The Imperium’s Rabid Spooks: Do They Conspire or Bungle?

Alfred McCoy titled his book A Question of Torture. Heaven knows why. He doesn’t ask any questions. Instead, he just

Alfred Mccoy titled his book A Question of Torture. Heaven knows why. He doesn’t ask any questions. Instead, he just piles up assertions intended to demonstrate that the C.I.A. has conducted a sustained campaign of torture since the 1950’s. This was top secret, of course, until the obscenities at Abu Ghraib exposed the agency to public censure. Even then, the C.I.A. successfully evaded responsibility for what happened there (and at Gitmo) and has been allowed to wriggle free of John McCain’s legislation mandating that interrogations adhere to Army Field Manual standards. The agency is free to kill again, and it’s up to us to stop it, people.

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Nice theory, but it sounds too pat to me, a tad too diabolically clever for our friends at Langley. Like any argument, Mr. McCoy’s rests on the validity of the assumptions, not the vigor of the assertions; if the former prove flawed, the entire thesis collapses. And Mr. McCoy’s assumptions are very questionable indeed.

A Question of Torture is the newest addition to Metropolitan Books’ American Empire Project, a left-wing series of “short, argument-driven books” that “explore[s] every facet of the developing American imperium.” Just as Regnery authors adhere to a, ahem, robustly conservative worldview, Mr. McCoy’s book comes freighted with certain preconceptions. For those who believe in the gospel according to Noam Chomsky—whose contribution, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (2003), was the first of the A.E.P. books—the C.I.A. is assumed to be a fearsome, super-efficient outfit filled with sinister assassins, right-wing interrogators and malevolent white guys itching to take over the country (or, alternatively, other people’s countries).

Hence, in Mr. McCoy’s reading, everything this omnipresent, omniscient intel shop does must be part of a long-term plan, cunningly conceived and flawlessly executed. To that end, Mr. McCoy gamely strives to connect the C.I.A.’s “mind-control” experiments of the 1950’s with its enquiries into self-inflicted pain and sensory deprivation capsulated in the 1963 Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation manual, the Vietnam-era Phoenix program, the 1983 Honduras handbook Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, the Army’s FM 34-52: Intelligence Interrogation field guide of 1992, the post–Sept. 11 Bush administration’s legally and morally dubious memos on interrogation methods, and—capping it all as the preordained blowback from half a century’s lies—the photos snapped of Lynndie England and her debonair lover, Charles Graner, by their camera-happy pals at Abu Ghraib.

And that’s by no means all. Half-nelsoned by the A.E.P.’s ideological demands, Mr. McCoy must relate C.I.A. procedures to the growth of this “imperium” of ours—the agency needs to be representative of American power, you see, for the sake of high drama. Mr. McCoy’s a dab old hand at this sort of thing: A previous book was called The Politics of Heroin: C.I.A. Complicity in the Global Drug Trade—the subtitle tells you all you need to know. In his latest volume, because Washington apparently provided the training and equipment, as well as “moral legitimacy,” to various regimes to torture their citizens, there is, Mr. McCoy says, “a clear correspondence between U.S. Cold War policy and the extreme state violence of the authoritarian age.” (Strangely, he doesn’t cite the role of the USSR.)

Mr. McCoy’s essential problem is that he’s trying to conjure up a Grand Unified Theory out of a myriad of disparate factors. His effort to meld this hodgepodge of reports and manuals from different eras and theaters into a single, coherent narrative sometimes leads him astray. His claim that watching The Passion of the Christ—released several weeks before the Abu Ghraib story broke—“prepared the American public for quiet acceptance of the prison photos” is silly, and he mistakes the low-budget, typically 50’s C.I.A. forays into LSD kookiness and electro-shock faddery for a systematic campaign to instill mass mind control over “whole societies.”

These errors are more amusing than alarming. More serious are the shortcuts taken to make connections that don’t actually exist. Thus, he quotes from the Honduran handbook (“successful ‘questioning’ is based upon … psychological techniques”) to prove that a 2003 memorandum by Gen. Ricardo Sanchez authorizing certain interrogation methods used “similar language.” And what was this “similar language”? “Interrogation approaches,” General Sanchez wrote, “are designed to manipulate the detainee’s emotions and weaknesses to gain his willing cooperation.” One bears no resemblance to the other—though both state the thuddingly obvious—but Mr. McCoy nevertheless states that “clearly, in both its design and detail, Gen. Sanchez’s memo was influenced by past C.I.A. interrogation research.”

Perhaps it was, but not necessarily. Despite Mr. McCoy’s insistence that the C.I.A. pioneered psychological “no-touch” measures of extracting information, General Sanchez could easily have picked up pointers from The Gulag Archipelago, 1984 or Darkness at Noon, all of which detail the same kinds of psyche-out games these interrogators do play. Mr. McCoy also claims the C.I.A.’s methods of “self-inflicted” pain were revolutionary, but were they really? Any Japanese P.O.W. guard or tsarist secret policeman or medieval inquisitor could have told you that making someone stand up for several hours hurts, or that depriving prisoners of sleep makes them more pliable. (The genius of torture, it seems, lies in the dull unoriginality of its practitioners down the ages.) And finally, General Sanchez is a soldier, not a spook, but if the C.I.A.’s techniques are so if-I-tell-you-I-have-to-kill-you, then how did General Sanchez hear about them? Mr. McCoy never satisfactorily explains the mode of transmission between the C.I.A. and the military. Indeed, he sometimes elides the two.

But the main failure of Mr. McCoy’s thesis lies in his habit of arguing backwards from the present. He knows how this story ends—with an Iraqi prisoner posed in a martyr’s tableau, wired-up arms outstretched and outfitted with a black Klan-like hood. Accordingly, he excavates for evidence in the past to support his presuppositions about C.I.A. omniscience and the concordant inevitability of Abu Ghraib. But the real question is, did C.I.A. officials and operatives consciously plan 50 years ahead? I suspect not.

Put another way, in the film The Luzhin Defence, we see the grandmaster staring at a chessboard as pawns advance, gambits are declined, piece takes piece, and checks are countered in super-fast-forward. From this we infer that chess whizzes like Fischer, Capablanca and Botvinnik plot out their games from the start (“mate in 17” sort of thing), whereas real chessies see two, perhaps three, moves ahead and rapidly adapt to their opponent’s tactics. Same goes with the C.I.A.: Despite Mr. McCoy’s assumptions, the agency, like any corporation or bureaucracy, operates on an ad hoc basis and reacts to external events as best it can.

Spies and their masters are not all-knowing manipulators like M and Karla and Control—though they love it when you think them so. If you do, however, then you’ve succumbed to the romanticism propagated by hack novelists and the pseudo-sophistication of A.E.P. authors. In fact, in the office they’re ordinary men in Men’s Wearhouse suits—plodders, turf-warriors and careerists, along with the usual complement of the disgruntled, the overlooked, the inept and the over-promoted—while in the field, agents and assets are too often fantasists, fabricators and nutters. Dumb mistakes and shortsighted decisions are made all the time. The C.I.A., in short, couldn’t pull off a conspiracy this complex, this long-term, this sinister if it tried.

I’ve been harsh on poor old Alfred McCoy. This is a worthwhile book, one well worth reading to balance the repulsive agit-prop of the right (“water-boarding is not torture”). And, for once, a reviewer can’t complain about a lack of sources and sloppy research. There’s a ton of interesting stuff here, and Mr. McCoy does weave a fascinating narrative, but his thesis is inherently flawed, and A Question of Torture ultimately fails to prove the case.

Alexander Rose is the author of Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, which Bantam Dell will publish in April.

The Imperium’s Rabid Spooks: Do They Conspire or Bungle?