Ewen Cameron: Glasgow’s Father of Torture


To remembering Orlando Letelier and Rodolfo Walsh

who witnessed the torture of Chile and Argentina.

The winter snow melted down the memorial gates of University Avenue where the great, good names of this University are inscribed in gold: Adam Smith, James Watt, John Smith. They are memories of an enlightened heritage – of Glasgow within the world. Yet how real can any golden memory be?  This city reminisces of its industrial past with too little preoccupation for its basis of wealth from slavery.  Colder aspects of history are often forgotten and this stands true of the gates of this university. Certain names, too infamous and callous to note, ring in absence.

The most chilling of these is Ewen Cameron.  His story is not sweet or celebratory, but painful and significant. He was, in the beginning, a psychiatrist of immaculate repute.  Born in Stirlingshire he became a Glasgow graduate, a Glasgow lecturer and a Glasgow doctor.  He set out to North America where he rose to academic prominence.  As a radical and imaginative scientist he sought to transcend Sigmund Freud. However, Cameron’s method of science descended from discovery to disaster.  His actions are perhaps the most horrific ever to be connected with Glasgow; while he is also complicit in one of the darkest passages of American history. This is a story whereby science and security became embroiled in deceit; entire nations and peoples were uprooted against their will through violence and fear; and the pains of Pinochet, the South American Junta and Guantameno Bay were calculated victim by victim. These were among the worst acts of inhumanity to occur since the Second World War and it began in Ewen Cameron’s torture chamber.

The year was 1957 in McGill University, Canada.  Ewen Cameron was appointed local head of a programme entitled ‘MKUltra’.  Funded through the Rockerfeller Group and the CIA, the objective was to test the limits of the human mind.  Cameron was eager to break academic barriers.  His experiments sought to cure mental illness through ‘psychic driving’, a technique which believed the brain to be highly malleable through forced reconstruction.  Patients were drugged in isolation for prolonged periods with sensory depletion (no sight, touch or movement) and proscribed regular douses of electroshock over their bodies.  One patient endured 65 straight days in confinement – whereby patients were placed in tight boxes like coffins. Another, Val Orlikow, received hallucinogenic trips in isolation.  When she asked the prolonged experimentation to stop Cameron said “Lassie, don’t you want to get well, so you can go home and see you husband?” Val, coerced, took the doctor’s medicine.  Cameron’s response to dissent was to increase electroshock ‘therapy’. The results, contrary to his expectations, were disturbing.  Patients far from being cured often underwent regression to an uncontrollable, erratic state with bouts of memory loss and panic attacks.  One writer on Cameron stated: “he was a genius at destroying people, but could not remake them.” The reason for this is clear: they had experienced the severe trauma of advanced mental and physical torture.

The CIA’s involvement in MKUltra was hidden from public view until 1988 when documents relating to Cameron’s activities were released.  The resulting $6.75 million payment to victims was the largest compensation claim ever upheld against the American security services.  Yet this process went far beyond a rogue scientist.  In 1963 Cameron’s research and methods became the handbook for covert CIA interrogation in the Kubark manual.  All the painful details of his torture lab – isolation, sense depletion and electroshocks – became a codebook of repression distributed by the U.S. wherever there was chaos.  The power to break an individual – to gain information, confessions and betrayals – was invaluable to anyone seeking ultimate forms of authority. What began as an interrogation device for the extremities of the cold war widened and became the scientific foundation of global torture. When operatives needed to silence civic dissent in Chile, in Argentina, in Brazil, in Bolivia, in Iraq, it was to the findings of Ewen Cameron – a graduate of the University of Glasgow – that torturers looked.  The true, horrific consequences of what took place are uncomprehendable and the harrowing details of personal accounts are graphic and unsettling. The economic shock therapy in Latin America was accompanied by the mass brutality of torture camps and disappearances, which were focused upon students and trade unionists.  One man, kept in isolation for a decade, said “We began to think we were dead, that our cells weren’t cells but graves.”

In the past such torture was secret.  The shadows of Nazi concentration camps and abusive experiments hung over Cameron’s age, and so tests of science and pain remained covert.  The files for MKUltra were destroyed and the Kubark manual remained secret for 34 years.  They were documents of violent torture which contravened the Geneva Convention, so Governments hid them.  This has changed in a post-9/11 world.  A CIA body openly stated in 2006 that “a careful reading of the Kubark manual is essential reading for anyone involved in interrogation.”  The White House stated that to qualify as torture pain had to “be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure.” Ewen Cameron’s torture lab is now unveiled as Guantanamo Bay: now ten years old.  The glorifying of human suffering in the name of insecurity represents the last vestige of insanity.

Ewen Cammeron’s project of the 50s, in the name of destroying communists, was deployed against the innocent of South America. Today while the idea of violence is directed towards Al Quieda, the reality is torturous conditions perpetrated upon the likes of Bradley Manning, a U.S. citizen given solitary confinement to break his mind.  That the man who helped trigger the Arab Spring and global questions of injustice is ensnared within Kubark methods is one of the sinister, modern ironies of Cameron’s legacy.  It sits alongside the brutality that swept the world in the 70s; the deranged face of accepted torture today; and an unsettling truth of the practices of a Glaswegian eugenicist.  Cameron’s story raises the question of whether we wish to remember or learn the truth of the thousands who disappear screaming into the night – the pain they suffer and what they fight for – or whether we wish to forget. It is our choice.


All quotes, reports and evidence available via The Shock Doctrine parts I & II, By Naomi Klein.

Image By Paulo Estriga, available here: http://bit.ly/sqC8Yz

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ewen Cameron: Glasgow’s Father of Torture

  1. Pingback: UK Arms Exports: Killing In The Name Of | thoughts from the kelvin

  2. Pingback: UK Arms Exports: Killing In The Name Of | National Collective

  3. Pingback: UK Arms Exports: Killing In The Name Of « Tahir Mohammed

  4. Pingback: UK Arms Exports: Killing In The Name Of ~ Michael Gray « Stop Making Sense

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s