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A cold-war case of CIA detention still echoes

The Yuri Nosenko affair unveiled US use of extreme isolation to try to 'break' the KGB defector.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 8, 2008

Former CIA directors Stansfield Turner (l.), William Webster (c.), and James Woolsey speak during a forum at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Gregory Bull/AP/FILE


Behind the debate over the Central Intelligence Agency's destruction of videotapes depicting waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques lies a fundamental question: Can government officials use such aggressive tactics without violating US law?

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No American court has yet ruled on the legality of Bush administration interrogation policies. But the war on terror isn't the first time US officials have used harsh methods to try to "break" a detainee.

From 1964 to 1967, Soviet defector Yuri Nosenko was subjected to extreme isolation and sensory deprivation and was administered drugs because his CIA handlers believed he was still working in secret for the KGB. They imprisoned him in a windowless concrete cell to try to disrupt him psychologically and force him to confess his loyalty to Moscow, according to CIA documents and a congressional investigation. He never did.

The case has been examined in several books – one was published last year – and a 1986 movie depicting the intense debate over whether Mr. Nosenko was an actual defector. Lost in much of the discussion has been the legality of his treatment.

"It was reprehensible," says Stansfield Turner, who headed the CIA from 1977 to 1981 and ordered an internal examination of the Nosenko affair in 1977. "I was aghast when I uncovered it."

Nosenko's experience in CIA custody in the 1960s is relevant today because of similarities between his harsh treatment and the use of some of the same techniques now, more than 40 years later, against suspected Islamic terrorists. Among them are three men who were held at the military brig in Charleston, S.C., after being designated as enemy combatants by President Bush.

Like Nosenko, all three men – Yasser Hamdi, Jose Padilla, and Ali Saleh al-Marri – were held in isolation cells in the United States with minimal human contact for three years or more in an attempt to force confessions by disrupting their ability to maintain rational thought, according to interrogation specialists and mental-health experts.

Although the US Supreme Court in 2004 upheld the president's authority to order the military detention of enemy combatants, no US judge has ever ruled on the legality of using severe isolation as an interrogation technique. It remains unresolved even as the Supreme Court weighs the legal rights of foreign terror detainees at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and as the Justice Department undertakes a criminal investigation of the CIA's destruction of tapes documenting the use of harsh interrogation methods.

Now 80, Nosenko lives in the US under an assumed name. He was contacted by the Monitor through an intermediary but declined to be interviewed for this story.

An 'increasingly concerned' CIA

One indication of the CIA's own assessment of the legality of Nosenko's treatment was revealed last June, when the agency released documents concerning some of its once-secret operations.

"This office [CIA's Office of Security] together with the [CIA's] Office of General Counsel became increasingly concerned with the illegality of the agency's position in handling a defector [Nosenko] under these conditions for such a long period of time," states a memo dated 16 May 1973, nearly six years after Nosenko was released.