Last year, I gave two speeches in which I reviewed the palette of eleven interrogation techniques which were – according to published accounts in Newsweek and ABC News – being used in connection with what President Bush described on September 6, 2006 as “the program” of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” I noted the rather remarkable similarity between a number of these techniques and practices developed by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or as better know by its initials, NKVD), the predecessor of the Committee for State Security or KGB. Moreover, as I pointed out, the external factors were also similar. In the twenties and early thirties, Communist leaders in Russia remained committed to the observance of legal formalities about torture. And in their view, techniques which avoided the spilling of blood or obvious wounds and bruises could be embraced because they furnished no physical evidence of torture – part of the essential reasoning of John Yoo and his friends in the current debate in the United States.
When I made these points, I got an annoyed question from the audience: “You have no evidence that the United States consciously took the Bolshevik era techniques. You’re just saying this to blacken the advocates of the program by comparison with the Communists.”
Well, how does one respond to that? It seems to me that if we condemn something as brutal torture when it’s done in Moscow’s Lubyanka or Lefortovo prisons, and then adopt the same practices ourselves, we’re hypocrites. And it’s true that we have some problem tracking the path of reception of these techniques. There’s a reason for that, of course, which is that the Bush Administration puts a “highly compartmentalized national security secret” classification on every aspect of “the program.” They do so not to preserve any secrets – for they’re long out of the bag. They do it to obscure their own criminal conduct.
Nevertheless, we know that the Navy SEALS Survival, Evasion, Reconaissance and Escape Program (SERE) was based on a very careful study of what the Pentagon and CIA thought the Soviets and their allies would do to captured American service personnel, and that it included a careful review of the techniques mastered by the NKVD, the GRU and the KGB, among other agencies. The SERE program in turn provided the baseline for techniques adopted in “the program.” And that means that Bush adopted as interrogation techniques a series of tactics developed by the Communists from the Cold War period and earlier.
Sunday’s New York Times features a good summary by Scott Shane of the NKVD/KGB techniques and the matching aspects of the “program.” As Friedrich Nietzsche said, if you stare too long into the abyss, it may very well just stare right back at you. Indeed, as this whole affair shows, it may well hypnotize you.