It was an invited lecture at the University of California by historian Prof Alfred McCoy who has long specialised in the history of the US secret services.
He argues that the results of CIA research into psychological torture can be clearly seen in both the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo bay and images of the Abu Ghraib scandal.
By contrast when I looked at those photos, I did not see snapshots of simple brutality or a breakdown in military discipline. For example, that most iconic photo of a hooded Iraqi with fake electrical wires hanging from his extended arms shows not the sadism of a few ‘creeps’, but instead, the two key trademarks of the CIA’s psychological torture: the hood was for sensory disorientation and the arms extended for self-inflicted pain.
McCoy discusses how these techniques were researched and developed by some of the most distinguished cognitive scientists of the time and were reflected in now uncovered CIA documents, including the 1961 ‘Manipulation of Human Behavior’ research summary, the 1963 KUBARK interrogation manual, and the 1983 ‘Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual‘.
He notes that these techniques have been developed and legitimised by a legal framework that was deliberately designed not to outlaw existing techniques, despite the fact there is no strong basis for their effectiveness and evidence suggests that psychological torture has a similar long-term impact to physical torture.
Interestingly, he suggests that Guantanamo is both being used as a centre for gathering intelligence, as well as a sort of ‘lab’ for testing and developing new methods.
McCoy is the author of the recent book ‘A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror’ on which this talk is based, in which he also argues that the work on Donald Hebb and Stanley Milgram were partly funded by the CIA to help understand how to break through people’s psychological defences.
The lecture has a long introduction by one of the University’s dignitaries, so you can skip to 11:30 when it really starts in earnest.
Advances in the History of psychology has also been keeping track of recent discussion about the book and recent findings about the role of the CIA in funding American psychology research in the 50s and 60s.
Link to YouTube video of McCoy lecture.