What the Vietcong learned and the CIA failed to learn about torture

Jeff Stein reports: The CIA is hardly the only spy service to grapple with blowback from making prisoners scream. Even leaders of Communist Vietnam’s wartime intelligence agency, notorious for torturing American POWs, privately knew that “enhanced interrogation techniques,” as the CIA calls them, could create more problems than solutions, according to internal Vietnamese documents reviewed by Newsweek.

In many cases, torturing people wrongly suspected of being enemy spies caused “extremely regrettable losses and damage,” says one of the documents, released to little notice in 1993 by Hanoi’s all-powerful Public Security Service (PSS). But unlike the CIA, Vietnam’s security service constantly engaged in Marxist-style “self-criticism” to review its mistakes, particularly those caused by relying on confessions extracted by torture, the recently translated Communist documents show.

The documents were obtained and translated by Christopher E. Goscha, a history professor at the University of Montreal and one of the leading international scholars on Indochina during the French colonial period. He included them in his book, Historical Dictionary of the Indochina War (1945-1954): An International and Interdisciplinary Approach, which was published to little notice in Denmark in 2011. “Torture and intelligence gathering in a time of war are a tricky combination,” he told Newsweek, “and the [Communists’] policing and military intelligence services were no exception to the rule.”

Some of the papers Goscha found delve into intelligence errors dating back to the late 1940s, when Ho Chi Minh — prime minister of the nascent Democratic Republic of Vietnam — and his fellow revolutionaries were in a life-and-death struggle to oust French colonial forces from the country. One document recounts how, in early July 1949, agents from the PSS gathered secretly in an underground three-day conference outside of Saigon and “analyzed the service’s organizational and professional weaknesses, especially those involving the work of arresting and interrogating suspects.”

The main topic: a successful operation by French intelligence that planted a false document inside the organization, which suggested that some of the PSS cadres were double agents.

Four decades later, the Vietnamese agency’s review of the affair, obtained by Goscha, concluded that its counterespionage wing had overreacted and forced false confessions from many innocent people. It describes “waves of arrests…that caused us extremely regrettable losses and damage,” which were the result of “physical violence and torture, forcing people to make statements, putting words in their mouths, and then arresting everyone implicated by the suspects during torture.”

The PSS blamed the excesses on “professional immaturity,” according to the documents. Interrogators were driven by desperation to get quick results and to get ahead. “In almost every case,” the papers said, “there was…a personal motivating factor, because in all cases the erring cadre wanted to achieve a success for his own personal benefit.” [Continue reading…]

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