Psychological Torture

The CIA's Psychological Warfare

From the "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual---1983", used during the early eighties by the Central Intelligence Agency to show Central American security forces how to extract information from prisoners. Note that the absence of more severe torture methods is here justified by their ineffectiveness, not by ethical considerations.

The CIA officially renounced coercive interrogation techniques in 1985. The Department of Defense, however, continues to endorse coercive techniques such as sensory deprivation, "stress positions", threats, and other psychological stresses.

The Theory of Coercion

The purpose of all coercive techniques is to induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist. Regression is basically a loss of autonomy, a reversion to an earlier behavioral level. As the the subject regresses, his learned personality traits fall away in reverse chronological order. He begins to lose the capacity to carry out the highest creative activities, to deal with complex situations, or to cope with stressful interpersonal relationships or repeated frustrations

Coercive Techniques


The manner and timing of the subject's arrest should be planned to achieve surprise and the maximum amount of mental discomfort. He should therefore be arrested at a moment when he least expects it and when his mental and physical resistance are at their lowest---ideally, in the early hours of the morning. When arrested at this time, most subjects eperience intense feelings of shock, insecurity, and psychological stress, and have great difficulty adjusting to the situation.


A person's sense of identity depends upon a continuity in his surroundings, habits, appearance, relations with others, etc. Detention permits the questioner to cut through these links and throw the subject back upon his own unaided internal resources. Detention should be planned to enhance the subject's feelings of being cut off from anything known and reassuring.

Deprivation of Sensory Stimuli

Solitary confinement acts on most persons as a powerful stress. The symptoms most commonly produced by solitary confinement are superstition, intense love of any other living thing, perceiving inanimate objects as alive, hallucinations, and delusions.

Threats and Fear

The threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself. for example, the threat to inflict pain can trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain.

The threat of death has been found to be worse than useless. The principal reason is that it often induces sheer hopelessness; the subject feels that he is as likely to be condemned after compliance as before. Some subjects recognize that the threat is a bluff and that silencing them forever would defeat the questioner's purpose.

If a subject refuses to comply once a threat has been made, it must be carried out. Otherwise, subsequent threats will also prove ineffective.


The torture situation is a contest between the subject and his tormentor. Pain that is being inflicted upon the subject from outside himself may actually intensify his will to resist. On the other hand, pain that he feels he is inflicting upon himself is more likely to sap his resistance. For example, if he is required to maintain a rigid position such as standing at attention or sitting on a stool for long periods of time, the immediate source of discomfort is not the questioner but the subject himself. After a while, the subject is likely to exhaust his internal motivational strength.

Intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, fabricated to avoid additional punishment. This results in a time-consuming delay while an investigation is being conducted and the admissions are still proven untrue. During this respite, the subject can pull himself together and may even use the time to devise a more complex confession that takes still longer to disprove.

Hypnosis and Heightened Suggestibility

Answers obtained from a subject under the influence of hypnotism are highly suspect, as they are often based upon the suggestions of the questioner and are distorted or fabricated. However, the subject's strong desire to escape the stress of the situation can create a state of mind called "heightened suggestibility." The questioner can take advantage of this state of mind by creating a situation in which the subject will cooperate because he believes he has been hypnotized. This hypnotic situation can be created using the "magic room" technique.

For example, the subject is given a hypnotic suggestion that his hand is growing warm. However, his hand actually does become warm with the aid of a concealed diathermy machine. he may be given a suggestion that a cigarette will taste bitter and could be given a cigarette prepared to have a slight but noticeably bitter taste.


There is no drug that can force every subject to divulge all the information he has, but it is possible to create a mistaken belief that a subject has been drugged by using the "placebo" technique. The subject is given a placebo (a harmless sugar pill) and later is told he was given a truth serum that will make him want to talk and that will also prevent his lying. His desire to find an excuse for compliance, which is his only avenue of escape from his depressing situation, may make him want to believe that he has been drugged and that no one could blame him for telling his story now. This provides him with a rationalization that he needs for cooperating.


As mentioned earlier, the purpose of all coercive techniques is to induce regression. A few noncoercive techniques also can be used to induce regression, but to a lesser degree than can be obtained with coercive techniques:

Whether regression occurs spontaneously under detention or is induced by the questioner, it should not be allowed to continue beyond the point necessary to obtain compliance. A psychiatrist should be present if severe techniques are to be employed, to ensure full reversal later. As soon as possible, the questioner should provide the subject with the rationalization that he needs for giving in and cooperating. This rationalization is likely to be elementary, an adult version of a childhood excuse such as:

  1. "They made you do it."
  2. "All the other boys are doing it."
  3. "You're really a good boy at heart."


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