The United States as Torture Central
[This essay is part of the ZNet Classics series. Three times a week we will re-post an article that we think is of timeless importance. This one was first published June, 2004.]
T he recent release of five British citizens from the Camp X-Ray prison at Guantanamo Bay and their disclosures of serious abuse and torture at the hands of U.S. personnel, raises once again the question of the U.S. position vis-à-vis torture and its role in the global system in which the United States is the dominant power.
I say "again" because the question arose in the 1970s, when Amnesty International’s 1974 Report on Torture pointed out that torture, which had been at a low ebb for centuries, "has suddenly developed a life of its own and become a social cancer." AI located this cancer in the West and most particularly in the Third World client states of the West, given that torture in the Soviet Union had declined following the death of Stalin in 1953. In its 1978 Annual Report, AI noted that some "80 percent" of the "urgent cases" of torture were coming out of the National Security States of Latin America and in The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (South End Press), Noam Chomsky and I showed that 26 of the 35 states that were using torture on an administrative basis in the 1970s were U.S. clients, who had received military aid and police training from this country.
So the United States was truly torture central at that time, not by virtue of its own use of torture, but by its sponsorship of regimes that used it extensively. Add to this the fact that this country is always in the forefront of technological advance in the tools of repression, as well as war, and in those earlier years carried out major operations in the supply of torture technology and training in its use. Electronic methods of torture were used extensively by U.S. and mercenary army forces in Vietnam and, in the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. experts advised client-state torturers from Vietnam to Brazil and Uruguay on the permissible limits of electronic torture to prevent premature death under "interrogation," among other advanced techniques (see A. J. Langguth’s Hidden Terrors for details on the U.S. technological and advisory role in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s; and see Michael Klare and Cynthia Arnson, Supplying Repression , on the character and scope of the weapons of repression supplied to its clients in earlier years).
Torture within U.S. police stations, jails, and prisons was "astonishingly commonplace" in those years, including electroshock treatment, notoriously so in Chicago where internal city investigations documented "more than fifty incidents of torture committed by police officers" (Paige Bierma, "Torture behind bars, right here in the United States of America," the Progressive , July 1994). This was undoubtedly to some degree "blowback" from external operations and training, but both the domestic police and the U.S. police and military advisers helping their counterparts in Uruguay were drawing from a common pool of advancing know-how, technology, and understanding of acceptable and efficient practice.
Relevant to the U.S. role in torture today are two questions: (1) Why did the United States support and underwrite torture in earlier years; (2) how did it get away with doing this in a supposedly free and democratic society in which torture was considered by the public as a barbaric practice identified with totalitarian rule? The answer to the first is simple: the ruling U.S. elite was preoccupied with preventing "radical nationalism" or even social democracy in the Third World, which would serve the poor local majority and interfere with transnational corporate access, privileges, and rights. It therefore gravitated to alliances and joint venture arrangements with local military and comprador elements to fend off those democratic tendencies, frequently by coups that established military and terror regimes.
The extensive training programs at the School of the Americas, and elsewhere, and arms supply were designed to ensure the trainees "understanding of, and orientation toward, U.S. objectives" and to eliminate "the menace of internal Communist, or other anti-U.S. subversion" (NSC, 1954). In other words, they were designed to make the trainees into subversives working in the U.S. interest, and they succeeded, with 18 Latin American governments, 11 under constitutional rule, overthrown by the military in the 1960s alone. These new regimes did well for the Godfather, crushing unions, opening the door to transnational corporate sales and investment, and proving reliable members of any "coalitions of the willing" the Godfather sponsored. Only the majority and the victims of torture suffered.
More interesting is the question of how Washington could get away with large-scale sponsorship of regimes of torture in a supposedly democratic society. The answer here rests on the superb quality and service of the U.S. media as a propaganda system, as well as the ease with which the public is managed by patriotic symbols and the demonization of official targets. If the corporate community and the military and foreign policy establishment support regimes of torture, the corporate media will do the same. First, they will underplay the torture, suppress information on it, and focus their attention and indignation on abuses of enemy states. For example, during that earlier period the press often focused intensively on Cuban abuses, but never Guatemala’s, although Cuba’s human rights record was glowing in comparison with that of Guatemala. The New York Times never once mentioned AI’s incredible report of 1980, "Guatemala: Government by Political Murder," or its volume, "Disappearances: A Workbook," and it never reviewed Penny Lernoux’s great book Cry of the People (among many other similar volumes). No U.S. mass circulation medium ever mentioned the first Latin American Congress of Relatives of the Disappeared held in Costa Rica in January 1981, at which it was estimated that 90,000 had already been "disappeared" right in the U.S. backyard.
The second method of evasion is playing down or altogether ignoring the U.S. role in originating, underwriting, and supporting regimes of terror. The media played dumb, and largely suppressed information tying the coups to U.S. training, encouragement, support, and policy interest. They could easily see and report with indignation that the behavior of the Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe conformed to Soviet interests and reflected Soviet power, but the spread of the National Security State and torture in the U.S. backyard was never admitted to be based on U.S. policy choices, despite the evidence of extensive and purposeful linkages. (Allan Nairn had a series of powerful articles on the close linkages: e.g., "Behind the [El Salvador] Death Squads," the Progressive , May 1984; "The Guatemala Connection," the Progressive , May 1986).
The third and most interesting method of evasion and apologetics was by allowing U.S. officials to define their relation to human rights abuses through statements and actions regretting, opposing, and threatening to penalize state terror in client regimes. After some terrible slaughter of civilians by U.S. clients that could not be entirely ignored, U.S. officials would express dismay and promise improvement by "quiet diplomacy," and the media would swallow this and never ask the obvious questions: Aren’t these killer regimes in place because of U.S. support, so aren’t these murders part of the overall acceptable package and even a major feature of that package, given U.S. police and military aid and training and explicit anti-populist (and anti-democratic) political objectives? Could these official pronouncements of concern be phony and designed to placate public opinion and clear the ground for more state terrorism, following the media’s dropping the subject after a short burst of interest?
The media have also never challenged the regular claims over many decades that the U.S. training of Third World military and police is designed to instill democratic values and alleviate human rights problems, despite massive evidence that the trainees have been taught that unions and dissidents in general are part of a "communist" threat; and in the face of evidence that the trainees have been exceptionally inclined to kill, torture, and overthrow constitutional governments—in Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Indonesia, and elsewhere. This gambit was even used in defense of loans to our ally Saddam Hussein, prior to his 1990 invasion of Kuwait and transformation into "another Hitler," the State Department explained that helping him out would "put us in a better position to deal with Iraq regarding its human rights record."
The Pentagon-CIA Archipelago Today
T he United States is once again supporting regimes of terror in the alleged interest of a "war on terrorism," just as it did in the 1960s and 1970s and again in the Reagan years. If they are "with us," these regimes—from Algeria and Morocco to Pakistan and Uzbekistan to Indonesia and the Philippines—can not only go after dissidents with U.S. protection, but they also will receive U.S. aid in weapons and training. The United States will also send them prisoners in what amounts to a torture farming-out or outsourcing system, now openly referred to as "rendering," allowing some or all of the dirty work in extracting information to be shared with allies. Such renderings have been made, among others, to Yemen, Thailand, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, and even Syria, to which the United States sent the Canadian citizen Maher Arar for "interrogation" in 2002. This system helps institutionalize torture as an acceptable practice.
The United States is also big in the business of supplying instruments of torture and AI, in its report, "The Pain Merchants" (December 2003), notes that U.S. companies are exporting such instruments to 12 countries, which the State Department says engage in the "persistent" application of torture (including a number to whom prisoners are "rendered"). These companies had 2002 sales abroad of $14.7 million of electroshock equipment and $4.4 million of restraints (steel shackles, among other instruments, including 12,000 leg irons sold to Saudi Arabia). This has been part of a broader global expansion of the trade in weapons of torture.
AI also points out that the United States is developing new technologies such as radio-frequency weapons to induce an artificial fever, "stench chemicals," UV lasers, and other devices to deliver electric shocks, and still others. The United States has also pioneered, and been criticized by a UN Committee Against Torture, for the development and use of, electric-shock stun belts and restraint chairs as methods of restraining those in custody. That same UN committee also criticized the excessively harsh regimes imposed in "supermaximum" prisons and the frequent ill-treatment of prisoners by police and prison guards, which "seemed to be based upon discrimination."
An international convention on torture was passed by the UN in 1989 and has been ratified by about 130 states, including the United States. However, a UN plan to enforce that convention by a protocol allowing inspectors to visit prisons, worked on for a decade and passed by the UN Economic and Social Council in July 2002, was strenuously opposed by the United States (Dafna Linzer, "U.S. Loses Torture Treaty Fight," AP Online, July 25, 2002). The Bush administration wants to keep that convention nominal to avoid any threat of publicity to prison abuses. This strong opposition by the leader of the Free World represents both a symbolic and substantive weakening of opposition to torture.
It is also noteworthy that the United States has long accepted Israel’s institutionalized torture of Palestinians and not allowed it to interfere with U.S. financial and diplomatic underwriting of that ally and client state. It goes without saying that the U.S. media have normalized this practice, insofar as they allow its existence to surface at all. When the London Times published its detailed study on "Israel and Torture" in June 1977, both the New York Times and Washington Post refused the opportunity to obtain rights to publish it in this country and the former gave the study strictly back-page coverage, its longer article framed by Israeli denials of the charges (Roy Reed, "Israelis Deny a London Paper’s Charges of Torture," NYT , July 2, 1977).
In another case, in 1993, when Israeli torture of Palestinians was running at 400-500 a month, a rare Times article on the subject mentioned the numbers being tortured quite matter-of-factly, deep into an article that framed the issue around Israeli doubts about the merits of such "interrogation" practices (Joel Greenberg, "Israel Rethinks Interrogation of Arabs," NYT , August 14, 1993). The durable U.S. support of Israeli torture gives any U.S. complaints about terror elsewhere a cynical and hypocritical cast.
What is more, the United States clearly uses torture as a standard instrument of policy in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and almost certainly in Iraq. In Afghanistan, officials admitted that two captives had died while under interrogation, helped along by "blunt instrument" injuries added to others, which might have included sleep deprivation, denial of medication for battle injuries, dousings with cold water or exposure to freezing temperatures, forcing them to stand or kneel for hours on end with hoods on, and subjecting them to loud noises and sudden flashes of light, among other tactics. These were all discussed as "routine" practices in a Human Rights Watch Report, "‘Enduring Freedom’: Abuses by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan" (March 2004), which also claims that U.S. forces arbitrarily detain and regularly mistreat large numbers of civilians.
T he practices described by HRW as employed in Afghanistan were spelled out in detail by the British prisoners recently released from Guantanamo, in the British, but not U.S. media. The constrast between the treatment in the two medias is enlightening. David Rose’s long article in the Observer (London) was based on interviews with the Tipton Three; it was entitled "How we survived jail hell" (March 14, 2004). A long article in London’s the Mirror , based on the testimony of one of the Tipton Three, Jamal al-Harith, also uses the word "hell" in its title (Rosa Prince and Gary Jones, "My Hell in Camp X-Ray"). Both articles give extensive and convincing detail on what Rose calls "the horror of their story," which involves systematically brutal treatment, including a great deal of petty and gratuitous violence while under U.S. control in Afghanistan and then on their flight to Guantanamo and in Guantanamo.
On the flight to Guantanamo, in tight chains, they were not released from the chains for use of the toilet, so "Basically people wet their pants. You were pissing all over your legs." The hand shackles, linked to leg-irons, were so tight, that Shafik Rasul was in "serious pain" and claims to have lost feeling in his hands for the next six months. Asking a guard to relieve the tightness, he was told, "You’ll live." At Guantanamo, there were beatings and isolation for trivial violations of arbitrary rules, endless interrogations under harsh physical conditions, with detainees shackled to the floor, and contemptuous disrespect for prisoner religious beliefs (use of "vice girls" to torment the most religious, shutting off water before prayers so inmates couldn’t wash). They were also put in isolation, in tiny cells with bright lights left on to impede sleeping, the cells freezing at night and very hot during the day.
The Tipton Three were soon accused of terrorist connections by other inmates, who were also under intense interrogation, and the three were eventually told that the U.S. had a video of a 2000 meeting with Bin Laden and Mohammed Atta, which showed three bearded men present that someone alleged to be the Tipton Three. This pushed them into solitary confinement for three months. All denied that they had ever worn beards and claimed that they had jobs at the time that the authorities could check. This proving temporarily unavailing, in due course all three gave up and "confessed." But the British did eventually check and sustained their alibis, which led to relieved conditions and eventually their release to Britain.
The New York Times’ treatment of the Guantanamo victims’ releases was markedly different from that of the London papers and is a throwback to their protective news coverage of U.S.-sponsored torture in the 1960s and 1970s. We may note the following differences and features in the Times ‘ four substantial articles on the releases (Alan Cowell, "Five Britons Released From Guantanamo Arrive Home" (March 10); Patrick Tyler, "Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Charges Beating" (March 12); Amy Waldman et al., "Guantanamo and Jailers: Mixed Review by Detainees" (March 17); Neil Lewis, "U.S. Military Describes Findings at Guantanamo" (March 21):
- Only in Waldman’s article was any Guantanamo prisoner quoted firsthand and she "evenhandedly" quotes prisoners well-treated and happy and, in a few lines, those who offered "decidedly darker views." An attached photo shows four happy Afghans waving goodbye. Nowhere in these articles are words like "horror" or "hell," used by the victims and quoted in the British press, offered, even in quotes by the victims. Although reporter Patrick Tyler was in London, he never interviewed any of the returnees there (or gave no evidence of having done so). The result is that the massive details of systematic brutality and intense suffering that would humanize the victims and connect readers to them is entirely absent.
- The four articles together gave almost twice as much space to official denials of mistreatment in Guantanamo to claims or evidence of abuse. In quoting the U.S. official denials, the Times reporters never cited the numerous instances where officials lied about mistreatment or other matters. They never mentioned Donald Rumsfeld’s statement, cited by David Rose in the Observer , about the early arrivals at Guantanamo, who included the Tipton Three, that they are "the hardest of the hard core." Some space was also given to the possible impact of the disclosures on U.S. and British policy, Patrick Tyler mentioning, "Graphic portrayals of alleged deprivations and abuses at Guantanamo Bay could further inflame antiwar sentiment and complicate Mr. Blair’s relations with the Bush administration…." Tyler and his Times’ associates carefully avoided such "graphic portrayals."
- Times reporters’ skepticism is confined to the "allegations" of the victims. Tyler, commenting on one of the victims claims, that prostitutes had been paraded before the young religious muslims to embarrass and degrade them, says: "He did not explain how he knew that the women were prostitutes." But when Tyler quotes at some length a Pentagon spokesperson on the complete falsity of a victim’s claims and firm U.S. adherence to the Third Geneva Convention, he doesn’t use any words like "alleged" or say that this claim has not been confirmed or that it is inconsistent with the findings of Human Rights Watch that U.S. violations of rules of humane treatment in Afghanistan are systematic.
- David Rose in the Observer (March 14) says that the claims of the Tipton Three "cannot be corroborated," but he quickly goes on to say that these claims "have been related in identical terms by other freed detainees. Last October I spent four days at Guantanamo. Much of what the three men say about the regime and the camp’s physical conditions I either saw or heard from U.S. officials." But the Times reporters fail to do this kind of checking for consistency. Neil Lewis gives the Pentagon view (March 21), with a few reservations, but declares that there is "no way to verify independently the situation as described by American officials" or to confirm victims’ claims. This is not true: with enough victims evidence, and with a careful and critical examination of Guantanamo operations and talks with a variety of U.S. officials and cadres and other relatively independent sources, such as NGO workers and concerned lawyers, a fair approximation to the truth would seem to be quite possible. That is something the New York Times evaded in the National Security State years and continues to do today.
- The Times reporters never mention that the Tipton Three were falsely accused by other prisoners, apparently under the pressure of harsh and incessant interrogations, and that the Three eventually gave up and "confessed," before an MI-5 inquiry in Britain showed them to be innocent.
- The Tipton Three had initially been captured in Afghanistan in 2001 by the Taliban, but they were shortly thereafter swept into custody by the victorious U.S.-backed Northern Alliance. Among the many thousands of prisoners taken, a large number were herded into containers at Sheberghan and shipped by truck to a death destination in the Dasht Leili desert, a great many of them dying enroute. The Tipton Three estimated that only a fraction of the many thousands of prisoners in custody survived horrendous prison conditions, outright slaughter, and the container-herding massacre. Physicians for Human Rights identified dozens of mass graves in Northern Afghanistan in 2001, and, just recently, forensic anthropologist William Haglund reported that he had once again dug up 15 bodies in the area and found that they were young men who had died of suffocation, corroborating the charges of the Tipton Three (David Rose, "U.S. Afghan allies committed massacre," the Observer , March 21, 2004).
- This was apparently a massacre that, at a minimum, rivaled a Western massacre symbol like Srebrenica, not to mention Racak (Jamie Doran estimated some 3,000-5,000 slaughtered by the Northern Alliance; the Tipton Three go much higher). But none of the New York Times articles mentioned the Tipton Three’s experience in Northern Afghanistan and their claims about Northern Alliance brutalities and killings. In 2002, when Jamie Doran had put up a strong documentary on the container massacre, widely viewed in Western Europe, the mainstream media in the United States, including the New York Times , never mentioned it. Racak and Srebrenica got endless attention and great indignation. A comparable or greater massacre, but by a U.S. ally and with U.S. personnel in attendance, stays in the black hole. As with the Times’ treatment of the U.S. torture center in Guantanamo, this is the way a well-oiled propaganda machine works.
Edward S. Herman is an economist, author, and media anlayst.