In these uncertain times, it’s worth recalling that the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction in the hands of madmen is not new. Nearly 50 years before Sept. 11, 2001, the American public learned that a group of prisoners in military custody confessed to being part of an elaborate conspiracy to bomb civilian targets with bacteriological weapons.
The first prisoner to crack said the goal was “the mass annihilation of the civilian population.” As often happens, his confession led to others, and before long, three dozen prisoners had coughed up page after page of chilling, meticulously detailed admissions.
But it was all a lie. Thirty-six American airmen, shot from the sky during the Korean War, falsely confessed to a vast plot to bomb civilian targets. How did this happen? With Congress having approved a “compromise” that gives the president authority to determine the meaning of the Geneva Conventions and redefines the War Crimes Act to protect CIA interrogators, we should revisit this all-but-forgotten moment in U.S. history.
During the Korean War, thousands of American POWs were forced to endure grotesque and sadistic physical torture. But the downed airmen were treated differently. The senior officer among them was Col. Frank Schwable, the highest-ranking Marine captured in the conflict. “I want to emphasize,” Schwable said later, “that I did not undergo physical torture. Perhaps I would have been more fortunate if I had, because people nowadays seem to understand that better. Mine was the more subtle kind of torment.”
The airmen were subjected to something new: touchless torture. They were kept isolated from all human contact, apart from their interrogators. One prisoner spent 10 months in solitary confinement, another 13. Schwable did not learn of the armistice until after he confessed.
They were made to stand or sit in awkward and painful positions for hours at a time. One prisoner had to sit at attention on the edge of a stool for 15 hours per day for 33 days. Another time he had to stand for 30 consecutive hours, until he collapsed. Schwable was required to sit at attention every day for almost 10 weeks.
They were demeaned, taunted and treated like animals. Schwable said the guards “growled” or “barked” at him, slopped food at him, and made him defecate in public. “Every effort was made to degrade and humiliate me,” he said.
And of course they were interrogated. Grueling interrogations that lasted hours and hours, repeating the same material they had gone over the day before, and the day before that, until the past became a confusing whirl of fact and fantasy suggested to them by their relentless interlocutors. At last, exhausted and demoralized, their resistance overcome, they confessed. They all confessed in the end. And they all lied.
Maj. William Harris later tried to explain to an incredulous public how he could falsely accuse his country of something so barbaric as a conspiracy to bomb civilians, especially if he wasn’t “tortured.” “They don’t have to lay a hand on you to make you the most miserable person in the world,” he said. “I would rather take a beating any day than be subjected to their type of questioning and treatment.”
After the war North Korean atrocities were roundly condemned by the United States, which complained to the United Nations that the Koreans had not complied with the Geneva Conventions. One institution, however, was not repelled but intrigued. The experience led the CIA to accelerate its research into the theory and science of coercive interrogation.
Between 1950 and 1962, the CIA poured millions of dollars into studies that tested different interrogation techniques, hoping to learn from and refine the lessons of Korea. The research culminated in the top-secret KUBARK manual, a 1963 primer on how to conduct coercive counterintelligence interrogations. The manual was finally disclosed in 1997 and is now available online.
KUBARK operates on the premise that a prisoner will divulge what he knows once he realizes that resistance is pointless. The prisoner must believe his captors are “all-powerful.” Confusion, fear and isolation are the interrogator’s stock in trade, since they “create and amplify an effect of omniscience.”
Interrogators must create a menacing and ominous environment that destroys the prisoner’s capacity to function as a “civilized man.” Prisoners should be kept disoriented because “the capacity for resistance is diminished by disorientation.”
The prisoner’s environment must be manipulated to produce a “regression of the personality to whatever earlier and weaker level is required for the dissolution of resistance.” This usually doesn’t take much. “Relatively small degrees of homeostatic derangement, fatigue, pain, sleep loss, or anxiety” are generally sufficient.
When in doubt, the interrogator should always keep in mind this useful advice: In order to achieve ” the maximum amount of mental discomfort ,” (emphasis in original), your prisoner must be instilled with a sense of “debility, dependence, and dread.” “When this aim is achieved, resistance is seriously impaired.” The prisoner enters “a kind of psychological shock or paralysis.” At that moment, “the source is far more open to suggestion [and] far likelier to comply.”
Will mild “homeostatic derangement” be deemed acceptable under the legislation just passed by Congress — a little sleep deprivation here, some extended standing there, perhaps a few more hours in the cold room, a wee drop of solitary confinement now and again, extended isolation from the outside world? Nothing like “real” torture, since everyone knows that’s unreliable.
Regrettably, we may not hear the answer in the sad, distant voices of three dozen American airmen. There is a lesson in their cries, if only we’d listen.
The writer is a law professor at Northwestern University and was lead counsel in Rasul v. Bush, which concerned the legality of the detentions at Guantanamo Bay. He is the author of “Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power.”
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