Services.

By McCoy's reckoning, the June 2005 report of the APA Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) continued APA support of psychological torture (APA, 2005). Among other failings, the PENS report upheld the standard of U.S. law, with its now permissive definition of torture, over international human rights law. How did this happen? As a task force member, I feel obliged to respond. President Ronald Levant appointed a quorum of six national security psychologists to the 10-member task force. Those profoundly opposed to coercive interrogation nevertheless had to subordinate international law to U.S. law in the PENS report, by their fundamental job commitment to U.S. law. The report could have expressed their insights more truly if only three or four had been appointed or, better, if retirees had been appointed, who would have been less vulnerable to job pressures such as security clearances and publication reviews.

The task force met for 2.5 days, with APA staff present throughout.2 On the first day, a staff member stated that President Levant had undertaken the task force to calm public uproar over psychologists’ alleged involvement in interrogations. We were not to discuss investigation of possible wrongdoing by psychologists. We were to produce a unanimous interpretation of the APA ethics code and present it to the media in one voice. APA staff and insiders initiated a confidentiality rule on task force proceedings. Incoming president Gerald Koocher sharply monitored final revision of the report and listserv correspondence. He dissolved the task force on December 31, 2005, before undertaking essential task force recommendations. In sum, two APA presidents and some upper level staff and insiders had the powers of task definition, appointment of task force members, and guidance and censure in preparation of the report. The platitudinous PENS report, as I see it, largely represents political damage control by some APA leaders.

Within APA, there has been tremendous conflict over the PENS report. Task force member Michael Wessells argued for adherence to international law and for prohibition of specific techniques of psychological coercion (e.g., waterboarding). Wessells resigned as the APA leadership surprisingly continued to use the PENS report as its main response to allegations of psychological torture. A coalition of 10 APA Divisions for Social Justice urged the APA Council to strengthen the PENS report on key points and actually to investigate allegations against psychologists (Altman, 2006).

The conflicted processes behind organizational decisions and programs merit the attention of human rights scholars. As in his treatment of the CIA, McCoy's broad condemnation of the APA oversimplifies causal relations, obscures opportunities for APA opposition to psychological torture, and distances potentially helpful insiders.

Every generation of psychologists, however, needs McCoy's reminder of the moral hazards of national security work. A 1977 APA Monitor article, “Uncle Sam Had You,” exposed the contributions of psychologists Carl Rogers, Martin Orne, Charles Osgood, and Edgar Schein to CIA mind control research (Greenberg, 1977). These psychologists had varying degrees of awareness of the true source of funding and the true applications of their work. At one extreme, Rogers, to his later dismay, had served as an innocent decoy on the board of directors of the front funding agency for the CIA mind control project MKULTRA. Such examples are instructive for those who would attribute bad effects in national security work only to bad intentions.


A Question of Torture deeply informs the torture debate, which is an indisputable public good. Through publication of remote and recently declassified source material, McCoy raises the standard for public debate. Yet McCoy also polarizes the debate through reductionism and selective reading. As exposure and blame are crucial for public outrage, fairness and accuracy are crucial for public understanding and cooperation from insiders. A revised version of A Question of Torture could meet both objectives through restraint in proclaiming historical causes and asserting evil intentions.


Altman, N. (2006, February 18). Committee reports: APA Council of Representatives. Psychologist-Psychoanalyst, 26(2), 70-71. Retrieved July 10, 2006, from PHPSESSID=da145cf8bfebbb1a7c357c2003f4d8eb

American Psychological Association. (2005, June). Report of the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security. Retrieved July 10, 2006, from

Arrigo, J. M. (2004). Interview with C. Ford [CD]. (Available from Regional Oral History Office, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000)

Greenberg, P. (1977, December). Uncle Sam had you. American Psychological Association Monitor, 1, 10-11.

Levi, R. (2005, Spring). Collective resonance in whole systems transformation: An interview with Kathleen Dannemiller. OD Seasonings, 1(1) Retrieved July 10, 2006, from

Mertus, J. (2004). Raising expectations? Civil society's influence on human rights and U. S. foreign policy. Journal of Human Rights, 3(1), 21-40.

Staub, E. (1989). The roots of evil. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tesser, A. (2004). Toward understanding a pretzel-shaped universe [Review of the book Dynamical social psychology]. Contemporary Psychology, 45, 542-545.

U.S. Senate. (1977). Project MKULTRA. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

1 It is unusual for PsycCRITIQUES to publish three reviews of a single book. However, A Question of Torture is an especially important book that addresses a recalcitrant and vexing issue for our nation and her citizens. In addition, this book explicitly accuses prominent psychologists and our professional association of inadvertent (or sometimes deliberate) complicity in government-sponsored torture. This accusation and appropriate roles for psychologists working for the government have been hotly debated in our journals, divisions, and listservs. I hope these three reviews inform and contribute to the debate. To avoid redundancy, I arranged for Dr. Marsella to read the Arrigo review before writing his own, and Dr. Behnke read both the Arrigo and the Marsella papers before writing his review. —DW

2 I acknowledge Steve Behnke, Director of the APA Ethics Office, for his impartial assistance to the task force in preparation of the PENS report.

PsycCRITIQUES       July 26, 2006 Vol. 51 (30), Article 1
1554-0138             © 2006 by the American Psychological Association

For personal use only--not for distribution.


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