The CIA and Torture,

On the Record

The release of a Central Intelligence Agency guidebook on interrogation would be an important and publicized event in any context, but as it happens, this manual arrives in the public domain at an especially crucial juncture in the long-standing debate over the agency's role and mission. The CIA turns 50 in September of this year, and the circumstances surrounding the January 1997 declassification of this document suggest that the anniversary will be marked by a determined effort by historians, activists, and public officials to reevaluate the conduct of this secretive agency.

This June 1963 document, titled "KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation" (KUBARK is a code-word referring to CIA), should be a key piece of evidence in such attempts to assess the agency's operations. The manual, which explores methods of extracting information from resistant sources and advises torture techniques that were not officially renounced until the mid-1980s, provides a fitting departure point from which to launch an investigation of the CIA's role in advancing the scientific basis for brutal questioning methods and promoting their use throughout the world.

These methods have recently come back to haunt the CIA, as a stream of media and official reports has exposed extensive agency assistance to foreign killers. In several countries where U.S. intelligence maintained working relationships with repressive security forces, victims and victimizers have gone on record with accounts of how the United States, though the CIA, has promoted grave human rights abuses. In two of the more prominent recent cases -- the CIA's involvement in Guatemala and Honduras -- pressure from human rights groups and some members of Congress has risen to the point where the agency has been compelled to conduct internal reviews, submit its conduct to the scrutiny of outside investigators, and shed some notorious criminals from its payroll.

In Guatemala, a country that endured decades of dictatorship following the CIA's 1954 operation to overthrow the government of elected president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, the agency employed until very recently military officers who were responsible for "serious human rights violations such as assassination, extrajudicial execution, torture, or kidnapping while they were [CIA] assets," according to a 1996 report by President Clinton's Intelligence Oversight Board. (1) A March 1997 report by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee confirmed the IOB's findings. (2)

Increased attention was brought to these matters in March 1995 when it was revealed that CIA Guatemalan assets were involved in the murders of American citizen Michael Devine, who ran a back-country inn, and Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, a guerrilla leader married to an American woman, Jennifer Harbury. (3) Fasts and vigils by Harbury and Sister Diana Ortiz, an American nun who was kidnapped, raped and tortured by Guatemalan security forces in 1989, built interest in the issue and prompted White House assurances that the CIA's involvement in Guatemala would be closely examined and that all relevant government documents on the subject would be made public. None of the materials released to date have identified "Alejandro," an American who, according to Ortiz, advised the Guatemalan military team who brutalized her. (4)

The ordeal of Sister Ortiz, whose body bears the scars of 111 cigarette burns inflicted during her detention, was experienced by thousands of Guatemalans during the 1980s, when a massive program of political torture and murder gripped the country. The military and police agencies responsible received continual assistance from the CIA. In April 1995, investigative journalist Allan Nairn reported that the CIA "has systematic links to Guatemalan Army death squad operations that go far beyond the disclosures" of the previous month. According to current and former officials from the United States and Guatemala interviewed by Nairn, "CIA operatives work inside a Guatemalan Army unit [the G-2] that maintains a network of torture centers and has killed thousands of Guatemalan civilians," and "at least three of the recent G-2 chiefs have been paid by the CIA." A former U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) official in Guatemala told Nairn the involvement was so extensive that "it would be an embarrassing situation if you ever had a roll call of everybody in the Guatemalan Army who ever collected a CIA paycheck." (5)

At least one government official has gone to bat against the CIA's conduct in Guatemala, despite the risks of doing so. In March of 1995 Richard Nuccio, then a White House aide, shared information with Congress about CIA ties to Guatemalan military officers implicated in the murders of Devine and Bamaca. In retaliation, the CIA successfully lobbied to have Nuccio's security clearance revoked, effectively destroying his eligibility for high government office. As the conflict came to a head, Nuccio said he was "being hounded out of government service by the CIA for telling Congress what it had a right to know." (6)

In late February 1997 Nuccio, who had been moved to a low-level position at the State Department, resigned to return to work as a congressional aide. In a letter to President Clinton announcing his decision to quit, Nuccio wrote that the CIA has employed agents guilty of "systematic human rights violations," and warned that "if you do not take decisive steps to bring the agency under control, far graver damage will result to our democracy than the denial of a clearance to one individual." (7)

Nuccio was not the only job casualty of the CIA's Guatemala controversy. In early March of 1997, the Washington Post reported that as a result of the outcry over the CIA's involvement with Guatemalan rights abusers, the agency conducted an "agent scrub" -- a purge of foreign informants on the CIA payroll with criminal backgrounds -- beginning in 1994. Since then, about 100 informants have been dropped for human rights problems. A disproportionately high number -- about 50 -- were involved in the CIA's operations in Latin America. (8)

Though the Post report did not identify the countries where the CIA reformed its ranks, the agency's Honduras station was almost certainly the locus of many of the firings. In the early 1980s, the CIA played an instrumental role in setting up a Honduran military intelligence unit, Battalion 316, that wreaked havoc on the human rights front. In a June 1995 investigative series, Baltimore Sun reporters Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson described in detail how the CIA, in concert with Argentine military experts fresh from a decade of "dirty war" against dissidents in their country, instructed Battalion 316 in intelligence matters including surveillance and interrogation. Cohn and Thompson uncovered close CIA ties to the Honduran officers who maintained secret prisons, directed torture sessions, and commanded death squads that killed hundreds of suspected "subversives," including many union and student leaders. (9)

The Sun series is heavily documented, drawing on scores of interviews with former U.S. officials and members and surviving victims of Battalion 316. Cohn and Thompson also tracked the U.S. government paper trail on assistance to the unit, and discovered that secret CIA manuals were consulted in training the Hondurans advanced methods of interrogation. In May of 1994, the Sun filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA seeking release of the documents.

Cohn says the CIA responded to the request with "an awful lot of delay," even though the Sun had provided the names and dates of the manuals. Not until more than two years later, when the Sun threatened legal action, did the CIA release the manuals. (10) One of the documents, titled "Human Resources Exploitation Manual - 1983," summarized the CIA interrogation training given to military personnel from several Latin American countries and repeated many of the psychological torture strategies outlined in the 1963 manual. (In the mid-1980s these tactics were scribbled out in the manual in the aftermath of the scandal over another CIA manual, a primer on psychological operations prepared for the Nicaraguan contras).

Reading the disturbing methods detailed in the manuals, its easy to see why the CIA preferred that the documents remain classified. Documentary disclosures about such agency abuses are all too rare, and the Sun's success with the FOIA is a significant reminder of how persistent investigators can take advantage of the law to shed light on hidden government improprieties.

At the same time, the case illustrates the shortcomings of the FOIA when it comes to potentially scandalous documents like the interrogation manuals. The CIA relinquished the materials because the Sun committed to a legal challenge -- an option not readily available to the average FOIA requester. Only when the agency was confronted with the specter of an embarrassing court battle did the FOIA yield results "as it should for any citizen," observes Cohn.

In evaluating this victory for disclosure, another caveat deserves mention: while most of the 1963 manual is now available to the public, significant portions were censored by the CIA prior to release. For example, 8 of the 42 bibliographical entries are completely deleted, as are 4 of the 50 items on the "Interrogator's Check List." On several pages, discussion of the CIA's policy on the use of forcible detention (which the agency has no legal authority for) are deleted (see pp. 6-8, 43-45, 86). The CIA's public affairs staff also refused this author's request to provide translations of the numerous code-words used in the document, making it difficult to discern the full meaning of passages where these words are used.

Despite these omissions, "KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation" contains valuable information on several secret CIA endeavors, including the agency's mind control research. Like the recent media reports on the CIA's ties to murderous security forces, the manual fills significant gaps in the history of U.S. foreign policy. As no previously released document has done, this manual places the CIA's hostile interrogation strategies on the record. The manual was designed to root out the secrets of interogatees, but now that its contents can be widely read, it is the CIA who has many questions to answer.