But I did become complicit in the psychological manipulation and torment of a prisoner. Never mind that the North Vietnamese inflicted far more brutal treatment on the American inmates of the “Hanoi Hilton.” My “success” in promoting a “dialogue” with Tai was based on his lingering fear that, without dialogue, he would be tossed back to the brutal South Vietnamese — an impression I encouraged. The isolation, the chilled air, the disorienting new routine were all things I imposed.
My CIA colleagues and I used to rationalize our tactics, and some still insist that psychological intimidation, verbal threats and tight handcuffs are perfectly acceptable in terms of both morality and expediency. But I believe there is an organic connection between the tactics I applied against Tai and those approved by the Bush Justice Department. Controlled brutality is a slippery slope, and once you pass through the moral membrane that should contain our worst impulses, it becomes so very easy to rationalize another step, and yet another, in the wrong direction.