Authors of Interrogation Handbook Abuse Their Sources

In a piece called “Mind Games: Remembering Brainwashing” from today’s New York Times, Tim Wiener points to one of the more irresponsible uses of historical documents that I have seen this summer. Apparently “American military and intelligence officers” (he is not more specific) decided in 2002 to examine Cold War CIA studies of Chinese interrogation methods during the Korean War. After all, these Communists were the supposed masters who fed the kinds of fears that later gave rise to a movie like “The Manchurian Candidate.” In one major study the officers found examples of what are now often called “harsh interrogation techniques” when the more negatively valued term “torture” is being deliberately avoided. “They reprinted a 1957 chart describing death threats, degradation, sleep deprivation—and worse—inflicted by Chinese captors. And they made it part of a new handbook for interrogators at Guantánamo.”

The provenance of these techniques might give pause, but here’s the real bombshell:

The irony is that the original author of that chart, Albert D. Biderman, a social scientist who had distilled interviews with 235 Air Force P.O.W.’s, wrote that the Communists’ techniques mainly served to “extort false confessions.” And they were the same methods that “inquisitors had employed for centuries.” They had done nothing that “was not common practice to police and intelligence interrogators of other times and nations.”

This story reminds me of the student who hurriedly pulls a bunch of quotes from a book without actually reading or studying the book as a whole, let alone thinking about its historical context. The student then slaps the material together in a paper that might confirm his own beliefs, but whose conclusions bear no tangible relationship to the source that he supposedly read and analyzed. Is that what happened here? Or was the document perhaps too complex for them? Perhaps they needed to invest in some historians who were not afraid to dig through this kind of thing in an honest manner, no matter what conclusions the documents might suggest.

This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.