[A-List] Naomi Klein: The US has used torture for decades.

James Daly james.irldaly at ntlworld.com
Wed Jan 18 08:14:55 MST 2006

The US has used torture for decades.
Naomi Klein
Saturday December 10 2005

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 City.

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 Guantánamo 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 Guantánamo 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 sav!  e 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 
www.thenation.com <http://www.thenation.com>

Copyright Guardian Newspapers 

More information about the A-List mailing list