The Terror Trade

The CIA was loath to release its manuals to the American public, but the agency has readily shared its expert opinions on interrogation with military and intelligence forces around the world. In numerous cases both the CIA and the Defense Department have been implicated in the international dissemination of torture and other political terror tactics. The tricks of the trade were often exported to governments who turned the brutal methods against their own civilians. There are too many cases on record to recount them all here, but a review of some frequently cited examples suggests that U.S. involvement in this terror trade has been so widespread that its effects can accurately be described as global in scope.

Most recently the CIA has come under scrutiny for its training of abusive officers in Guatemala and Honduras. These cases are but a sampling of the agency's experience in promoting the use of political terror in Central America. During the 1980s one of the agency's major covert operations, the contra war against Nicaragua, was repeatedly plunged into scandal due to its reliance on tactics that blatantly contradicted President Reagan's public praise of the contra guerrillas, whom he described as a force of "freedom fighters." A CIA-produced manual, Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare, schooled the contras on the use of "implicit terror," kidnapping and assassinations. (21)

U.S. Army instruction programs that spread similar methods in the region are also attracting criticism. According to declassified documents and recently issued Defense Department reports, the Army's "Project X," a set of intelligence courses taught since the 1960s in countries throughout Central and South America, included instruction on how to surveil, infiltrate, and undermine dissident groups. The training covered the use of kidnapping, blackmail, and executions. The materials were later consulted in the preparation of manuals used at the Army's School of the Americas (SOA), a Ft. Benning, Georgia, facility that trains Latin American military officers. Among the objectionable tactics later found in the SOA manuals were instructions on the use of hypnotism and "truth serum" drugs in interrogation. (22)

Representative Joseph Kennedy, a longtime congressional critic of the SOA, remarked that the manuals "taught tactics that come right out of a Soviet gulag and have no place in civilized society -- they certainly have no place in any course taught with taxpayer dollars on U.S. soil by the members of our own military." (23) Amnesty International issued a statement calling for full disclosure of the history of Project X and commenting that "it seems highly unlikely that it is merely a coincidence that some of the most widespread and systematic human rights violations have taken place in precisely those countries, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Peru, where these materials were most widely used." (24)

By virtue of their proximity to the United States, these countries bore the brunt of the abuses that accompanied U.S. counterinsurgency aid -- but the manuals and lesson plans that shared such tactics were extensively distributed outside this hemisphere as well. In March 1997 the Washington Post reported that according to Army documents and former Pentagon officials, the Project X materials "were used much more widely, by U.S. personnel working in a variety of countries," including Vietnam, Japan and Iran. (25)

CIA ties to torturers have likewise reached to every corner of the globe. The agency created and guided oppressive security programs in several Southeast Asian countries, most notably Vietnam, where the United States ran its most intensive counterinsurgency campaign. During the late 1960s, in South Vietnam the CIA set up the infamous Phoenix Program, an effort to eradicate the Viet Cong infrastructure. Phoenix is largely remembered as an assassination program (at least 20,000 suspects were murdered), but the operation also established a network of "Provincial Interrogation Centers" that often served as torture chambers. (26)

In the years that followed, the advanced counterinsurgency tactics of Phoenix were shared with thousands of foreign police officers trained by CIA instructors in various programs run by the State Department's Agency for International Development, including the Office of Public Safety and the International Police Academy. (27)

The CIA has also been directly linked to torture training in the Middle East, where the agency for two and a half decades reinforced the repressive state of Shah Mohammed Pahlevi, the dictator of Iran. Shortly before the Shah's overthrow in 1979, New York Times journalist Seymour Hersh reported that "a senior CIA official was involved in instructing officials in the Savak [the Iranian secret police] on torture techniques." Jesse J. Leaf, a former head Iran analyst for the CIA, told Hersh, "I do remember seeing and being told of [CIA personnel] who were there seeing the rooms and being told of torture. And I know that the torture rooms were toured and it was all paid for by the U.S.A." (28)

The human rights abuses promoted by the Pentagon and CIA are compounded by the abuses of government secrecy that continue to conceal many important records on these operations from public scrutiny. In the case of the Project X program, the Defense Department says it has destroyed almost all of the original documentation, purportedly to prevent further dissemination of such unacceptable tactics.

When such crucial records are wiped out of existence, our ability to document the history of U.S. military assistance and training programs is seriously impaired. Fragmentary media reports based on the recollections of former Pentagon officials are no substitute for a complete accounting of Project X. Likewise, neither the CIA's declassification of a couple incriminating manuals nor its "scrub" of its motley band of foreign assets is a substitute for a comprehensive congressional investigation of CIA cooperation with regimes that regularly employed terror tactics.

Currently there is little determination on Capitol Hill to unearth this disturbing history. For the time being, if the facts on the U.S. role in developing and exporting these tactics are to be established, they will be extracted from documents such as this interrogation manual. The document joins the steadily growing stack of declassified records that offer clues on the nature and extent of the CIA's complicity with state terror in other countries. Though much of the documentary evidence on the terror trade remains shielded by official secrecy, a close reading of this manual reveals the value of the pieces of the paper trail that we can currently examine.