A Question of Torture CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror

American Empire Project

Alfred McCoy

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

320 Pages



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In this account of the CIA's secret, fifty-year effort to develop new forms of torture, historian Alfred W. McCoy uncovers the deep, disturbing roots of recent scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Far from aberrations, as the White House has claimed, A Question of Torture shows that these abuses are the product of a long-standing covert program of interrogation.

Developed at the cost of billions of dollars, the CIA's method combined "sensory deprivation" and "self-inflicted pain" to create a revolutionary psychological approach—the first innovation in torture in centuries. The simple techniques—involving isolation, hooding, hours of standing, extremes of hot and cold, and manipulation of time—constitute an all-out assault on the victim's senses, destroying the basis of personal identity. McCoy follows the years of research—which, he reveals, compromised universities and the U.S. Army—and the method's dissemination, from Vietnam through Iran to Central America. He traces how after 9/11 torture became Washington's weapon of choice in both the CIA's global prisons and in "torture-friendly" countries to which detainees are dispatched. Finally, McCoy argues that information extracted by coercion is worthless, making a case for the legal approach favored by the FBI.

A Question of Torture is a indictment of inhumane practices that have spread throughout the intelligence system, damaging American's laws, military, and international standing.


Praise for A Question of Torture

"From the start of the Cold War to the early nineteen-sixties, the C.I.A. spent billions of dollars developing psychological tools for interrogation. The agency cast a wide net, funding a Canadian study that involved administering electric shocks to subjects in drug-induced comas, and recruiting people like Kurt Plotner, a Nazi scientist who, in his search for a truth serum, had tested mescaline on Jewish prisoners at Dachau. The eventual conclusion was that cheap, simple methods (for example, enforced standing) worked best, and were also more acceptable to the public than outright physical violence. McCoy skillfully traces the use of these methods from the Phoenix program in Vietnam—which was designed to ferret out high-level Vietcong, although of the more than twenty thousand people it killed most were civilians—to the actions of agency-trained secret police in Honduras in the nineteen-eighties, and the treatment of hooded detainees at Abu Ghraib."—The New Yorker

"This is a worthwhile book, one well worth reading . . . And, for once, a reviewer can't complain about a lack of sources and sloppy research. There's a ton of interesting stuff here . . . A fascinating narrative."—The New York Observer

"There comes a moment in reading A Question of Torture when you put the book down and wonder if, perhaps, the author might just be insane. That judgment is unfair. McCoy is a calm and scrupulous chronicler or recent 'improvements' in the art of torture . . . the value of McCoy's retelling comes from his willingness to do a bold thing—to state the obvious, that these techniques are in no meaningful sense less inhumane than anything practiced in a medieval dungeon."—Scott McLemee, Newsday

"As we stand at the edge of a great moral abyss . . . Professor McCoy's book is an invaluable addition to this vital public discourse."—New York Law Journal

"Examines how physically brutal torture methods were augmented by the work of American and Canadian psychologists in the 1950s and 1960s . . . Such social scientists unwittingly paved the way for what McCoy calls a 'distinctively American form of torture,' relying primarily on psychological assaults, which would be used extensively by the CIA and its proxies during the latter half of the 20th century . . . According to McCoy, U.S. agents at Guantanamo Bay have created a 'de facto behavioral-research laboratory' that goes beyond using psychological stressors by attacking 'cultural sensitivity, particularly Arab male sensitivity to issues of gender and sexual identity.'"—Roberto J. Gonzalez, San Jose State University, The Chronicle of Higher Education

"McCoy proceeds in the venerable tradition of exposing and shaming . . . He is justifiably hailed as a champion of antitorture activists."—American Psychological Association

"A Question of Torture penetrates the historical amnesia and offers a corrective to the government record of denials and misrepresentations about the participation of the U.S. military in torture. The book demonstrates that U.S. security forces used torture long before Abu Ghraib, and that it formed an integral part of how U.S. power was projected abroad. McCoy traces the development of CIA torture techniques in the 1950s and examines their application in places such as Vietnam, Latin America, Iraq and Afghanistan, and he makes a persuasive case that torture does not work because most of the information coerced from prisoners is worthless . . . A Question of Torture raises questions about the widespread impunity within the United States that has allowed the CIA to remain unreformed and that has permitted high-ranking perpetrators of human rights crimes to remain unaccountable. The lack of justice and accountability within the U.S. intelligence community imperil democracy at home and abroad, and this book is must reading for anyone concerned with these issues."—Lesley Gill, American University, Contra: A Journal on Social History and Literature in Latin America

"McCoy argues persuasively and clearly . . . [and his] writing effectively leads the reader through the presentation, using precise clear examples . . . This is a disquieting read, the kind of reading more Americans should partake of to understand how their country is really working."—Jim Miles, Palestine Chronicle

"The history of American torture research is elegantly laid out in Alfred McCoy's book . . . [He] shows how the use of isolation, standing, exposure to hot and cold, light and dark, noise and silence, sleep deprivation, hooding and stress positions creates a total assault on all senses and sensibilities."—Jonathan P. Baird, The Concord Monitor

"Readers interested in learning about America's involvement with torture owe it to themselves to read this book. It serves as a flashlight beaming into the dark closets of government."—Associated Press

"This book is unique . . . in connecting the dots all the way back to early cold war mind-control research, reminding readers that the CIA has been an innovator in modern torture methods. Incorporating simple yet brutally effective techniques of psychological manipulation involving isolation, disorientation, and destruction of personal identity, McCoy argues, the modern CIA interrogation manual is premised on university and army research into the psychology of coercion. As in his earlier work on CIA complicity in the global heroin trade, McCoy is adept at tracing the inertia of government practice; his research on the effect of torture on the Philippine armed forces likewise shows policy in practice and demonstrates that psychological torture is at least scarring as thumbscrews. Timely and compelling."—Brendan Driscoll, Booklist

"A sober inquiry into the flaws and evils of torture . . . strongly recommended."—Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Two Thousand Years of Torture

In April 2004, the American public was stunned when CBS Television broadcast photographs from Abu Ghraib prison, showing Iraqis naked, hooded, and contorted in humiliating positions while...

Read the full excerpt


  • Alfred McCoy

  • Alfred W. McCoy is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia and Closer Than Brothers.