Sunday, December 11, 2005

The US has used torture for decades. All that's new is the openness about it

By ignoring past abuses, opponents of torture are in danger of
pushing it back into the shadows instead of abolishing it

By Naomi Klein

12/10/05 "The Guardian" -- -- It was the "Mission Accomplished" of
George Bush's second term, and an announcement of that magnitude
called for a suitably dramatic location. But what was the right
backdrop for the infamous "We do not torture" declaration? With
characteristic audacity, the Bush team settled on downtown Panama

It was certainly bold. An hour and a half's drive from where Bush
stood, the US military ran the notorious School of the Americas from
1946 to 1984, a sinister educational institution that, if it had a
motto, might have been "We do torture". It is here in Panama, and
later at the school's new location in Fort Benning, Georgia, where
the roots of the current torture scandals can be found.

According to declassified training manuals, SOA students - military
and police officers from across the hemisphere - were instructed in
many of the same "coercive interrogation" techniques that have since
gone to Guant�namo and Abu Ghraib: early morning capture to maximise
shock, immediate hooding and blindfolding, forced nudity, sensory
deprivation, sensory overload, sleep and food "manipulation",
humiliation, extreme temperatures, isolation, stress positions - and
worse. In 1996 President Clinton's Intelligence Oversight Board
admitted that US-produced training materials condoned "execution of
guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion and false
Some Panama school graduates went on to commit the continent's
greatest war crimes of the past half-century: the murders of
Archbishop Oscar Romero and six Jesuit priests in El Salvador; the
systematic theft of babies from Argentina's "disappeared" prisoners;
the massacre of 900 civilians in El Mozote in El Salvador; and
military coups too numerous to list here.

Yet when covering the Bush announcement, not a single mainstream news
outlet mentioned the location's sordid history. How could they? That
would require something totally absent from the debate: an admission
that the embrace of torture by US officials has been integral to US
foreign policy since the Vietnam war.

It's a history exhaustively documented in an avalanche of books,
declassified documents, CIA training manuals, court records and truth
commissions. In his forthcoming book, A Question of Torture, Alfred
McCoy synthesises this evidence, producing a riveting account of how
monstrous CIA-funded experiments on psychiatric patients and
prisoners in the 1950s turned into a template for what he calls "no-
touch torture", based on sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain.
McCoy traces how these methods were field-tested by CIA agents in
Vietnam as part of the Phoenix programme and then imported to Latin
America and Asia under the guise of police training.

It is not only apologists for torture who ignore this history when
they blame abuses on "a few bad apples". A startling number of
torture's most prominent opponents keep telling us that the idea of
torturing prisoners first occurred to US officials on September 11
2001, at which point the methods used in Guant�namo apparently
emerged, fully formed, from the sadistic recesses of Dick Cheney's
and Donald Rumsfeld's brains. Up until that moment, we are told,
America fought its enemies while keeping its humanity intact.

The principal propagator of this narrative (what Garry Wills
termed "original sinlessness") is Senator John McCain. Writing in
Newsweek on the need to ban torture, McCain says that when he was a
prisoner of war in Hanoi, he held fast to the knowledge "that we were
different from our enemies ... that we, if the roles were reversed,
would not disgrace ourselves by committing or approving such
mistreatment of them". It is a stunning historical distortion. By the
time McCain was taken captive, the CIA had launched the Phoenix
programme and, as McCoy writes, "its agents were operating 40
interrogation centres in South Vietnam that killed more than 20,000
suspects and tortured thousands more."

Does it somehow lessen today's horrors to admit that this is not the
first time the US government has used torture, that it has operated
secret prisons before, that it has actively supported regimes that
tried to erase the left by dropping students out of airplanes? That,
closer to home, photographs of lynchings were traded and sold as
trophies and warnings? Many seem to think so. On November 8,
Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott made the astonishing claim to
the House of Representatives that "America has never had a question
about its moral integrity, until now".

Other cultures deal with a legacy of torture by declaring "Never
again!" Why do so many Americans insist on dealing with the current
torture crisis by crying "Never before"? I suspect it stems from a
sincere desire to convey the seriousness of this administration's
crimes. And its open embrace of torture is indeed unprecedented.

But let's be clear about what is unprecedented: not the torture, but
the openness. Past administrations kept their "black ops" secret; the
crimes were sanctioned but they were committed in the shadows,
officially denied and condemned. The Bush administration has broken
this deal: post-9/11, it demanded the right to torture without shame,
legitimised by new definitions and new laws.

Despite all the talk of outsourced torture, the real innovation has
been in-sourcing, with prisoners being abused by US citizens in US-
run prisons and transported to third countries in US planes. It is
this departure from clandestine etiquette that has so much of the
military and intelligence community up in arms: Bush has robbed
everyone of plausible deniability. This shift is of huge
significance. When torture is covertly practised but officially and
legally repudiated, there is still hope that if atrocities are
exposed, justice could prevail. When torture is pseudo-legal and
those responsible deny that it is torture, what dies is what Hannah
Arendt called "the juridical person in man". Soon victims no longer
bother to search for justice, so sure are they of the futility, and
danger, of that quest. This is a larger mirror of what happens inside
the torture chamber, when prisoners are told they can scream all they
want because no one can hear them and no one is going to save them.

The terrible irony of the anti-historicism of the torture debate is
that in the name of eradicating future abuses, past crimes are being
erased from the record. Since the US has never had truth commissions,
the memory of its complicity in far-away crimes has always been
fragile. Now these memories are fading further, and the disappeared
are disappearing again.

This casual amnesia does a disservice not only to the victims, but
also to the cause of trying to remove torture from the US policy
arsenal once and for all. Already there are signs that the
administration will deal with the uproar by returning to plausible
deniability. The McCain amendment protects every "individual in the
custody or under the physical control of the United States
government"; it says nothing about torture training or buying
information from the exploding industry of for-profit interrogators.

And in Iraq the dirty work is already being handed over to Iraqi
death squads, trained by the US and supervised by commanders like Jim
Steele, who prepared for the job by setting up similar units in El
Salvador. The US role in training and supervising Iraq's interior
ministry was forgotten, moreover, when 173 prisoners were recently
discovered in a ministry dungeon, some tortured so badly that their
skin was falling off. "Look, it's a sovereign country. The Iraqi
government exists," Rumsfeld said. He sounded just like the CIA's
William Colby who, asked in a 1971 Congressional probe about the
thousands killed under Phoenix, a programme he helped launch, replied
that it was now "entirely a South Vietnamese programme".

As McCoy says, "if you don't understand the history and the depths of
the institutional and public complicity, then you can't begin to
undertake meaningful reforms." Lawmakers will respond to pressure by
eliminating one small piece of the torture apparatus: closing a
prison, shutting down a programme, even demanding the resignation of
a really bad apple like Rumsfeld. But he warns, "they will preserve
the prerogative to torture."

A version of this article appears in the Nation

� Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

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