Defining Terms

In Soviet America, Navy Brainwashes You!

On the way to work the other day, while listening to an NPR Report on José Padilla, I was struck by the similarities between his story and a 1960 CIA Report on Soviet Brain Washing that I read last summer. The CIA studied the handling of prisoners by the Communist governments of the U.S.S.R. and China. The report chronicles the way both foreigners and citizens of the respective countries were arrested, held without charge, tortured, interrogated, and eventually made to confess whatever the interrogators wanted them to. The striking part is how much this process almost exactly mirrors the actions of the U.S. government against José Padilla. Read both reports in full for the complete effect, but here are some excerpts that are particularly similar.

  • The prisoner is kept in complete isolation except for his interrogations.


    According to court papers filed by Padilla’s lawyers, for the first two years of his confinement, Padilla was held in total isolation. He heard no voice except his interrogator’s. His 9-by-7 foot cell had nothing in it: no window even to the corridor, no clock or watch to orient him in time.

    CIA (pg 16):

    An almost invariable feature of the management of any important suspect under detention is a period of total isolation in a detention cell. The prisoner is placed within his cell, the door is shut, and for an indefinite period he is totally isolated from human contact except by the specific direction of the officer in charge of the case. He is not allowed to talk to the guards or to communicate with other prisoners in any manner.

  • The prisoner is subjected to a carefully planned program of bright light, prolonged standing, and sleep deprivation. This is painful and disorienting.


    He was either in bright light for days on end or in total darkness. He had no mattress or pillow on his steel pallet; loud noises interrupted his attempts to sleep.

    Sometimes it was very cold, sometimes hot. He had nothing to read or to look at. Even a mirror was taken away. When he was transported, he was blindfolded and his ears were covered with headphones to screen out all sound. In short, Padilla experienced total sensory deprivation.

    During length interrogations, his lawyers allege, Padilla was forced to sit or stand for long periods in stress positions. They say he was hooded and threatened with death. The isolation was so extreme that, according to court papers, even military personnel at the prison expressed great concern about Padilla’s mental status.

    CIA (pg 17):

    At all times except when he is eating, sleeping, exercising, or being interrogated, the prisoner is left strictly alone in his cell. He has nothing to do, nothing to read, and no one to talk to. Under the strictest regimen he may have to sit or stand in his cell in a fixed position all day. He may sleep only at hours prescribed for sleep. Then he must go to bed promptly when told and must lie in a fixed position upon his back with his hands outside the blanket. If he deviates from this position, the guard outside will awaken him and make him resume it. The light in his cell burns constantly. He must sleep with his face constantly toward it.

    CIA (pg 24):

    The constant light in the cell and the necessity of maintaining a rigid sleep position in bed produce sleep disturbances; and the guards can awaken the prisoner at intervals. This is especially effective if the prisoner is awakened just as he drops off to sleep. Continued loss of sleep produces clouding of consciousness and a loss of alertness, both of which impair the victim’s ability to sustain isolation.

    Another simple and effective type of pressure is that of maintaining the temperature of the cell at a level which is either too hot or too cold for comfort. Continuous heat, at a level at which constant sweating is necessary in order to maintain body temperature, is enervating and fatigue producing. Sustained cold is uncomfortable and poorly tolerated.

    CIA (35-36):

    Continuous and repetitive interrogation is an effective and very common form of pressure. Another which is widely used is that of requiring the prisoner to stand throughout the interrogation session or to maintain some other physical position which becomes painful. This, like other features of the MVD procedure, is a form of physical torture, in spite of the fact that the prisoners and MVD officers alike do not ordinarily perceive it as such. Any fixed position which is maintained over a long period of time ultimately produces excruciating pain. Certain positions, of which the standing position is one, also produce impairment of the circulation.

    Many men can withstand the pain of long standing, but sooner or later all men succumb to the circulatory failure it produces. After 18 to 24 hours of continuous standing, there is an accumulation of fluid in the tissues of the legs. This dependent “edema” is produced by the extravasation of fluid from the blood vessels. The ankles and feet of the prisoner swell to twice their normal circumference. The edema may rise up the legs as high as the middle of the thighs. The skin becomes tense and intensely painful. Large blisters develop which break and exude watery serum. The accumulation of the body fluid in the legs produces an impairment of the circulation. The heart rate increases and fainting may occur. Eventually there is a renal shutdown, and urine production ceases. Urea and other metabolites accumulate in the blood. The prisoner becomes thirsty, and may drink a good deal of water, which is not excreted, but adds to the edema of his legs. Men have been known to remain standing for periods as long as several days. Ultimately they usually develop a delirious state, characterized by distortion, fear, delusions, and visual hallucinations. This psychosis is produced by a combination of circulatory impairment, lack of sleep, and uremia.

  • The prisoner eventually succumbs to the torture and not only becomes completely compliant, but also condemns himself and supports his captors in his own mind. This is not merely an act, but the prisoner actually believes what he is saying.


    There is no indication that Padilla is faking it, Hegarty says. To the contrary, Padilla denies that he has any problems and tends to identify with the government’s interests more than his own.

    For example, Padilla thought his lawyers were unfair in their rigorous questioning of the FBI agents who arrested him at O’Hare airport.

    CIA (pgs 45-46):

    The way in which a prisoner reacts to the whole process of interrogation is to a great extent dependent upon the manner of man he is, his pre-existing attitudes and beliefs, and the circumstances surrounding his arrest and imprisonment. All prisoners have this in common: They have been isolated and have been under unremitting pressure in an atmosphere of hostility and uncertainty. They all find themselves in a dilemma at the time that the interrogation begins. The regimen of pressure and isolation has created an overall discomfort which is well nigh intolerable. The prisoner invariably feels that something must be done to find a way out. Death is denied him. Ultimately, he finds himself faced with the choice of continuing interminably under the intolerable pressures of his captors or accepting the way out which the interrogator offers. The way out is a rationalization. It allows the prisoner to meet the demands of his interrogator by degrees, while at the same time retaining within himself some shred of belief that by his own standards he has not capitulated. The rationalization may be – and very often is – so patently absurd and untrue that the victim, in his “right might”, would be utterly incapable of accepting it. But he is not in his right mind. His capacity to distinguish true from false, or good from bad, has been deliberately undermined. With rare exceptions prisoners accept this way out, provided the pressures are prolonged and intense and the interrogator can effectively adjust his persuasiveness.

    Continued on page 47:

    Non-Communist prisoners of idealistic beliefs or socialist sympathies apparently make ready targets for the logic of the interrogator. Such persons are usually compelled to agree that the ostensible and idealistic motives of the Communist Party are “good”, and that those who oppose these ideals are “bad”. The rationalization in this case takes the form of getting the prisoner to say that the Communist Party has the same value system that he does; something which the prisoner agrees is “bad” by his own definition.

Although the term is rarely used today, the treatment of José Padilla was described by the CIA as “brainwashing”. The report states that the program was specifically developed for this purpose and is extremely effective.

CIA (pg 18):

This regimen within the detention cell is in itself a most potent weapon in the hands of the MVD. It has been developed and refined over a period of many years and used on literally thousands of prisoners. It is highly effective in “breaking the will” of prisoners – so much that many MVD officers are convinced that there is literally no man who cannot be brought to do their bidding.

Of course, the treatment of Padilla is not exactly analogous with the Soviet prisoner handling. For example, the Russians had to bring their prisoners before a judge and charge them with a crime, a luxury Padilla did not have for three years, and that many other prisoners of the U.S. no longer have.

CIA Report (page 28):

Soviet law specifies that, if a man is detained on suspicion, the first protocol of his interrogation must be given to the state prosecutor within ten days so that an arrest warrant may be issued, or the man may be released.

And finally, in the most powerful and, in light of the current administration’s thoughts on the matter, unexpected statement of the report, the CIA names such treatment of prisoners as torture.

CIA Report (page 25):

The effects of isolation, anxiety, fatigue, lack of sleep, uncomfortable temperatures, and chronic hunger produce disturbances of mood, attitudes, and behavior in nearly all prisoners. The living organism cannot entirely withstand such assaults.

The Communists do not look upon these assaults as “torture”. Undoubtedly, they use the methods which they do in order to conform, in a typical legalistic manner, to Communist theory which demands that “no force or torture be used in extracting information from prisoners.” But these methods do constitute torture and physical coercion and should never be considered otherwise.