Is there a torture manual?

An illustration depicting torture with a hot clothing iron, discovered in an al-Qaida safe house in Iraq in May 2007.
Department of Defense


In May 2007, the United States military raided a house outside of Baghdad. From the outside, it seemed to be a normal house; it was the scene inside that was chilling. Five Iraqi nationals had been kept and tortured in the house by al-Qaida. The military also found drawings which it believes are part of a torture manual for al-Qaida operatives. The images include depictions of gruesome acts of torture, like pressing a hot clothing iron against a detainee's skin, removing eyeballs and placing a detainee's head in a vise [source: Department of Defense (CAUTION: GRAPHIC CONTENT)]. Even worse, the tools and instruments necessary to carry out such acts -- like blowtorches and power drills -- were also discovered in the house [source: Fox News].


­One may be gripped by panic at the thought of being subjected to any of the methods depicted in the al-Qaida manual; having a limb severed or being hung by your arms behind your back are surely horrifying experiences. To add to the argument against torture, these methods are not generally considered useful. Information gathered from a detainee upon whom an interrogator is inflicting intense physical pain is unlikely to be accurate [source: The New York Times]. In other words, a person who has a hot iron pressed to his or her bare chest is likely to say anything -- factual or not -- just to get the torturer to stop. In 1988, a CIA official testified before a Senate intelligence committee, "Physical abuse or other degrading treatment was rejected, not only because it is wrong, but because it has historically proven to be ineffective" [source: The Baltimore Sun].

How ­would this government expert know? Because the United States spent decades conducting experiments, field tests and research in a quest to perfect the science of interrogation. Read about the manual that was produced as a result of this research on the next page.

KUBARK Manual: A User's Guide to Torture?

A Vietnamese paratrooper threatens a suspected Viet Cong soldier with a bayonet during an interrogation in 1962.
Larry Burrows/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The 1950s appear to have been a time when the CIA put a tremendous amount of energy into perfecting the science of torture. The CIA conducted covert experiments, at times on unsuspecting Americans, using LSD in the search of a “truth serum” [source: The New York Times]. It used electrical currents to inflict pain [source: The Boston Globe]. The agency conducted trials investigating the effects of sensory deprivation [source: The Washington Post]. The CIA found that the best methods for extracting information from detainees come not through the infliction of physical pain or torture, but through psychological torture.

Although the brand of torture the CIA devised through more than a decade of trial and error may not inflict physical pain, it can still do some real damage. Historian and expert on the subject of the CIA and torture, Alfred McCoy, writes, “Although seemingly less brutal, no-touch torture leaves deep psychological scars. The victims often need treatment to recover from trauma far more crippling than physical pain” [source: The Boston Globe].


There is indeed a torture manual and the CIA literally wrote it. In 1963, the Agency created the KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual. It was, as Alfred McCoy puts it, the “codification” of everything the CIA had learned from its experiments throughout the 50s. In the KUBARK (the codename for the CIA in the Vietnam War [source: The Washington Post]) manual, methods for breaking detainees are based generally on psychology. Identifying a victim’s sense of self and then stripping it away is part of the first step toward breaking him or her. An introverted or shy detainee might be kept naked and perhaps sexually humiliated, for example. Clothes may also be taken simply to alienate the detainee and make him or her less comfortable.

Creating a sense of unfamiliarity, disorientation and isolation seems to be the hallmarks of psychologically undermining a detainee in the purview of the KUBARK manual. Practices like starvation, keeping inmates in small, windowless cells with unchanging artificial light and forcing inmates to sit or stand in uncomfortable positions (stress positions) for long periods of time have been decried or banned outright by the United States government. Yet these techniques are part of the regimen prescribed by KUBARK. So, too, are using hypnosis and drugs to extract information.

While it doesn’t mention electric shock directly, the manual calls for interrogators to be sure that a potential safe house to be used for torture has access to electricity. As one source told The Baltimore Sun, “The CIA has acknowledged privately and informally in the past that this referred to the application of electric shocks to interrogation suspects” [source: The Baltimore Sun].

Physical pain, however, is ultimately deemed counterproductive by the manual. It’s a much worse experience, the guidebook concludes, for an inmate to fear that pain may be coming than to actually experience it. The old adage that anticipation is worse than the experience appears to also have a basis in the shadowy field of torture.

A newer book, largely a revision of the KUBARK manual, draws the same foundational conclusion -- that psychological torment is paramount to physical abuse. The Human Resource Exploitation Manual -- 1983 was first publicized as the result of an investigative report into the human rights abuses in Honduras. Read about the CIA’s torture manual version 2.0 on the next page.

The CIA and Battalion 316

An unidentified American official trains Honduran soldiers in June 1983.
John Hoagland/Liaison/Getty Images

In 1997, The Baltimore Sun broke a series of stories concerning the CIA's involvement in the counter-communism paramilitary movement in Honduras in the early 1980s. The Sun interviewed expatriate Hondurans who were part of an elite squad called Battalion 316, trained by CIA agents to fight the country's Leftist guerillas. The expatriates interviewed in the articles were directly involved in the kidnapping, physical and mental torture, and murders of hundreds of Hondurans suspected -- at times incorrectly so -- of being members or supporters of the Leftist movement.

According to information reported in The Sun, the CIA trained Battalion 316 in the tried-and-true ways specified in the CIA's KUBARK manual: Physical violence is useless. Psychology is everything. The threat of death is "worse than useless," the manual says; the prisoner feels "that he is likely to be condemned after compliance as before" [source: The Washington Post].


While CIA-brand tactics of isolation and maltreatment were used by Battalion 316, so, too, was physical brutality. Victims were stabbed to death, then dismembered with machetes. Rubber masks were used to suffocate prisoners to get them to talk. Others were hooked up to car batteries, a crude form of electrocution [source: The Baltimore Sun].

By the time the Hondurans were learning interrogation tactics from the CIA, however, agency officers toted a new manual -- one that didn't include references to electric currents. This was Human Resource Exploitation Manual -- 1983.

If the KUBARK manual is the culmination of years of experimentation in the field of torture, then the 1983 manual is the result of 20 years of tweaking the KUBARK's contents. Both are based along the same lines. Artificial light, isolation, unfamiliarity and disorientation through solitary confinement and sensory deprivation are the steps to inducing a detainee to volunteer information. And like the KUBARK manual, the 1983 version details methods of coercion, once a detainee is revealed to be resistant to initial methods.

Coercion tactics as described by the 1983 manual appear to be more sophisticated versions of those found in the KUBARK manual. Agents can create a sense of isolation and helplessness by ensuring that cells at the interrogation location are outfitted with heavy metal doors. "The slamming of a heavy door impresses upon the subject that he is cut off from the rest of the world," says the 1983 manual [source: The Baltimore Sun].

The subject of pain, too, has been further refined. The 1983 manual is very specific on why inflicting pain is counterproductive. "The threat to inflict pain may trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain. In fact, most people underestimate their capacity to withstand pain" [source: The Baltimore Sun]. The manual goes on to suggest keeping a victim in stressful positions or other uncomfortable situations for long periods, creates internal pain. Since the pain is internal, rather than external (as if it were intentionally caused), the victim may be more likely to come to view the interrogator as someone who can help him or her. This victim may even form a sort of trust toward the interrogator -- as in the Stockholm syndrome.

The dissemination of the information found in these manuals by The Baltimore Sun raises some questions over whether the CIA's interrogation techniques are legal. Read about this on the next page.

Torture Manuals for the Ages

An Iraqi man hugs his brother in November 2005 after being freed from Abu Ghraib prison, a site where some prisoners were tied up, hooded and sexually degraded by the American military.
Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

By the time Sun reporters obtained a copy of the 1983 manual in the mid-1990s, Congress had already held hearings on possible CIA torture abuses. Through these inquiries, new standards for the treatment of detainees emerged. What used to be considered fair play in interrogation by the CIA -- like lengthy confinement in small cells, sleep deprivation and prolonged stress -- had been deemed unethical and illegal by Congress. The Sun reporters discovered the 1983 manual had been altered by hand after the Congressional hearings of the late '80s. "Those alterations and new instructions appear in the documents obtained by The Sun, support the conclusion that methods taught in earlier versions were illegal" [source: The Baltimore Sun].

The United Nations (U.N.), too, tightened restrictions against torture. The U.N. Convention Against Torture was ratified by 25 countries in the spring of 1985 (the United States did not sign the treaty). It contains a broad definition of torture, defining it as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession" [source: U.N.].


Prior to the U.N.'s treaty, international law had already clearly established that behaviors like humiliation and degradation were out of bounds. The Geneva Convention banned treatment such as this of prisoners in the context of war after it was ratified in October 1950 [source: U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights].

Both CIA interrogation manuals suggest techniques considered torture by international law. And, when juxtaposed against the known facts about the activities of the Honduran Battalion 316 squad, as well as squad members' testimony, it appears the CIA was using interrogation techniques outlined in the manuals. Just as striking is the comparison to the KUBARK and 1983 manuals to the treatment of detainees during the Iraq war. Although Congress clearly rebuked the CIA's methods of interrogation as described by the KUBARK and 1983 manuals, as well as via testimony by members of Battalion 316, it became clear the CIA was still using interrogation techniques outlined in the manuals. As proof, photos of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and reports of prisoners at the Army detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba emerged in the early 21st century.

At Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, photos of naked prisoners tied up, hooded and sexually degraded surfaced in 2004 [source: Salon]. That same year, allegations surfaced that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay detention facility were kept in stress positions for long periods, naked, threatened with dogs and given minimal food and water [source: The Washington Post]. And in 2005, news broke that the CIA had secret prisons in countries in Europe, Asia and Africa, where high-value terror suspects were subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques," which include physical abuse [source: ABC News].

Following these reports, members of Congress held hearings on the use of torture by the CIA and the U.S. military, just as their counterparts had in the late 1980s. In 2007 and 2008, hearings were held on the legality of water boarding, a method of interrogation which simulates drowning. Congress' view of the technique may have little effect on a CIA decision to discontinue its use, if history is any guide.

Reports of the treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, as well as the existence of secret prisons, point out that, with the CIA, it appears old habits die hard. Either that, or the agency has no techniques for extracting information that are more effective than those which first appeared in the KUBARK manual.

For more information on torture and other related topics, visit the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Boland, Ed Jr. "FYI: The CIA's bad trip." The New York Times. May 11, 2003.
  • Cohn, Gary. Thompson, Ginger and Matthews, Mark. "Torture was taught by CIA; declassified manual details the methods used in Honduras; Agency denials refuted." The Baltimore Sun. Jan. 27, 1997.
  • Eggen, Dan and Smith, Jeffrey R. "FBI agents allege abuse of detainees at Guantanamo Bay." The Washington Post. Dec. 21, 2004.
  • Haberman, Clyde. "Bearing witness to torture." The New York Times. Oct. 30, 2007.
  • McCoy, Alfred. "Torture at Abu Ghraib followed CIA's manual." The Boston Globe. May 14, 2004.
  • Pincus, Walter. "Iraq tactics have long history with U.S. interrogators." The Washington Post. June 13, 2004.
  • Ross, Brian and Esposito, Richard. "Sources tell ABC news top Al Qaeda figured held in secret CIA prisons." ABC News. Dec. 5, 2005.
  • Thompson, Ginger and Cohn, Gary. "Torturers' confessions." The Baltimore Sun. June 13, 1995.,0,2194980.story,0,2194980.story
  • "Convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." United Nations. Feb. 4, 1985.
  • "Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war." United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. Oct. 21, 1950.
  • "'How-to' manual found in al Qaeda safe house shows disturbing torture methods." Fox News. May 27, 2007.,2933,275341,00.html