In an otherwise interesting article summarizing much of what is wrong with the non-accountability policies of the U.S. state when it comes to punishing its torturers, Associated Press reporters Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo repeat in passing an old canard about the CIA’s previous activities in regards to interrogation.

The CIA had never been in the interrogation and detention business, so agency lawyers, President George W. Bush’s White House and the Justice Department were writing the rules as they went.

While the comment may have been made in passing, and Goldman and Apuzzo mindlessly accepted a piece of history they were told, the significance of the statement is of more than passing interest, as it provides the framework for understanding the entire episode of torture and detention in the Bush II years, not to mention what is happening now under President Obama, at least in regards to the CIA. The article doesn’t mention that key Pentagon officials, not least Donald Rumsfeld, who has a self-serving and well-publicized biography just published, and many generals, admirals, and other officers, as well as officials of the Defense Intelligence Agency and JSOC, have also escaped punishment for their actions in the Defense Department torture and detention scandal.

As the article points out, a number of key CIA officials in the Obama administration were themselves key actors in the rendition and torture program of the CIA. Marcy Wheeler has nicely summarized Goldman and Apuzzo’s list. But the intrepid AP reporters — they spend a couple of paragraphs explaining why they took the supposedly courageous step of mentioning the first names of CIA agents (pseudonyms anyway, at least in one case that I know of) — are off the mark in believing this non-accountability is something new. The promotions and the rewards are standard operating procedure for a government that has used the CIA as a praetorian guard and shock troops for U.S. control abroad.

Not in the Interrogation Business? How About KUBARK?

There have been a number of excellent histories of CIA research into and operational use of torture. One of the most recent was Professor Alfred McCoy’s A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Another excellent resource is H.P. Albarelli’s long investigation into the CIA killing of DoD Special Operations Division researcher Frank Olson, published last year. (Albarelli also was the fascinating subject of an FDL Book Salon last year, too.)

These authors, and there are plenty of others as well, detail the decades-long research project into coercive interrogation and torture that was undertaken by the CIA and the Defense Department, going back to the immediate post-World War II period. The research undertaken in such programs as Project Bluebird, Project Artichoke, MKULTRA, MKSEARCH, MKCHICKWIT and others, utilized both CIA and academic contract researchers to study the effects of drugs like mescaline and LSD, sensory deprivation, isolation (such as inflicted upon alleged Wikileaks leaker Bradley Manning), stress positions, dietary and environmental manipulation, and numerous psychological and physical stressors on prisoners under their control.

The research was well-advanced by the early 1960s, when the CIA produced their secret manual of “Counterintelligence Interrogation.” Known as by its CIA in-house acronym KUBARK, one section of the manual is specifically dedicated to a discussion of “coercive counterintelligence interrogation of resistant sources.” CIA noted that “detention in a controlled environment and perhaps for a lengthy period is frequently essential to a successful counterintelligence interrogation of a recalcitrant source,” and mentions techniques such as “bodily harm”, “deprivation of sensory stimuli,” hypnosis, use of threats and fear, as well as situations where “medical, chemical, or electrical methods or materials are to be used to induce acquiescence.”

Even the use of photography in the torture of prisoners was discussed in the KUBARK manual, which noted “The interrogation room affords ideal conditions for photographing the interrogatee without his knowledge by concealing a camera behind a picture or elsewhere.”

The KUBARK methods were later used, along with Army manuals compiled from the U.S. military’s Vietnam experience — part of a still quite secretive “Project X” — into a “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual” distributed by U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) to military and intelligence organizations in five Latin American countries (Peru, Columbia, Ecudaor, El Salvador, and Guatemala) in the 1980s. The Project X material had been stored at the Army intelligence center at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona.

The torture techniques were also taught, even as late as 1991, to military and intelligence officers from throughout Latin America at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. For reference, see the DoD 1992 report on the Exploitation manuals delivered to then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (PDF).

In 2002, SOUTHCOM became the military command responsible for oversight of the detention and torture policies at the new Guantanamo detention facilities. The provenance of the Guantanamo techniques from within the CIA can be clearly established, although military research and experimentation also played a significant role. The use of military torture survival schools (known today as SERE school) as laboratories for studying such techniques can be documented back to the 1950s.

CIA Detention Centers Predate the “War on Terror”

The CIA has had extensive experience in running detention centers, and was well-known for assisting and helping staff foreign military and intelligence services’ interrogation and detention centers. No full history of this activity is available, but there are plenty of references sprinkled about. An article by investigative journalist Douglas Valentine report quotes John Patrick Muldoon, “the first director of the CIA’s PIC [Province Intelligence Committee] Program in Vietnam,” that “[t]here was a joint KCIA-CIA interrogation center in Yon Don Tho, outside Seoul.”

The PIC program itself revolved around detention centers set up by the CIA in the hundreds across South Vietnam. The PICs became an integral part of the U.S. Phoenix Program, which tortured and murdered tens of thousands of people during its reign of terror in Vietnam.

In December 1970, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces captured a high North Vietnamese security officer, Nguyen Tai. According to the story as it is related on the CIA’s own website, Tai was tortured by the South Vietnamese, and resistant to this brutal treatment, he was taken into custody by the CIA, where he was held in CIA control for a number of years. His chief interrogator was “Peter Kapusta, a veteran CIA Soviet/Eastern Europe counterintelligence specialist with close ties to the famed and mysterious chief of CIA counter-intelligence, James Jesus Angleton.”

In early 1972, Tai was informed he was being taken to another location to be interrogated by the Americans. After being blindfolded, he was transported by car to an unknown location and placed in a completely sealed cell that was painted all in white, lit by bright lights 24 hours a day, and cooled by a powerful air-conditioner (Tai hated air conditioning, believing, like many Vietnamese, that cool breezes could be poisonous). Kept in total isolation, Tai lived in this cell, designed to keep him confused and disoriented, for three years without learning where he was.

The CIA has been involved in vetting and help establish entire intelligence establishments, from the Korean CIA to the former SAVAK of the Shah, to innumerable Latin American agencies. As John Marks has documented, the CIA even sent its psychologists to vet the operatives for use in these establishments.

On a smaller scale, the CIA has run a series of so-called “safe houses” that included small detention facilities. The recent reports concerning secret CIA prisons in Poland and Lithuania appear to describe facilities that are not much more than slightly elaborated or enlarged safe houses. For instance, the description of the New York and San Francisco “safe houses” used in the CIA’s MKULTRA experiment, Operation Midnight Climax, are highly suggestive of the kinds of regimes set up by the CIA in Thailand, Poland and elsewhere, complete with two-way mirrors, recording and bugging equipment, drugging facilities, etc.

Some researchers have charged the CIA with the use of “terminal experiments” at its various detention facilities, though this is hard to document (even if the discussion did reach the pre-9/11 pages of the New York Times).

It is very hard, if not impossible, to square the myth of CIA incompetence and inexperience with interrogation and running detention centers with the historical record. Goldman and Apuzzo are only repeating the establishment line concerning the CIA scandal, albeit, perhaps with good intentions, and with the aim of bringing some accountability to bear upon the process. But they and other reformers will be forever confused and stymied by the policies by high government officials protecting these torturers. In this, we see that responsibility for torture goes to the highest levels of the U.S. political establishment.