The Iraqi prison abuse scandal has put U.S. interrogation tactics in the spotlight here and around the world. U.S. officials say it’s an aberration, but history tells us otherwise.
In 1970, in the Con Son prison in South Vietnam, American congressmen and staff discovered secret tiger cages for South Vietnamese political prisoners. Prisoners were beaten and starved, their legs, withered from the cramped conditions. Life Magazine published the photos, and the world was shocked.
In the 1980s, during President Reagan’s counter-insurgency wars in Central America, the CIA trained the brutal Honduran army intelligence unit Battalion 316. Its interrogation methods were electric shock, suffocation, and murder.
In 1995, human rights activist Jennifer Harbury threw the national spotlight on the CIA again, this time in Guatemala. She testified on her husband’s death by torture at hands of paid CIA informants.
One 1993 U.S. military manual incorporates CIA tactics from 20 years earlier on the use of threats, fear, and pain, and adds interrogation garnered from the Vietnam war. The emphasis is placed on "manipulating the subject’s environment."
According to Thomas Blanton of the National Security Archives, the CIA went back in with a pencil and marked through some of these lines on the manual. The first time around, the manual says of the harsh tactics, "While we do not stress these techniques we want you to be aware of them." There are more notes, and the second time around, the CIA writes instead, "We deplore these methods and we want you to avoid them."
"It changes like that all the way through," says Blanton. "The person being trained could see the words underneath. I'm not sure it fooled anybody."
With a post-9/11 war on terror, there's a new urgency to extract intelligence from suspected terrorists. Even top administration officials hint that past restrictions no longer apply. Today's techniques include food and sleep deprivation, constant noise, and stressful physical positions. Prisoners who cooperate are rewarded with hot baths, meals, rest, and sometimes money.
But some uncooperative suspected terrorists are secretly kidnapped or "rendered" for harsh interrogations to other countries like Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. The CIA uses renderings—meaning kidnapping people in a foreign country and moving them to another country that is an ally. There, the rules don't have to apply.
"So the problem that you get into, when the CIA is there with both feet and with boots on, is the same problem we saw in Vietnam," says Blanton. "Our allies put people in tiger cages and we can say 'Oh, it wasn't us.' But was it? We were giving the orders, we were doing the training, they knew what we wanted was information out of these people, so where does the responsibility lie?"
The Washington Post and Hardball presented a joint report Monday, May 24. 'Hardball' airs weeknights, 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.