In the original book and documentary versions of The Men Who Stare At Goats, author and filmmaker Jon Ronson investigates torture claims made by men who had been detained by American security officials in Iraq. After being arrested, they claimed they were pushed into dark storage containers, targeted by bright, flashing lights and loud music.
What would be on the playlist for interrogation and psychological torture by American PsyOps specialists? According to Ronson, songs included Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” Matchbox 20’s album More Than You Think You Are album, and “I Love You,” the theme song from Barney the Purple Dinosaur.
Later, another prisoner held in Guantanamo Bay (UK citizen Jamal Al-Harith) was confronted by angry interrogators who placed a boom box on the floor and played him a CD from an all-girl band doing Fleetwood Mac covers. And also lots of Matchbox 20.
Ronson’s investigation into claims the music and Matchbox 20 in particular were using subliminal messaging was stymied, and he never got to the bottom of what he called “funny torture.” Jamal Al-Harith, for his part, was radicalized a decade after his release from captivity and blew himself up as a suicide bomber for Islamic State in Iraq.
There’s nothing funny about torture, of course. That’s was Ronson’s point. And maybe the CIA is looking to update its sound as well as its look in a stunning rebrand that makes the Central Intelligence Agency look like a German Techno Agency.
The rebrand launched in January as the CIA dressed up their website in the fashion of late Millennials and early Zoomers. Gone are baroque eagles watching over (or just watching) the American public. In their place is heavy typography, pointless geometric patterns and a layout that snaps sharply to the grid. As many pointed out, it looks like a flyer for a German tech house club.
People on twitter made memes about it — more “funny” than “funny torture” this time. But the comparison with Mutek afterparty visuals drew scrutiny away from the CIA’s attempt to rebrand itself as hip, technologically savvy… and diverse. The new site doesn’t just have a new look but a new purpose as a spectacularly deceptive recruitment ad for the agency. As part of the redesign, the site is loaded with “employee photos,” the majority of whom are women and people of color. The same images (the same people, actually) are used as “human branding” for the CIA on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.
The image projected here is not only fake (barely a quarter of the CIA’s workforce are from a minority background), but seems to be deliberately engineered to make the public face of the CIA look more like the people the agency throws into dark shipping containers or locks away in Guantanamo.
And it largely worked: the CIA gained 60,000 new followers on Twitter following the rebrand (this is almost too absurd to talk about, but it’s true) from people who think the whole thing is really funny.
The head of the CIA, Gina Haspel, whose picture is proudly displayed on the vibey, groovy new site, once headed a so-called “CIA black site” torture prison in Thailand. One captive there was brutalized by a technique called “walling” (it is what it sounds like), confinement in a tiny box, depriving him of sleep and clothing and waterboarding him. Ninety two tapes of violent interrogations at the site were destroyed when Haspel was in charge. Which wasn’t funny at all. Just torture.