This article draws on Daniel Streatfeild’s BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize-winning non-fiction book Brainwash (Hodder & Stoughton, 2006). In it Streatfeild traces governmental obsession with trying to brainwash subjects as a means of controlling their behaviour. Efective ‘brainwashing’, as a specific, deliberate and controllable scientific process, he concludes, is a fiction and has never been successfully undertaken. Attempts at it have been as laughable as they are barbaric. No one has been able to force a subject to both knowingly and willingly choose to believe in something they didn’t want to and act on it.
Nonetheless the evidence Streatfeild has uncovered reflects disturbingly on modern governments and security forces. The case that they have never in fact been successful demonstrates also the extent to which popular culture has absorbed the myth that the state actually has this kind of mysterious power. How many people have taken at face value the notion that, for example, in the Moscow show trials of 1936-8 the confessing defendants were genuine, having been ‘brainwashed’ into identification with the State by some unknown technique? The truth is in fact that any changes in behaviour patterns or apparent changes in systems of belief and value are produced far more effectively by modern torture techniques, both ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’.
But the point is that security agencies and capitalists try these things. Here we outline Streatfeild’s findings on the CIA specifically.
Since 1951, the CIA had been interested in the problem of how to dispose of its burnt out agents. A memorandum at the time warned that “blown agents, exploited agents and difficult defectors that may wish to re-defect” posed a considerable threat to the agency. There was a need, went on the memo, to create “semi-permanent amnesia for a period of one year”. After debating lobotomy, the CIA came up with the brilliant idea of hitting people on the head, and two devices, including a pancake like blackjack were devised for the purpose. However the agency found itself short on volunteers and the line between forgetful and dead was too fine.
This was part of a project called MKULTRA, a project that ran for twenty three years, as far as we know, previously called ARTICHOKE, and prior to that BLUEBIRD, not often as ‘whacky’ as all that, but clearly the work of mad men out to see how far human kicks can go, as we shall see.
The project was set up to research mind control techniques. The agency by 1957 had discovered Dr. Ewan D. Cameron of the Allan Memorial Institute in Canada. Between then and 1960 they funded him to the tune of $75,000. Cameron was a psychiatrist who’s methods on his patients included stress tolerance, desensitisation, drugs that deconstructed patterns of human behaviour, more specifically wiping his patients memories bone clean till they shit their pants and sucked their thumbs all day, and then subjecting them to reprogramming, all in the aid of curing mental illness and unacceptable behaviour patterns. The CIA fell in love immediately.
Cameron, possibly one of the worlds greatest ever sadists, was interested in permanently changing so called aberrant behaviour patterns by cleaning them from his patients minds permanently with ECT and then recreating new ones of his own. He was a respected psychiatrist and released papers on the subject that caught the interest of the CIA.
Most doctors gave ECT (electro convulsive shock therapy) a maximum of twelve shocks to the brain over four weeks. This guide line was mainly to the effects of ECT on memory loss. However, this was precisely what interested Cameron. He gave twelve shocks a day for at least a period of a month, sometimes much longer. The result was substantial to complete memory loss. He wrote this was so “Old sick patterns had been obliterated” and “reorganisation set in”. He called the technique “Annihilation”.
Having turned his patients into vegetables, Cameron then went about reprogramming them. This was done by repeating a taped message to them over and over, whilst they were restrained by paralysing drugs in their rooms. The message usually ended “When you see paper on the floor you pick it up.” Cameron later decided that since the patients resisted it was not necessary for them to be awake for the procedure, and probably mercifully they were kept asleep months on end. The result of all Cameron’s work was to create living zombies and forty year old babies, capable of nothing but becoming vagrants.
TRUTH DRUGS The truth drug search goes back to the Second World War, starting with mescaline and scopolamine by the Nazis. Cannabis was also used, beginning in May 1943, by the American Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.
With the formation of the CIA and ARTICHOKE by 1953, cocktails of truth drugs were used, the old favourite being to select a harrowing collection of uppers and downers. Barbiturates such as sodium amytal (amobarbital) or pentathol (sodium thiopental), were mixed with the amphetamines Benzedrine and Methedrine. The trick was to enhance the truth inducing nature of both drugs. Barbiturates loosened the tendency for self censorship but put people to sleep, amphetamines countered this and made people want to talk. The subject was put to sleep first with 2.5% sodium pentathol injection, then 5 to 20 milligrams of desoxyn to wake them up. If they got too exited the subject was injected with more pentathol, the needle being kept in the arm. Hypnosis was also used. It was an attempt to induce violent cathartic reactions, alternately putting the subject to sleep, then waking them up till they were sufficiently confused to be coerced into reliving an experience from their past.
Experiments with LSD as a truth drug were carried out by, amongst others, MI6, US military and the CIA. MI6’s experiments ran from 1953 to 1954 and they were not overly impressed with this particular method, one stating that you might as well expect a truthful answer from sticking a pin in someone’s testicles as LSD. In fact some in the CIA were of the opinion that the reams of gibberish it made interrogated people talk were so distracting to interrogators, that it could be used as an anti-truth drug and given to operatives to protect information!
The CIA were not happy with experimenting on volunteers, but wanted to see the drug in the field, so MKULTRA recruited George White from the bureau of narcotics to work with LSD and other drugs in the CIA’s expanding pharmacy, on criminals, who were unlikely to be believed. For this purpose White set up safe houses with two way mirrors, and recruited a brothel-worth of prostitutes to use sex and drugs to extract information.
A problem associated with the use of all these drugs was that it was impossible to know if a subject was telling the truth or just fantasising.
There is no reliable information or declassified documents on the use of hypnosis to either produce a Manchurian Candidate style killer or to induce false memories. However, there was considerable and promising research by the CIA into the former, and of the latter it has been proved easily possible to create the most traumatic and often ridiculous false memories that are firmly believed by the victim.
The outcome of these experiments was that it was easy to get some one to kill another person under hypnosis if they didn’t know that that was what they were doing, or knew it wasn’t real (e.g. an unloaded gun), but it remained conjecture whether you could really get them to kill someone under post-hypnosis if it was something they didn’t want to do.
So the question remained in 1953 “Could we seize a subject and, in the space of an hour or so, by post-hypnotic control have him crash an airplane, wreck a train etc.?” The CIA came to the conclusion that “Suppose that while under hypnosis a subject is told a loved one’s life is in danger from a maniac and that only means of rescue is to shoot the person designated as a maniac? Three expert practitioners…say that in such circumstances murder would be committed.” The CIA went out to try this theory for real after inducing one CIA secretary to shoot another sleeping, under hypnosis, though not for real. ARTICHOKE planned to capture a former CIA asset, drug him at a party, kidnap him and hypnotise him to perform an assassination. How ever in this instance at least, ARTICHOKE got cold feet. It was too problematic to hypnotise someone against their will, it would either take a special room, or the subject would have to be hypnotised instantly by grabbing his neck and taking him to unconsciousness, a process that could be deadly. Apparently the hypnotist they recruited for the act lost his nerve and cowered in a corner of the room.
It does however seem unlikely that an organisation like the CIA would be so easily put off from such a project, and would not go to crueller and more ruthless ends to see the project reach fruition. They have proved themselves as evil as they are in equal parts stupid and imaginative. One thing for sure, they wouldn’t tell people. An interesting example of the CIA’s imagination, cruelty and stupidity, was the cat controlled by electrodes they used as a spy. The cat came to a sticky end when the agents controlling it lost their concentration and it went under a car.
The CIA began research on interrogation techniques almost from its inception. The starting point was the Moscow Show Trials. What was impressive to the CIA was not the extraction of information, which was clearly made up, but the willingness of the victims, with no signs of being tortured, to convict themselves of the most heinous crimes against the state such as attempted assassination of Stalin, to say they were fascist dogs and fascist spies, and to demand that they receive the maximum penalty of being shot for themselves, their comrades, and even their loved ones. The CIA had encountered something new.
Some of the methods the CIA discovered in the Moscow Show Trials are used by the CIA and army today, as recently as Guantanamo bay. To soften up a prisoner you first left them with their own fear. After six weeks in solitary as well as being made to stand for long periods, and sensory deprivation, disruption of sleep patterns and humiliation, the victim would blame themselves rather than their captor for their condition. After a while the subject would start talking to themselves and hallucinate. Then the interrogation would begin. They were told to name their crimes and taught to be consistent. A punishment/reward system was then developed. This soon became haphazard, behaviour designed to please could be punished by being threatened to be shot, rewards such as coffee or a cigarette would be offered for no reason at all. The end result was that confusion and disorientation meant the subject did not know whether they was guilty or not and would do anything to please his captors. But they do not consciously change their value system; the change occurs despite their efforts.
The Chinese communist approach was a little different, in that they did not want confession but conformity. They called this ‘mind cleansing’ and it is from this term that the Miami Daily News first invented the term ‘brainwashing’. All this originated in Lenin’s interest in Pavlov’s conditioned dogs, many years earlier.
Partialy developed from these forms of interrogation is the CIA’s KUBARK techniques. KUBARK relies not on interrogation, but forming a dependency in the subject upon the interrogator. This is termed ‘regression’. The subject is to be induced with “debility, dependence and dread”. The KUBARK manual also talks about the old favourite sensory deprivation, such as putting a hood over someone’s head. Better still, put them in a cell without light or sound. Then manipulate the subject’s, “diet, sleep pattern and other fundamentals”. This is disorientation to create “feelings of fear and helplessness.”
In 1961 Lawrence Hinkle, a psychiatrist, was asked to do a study on the physiological states of interrogation victims for the CIA. He stated that stressing techniques that we have seen used in the Iraq war and Afghanistan, such as wall-standing, hooding and malnutrition were not just attacks on the will power. They were creating a chemical imbalance in the subject’s brain, lowering their ability to resist.
In a final word, its worth saying that the CIA is a soft target. The allegations made against it are possible because of the institutionalised culture of violence and so called free speech of American society. But there is no need to believe that this behaviour is not typical of all intelligence communities around the world and, in fact, the CIA could learn a lot from interrogations carried out in Northern Ireland by our own agencies.