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Torture: who gives the orders?

About the author
Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue.net, and was editor of openDemocracy from March 2005-July 2007. She is a journalist, broadcaster, writer and commentator.
Among the organisations seeking to prevent torture, working with tortured people, and researching the multiple meanings and effects of torture:

  • the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York
  • the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (MFCVT) in London
  • the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) in Copenhagen
  • When the images from Abu Ghraib first appeared, an Argentinian friend telephoned in distress. For her, those images were a rerun of a national nightmare of the “dirty war” of 1976-83: an experience that she and her compatriots had tried to forget on the premise that it was an aberration, a departure from the norm of civilised behaviour.

    The images from Iraq had ruptured that shield. Torture was not, after all, an aberration.

    The distress of my Argentinian friend was equalled if not exceeded in the Muslim world. There the images punctured any remaining illusions that the occupation of Iraq was a cause that could be defended and, at a stroke, discredited not only the friends of America in the Muslim world but also those more numerous Muslims who stand on their own account for the values of political secularism, the rule of law and democracy.

    That language has been appropriated by the United States and its partners in order - as many in the Muslim world now perceive it - to mask a ruthless pursuit of the right of the US to monopolise the world’s resources. For the Argentinian, it was a reminder of a perception that many would rather forget: that the accommodation of torture, to put it no higher, has followed US security policy for decades.

    In the shadows of history

    The former CIA operative Robert Baer, who joined the CIA in the 1970s, said in a recent interview that when he worked for the agency torture was a sacking offence. He cited the example of two CIA operatives in Guatemala who were dismissed when a Guatemalan colonel they were running was accused of torture.

    Yet in Vietnam, thousands of prisoners had already died in US “tiger cages.” In Iran under the Shah’s regime, the Savak used methods outlined in CIA training manuals. In Latin America in the 1970s and early 1980s torture and disappearance became established practices throughout the continent under military dictatorships that had the support of the United States, whose officers had been trained in the US-run School of the Americas in Panama and whose security policies were coordinated through a network organised and run by US agencies.

    Argentina, Chile, Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay tortured wholesale under successive US administrations without suffering any sanctions from Washington. President Carter (1976-80) tried to take a different course, and was accused of being “soft on communism.” When Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980, a pandemic of torture and extra-judicial murders spread throughout Central America, practiced by military officers who had received US training in “interrogation techniques.” If the methods were not publicly approved, the results were applauded.

    In the Reagan years (1980-88), torture was a central part of a pattern of abuse and illegality that underlay a wider strategic policy. CIA recruited “deniable assets”, many of them Cuban exiles, who could pursue Ronald Reagan’s definition of freedom with fewer constraints than salaried employees. US diplomats who protested were marginalised, US and international law was broken and Congress was deceived.

    When the Iran-Contra scandal erupted in late 1986, a few scapegoats were charged but the high-level politicians escaped unscathed. When the first George Bush (director of the CIA from 1976-77) succeeded Ronald Reagan as US president in 1989, he distributed pardons to those in the outgoing administration who might otherwise suffer judicial inconvenience, including the former president himself.

    After the Clinton interregnum (1992-2000), George W. Bush celebrated his arrival in Washington by welcoming back to power many of the men implicated in the 1980s abuses in Central America. John Negroponte, the US ambassador to Honduras during that period, was implicated both in the activities of the Contras in Nicaragua and with death squads in Honduras. He has now been named as ambassador to Iraq. James Steele, who served in El Salvador in 1985, is now serving as US advisor to the Iraqi security forces. Both men were also implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal.

    The damage done

    If is not yet provable that the use of torture in Iraq is high-level policy, it is demonstrable that the use of torture follows the flag. In Latin America, the cattle-prods were wielded by native labour, but the victims often reported the presence of US personnel.

    One of the best historical analyses of the phenomenon of torture is by scholar of Islam and openDemocracy contributor Malise Ruthven, Torture: the grand conspiracy (1978)

    No administration will acknowledge torture as a policy. But torture thrives when those who make the policy are convinced that they possess a moral superiority that should not be constrained by regulation. Ronald Reagan waged battle with an entity he described as the “evil empire”. Local struggles, civil wars, labour disputes, campaigns for inclusion in a political process - all were defined as part of a global contest between opposing global ideologies: democracy and freedom against totalitarianism. How it played out at the grassroots might not be pretty, but the cause was just.

    The accounts we have of that period are largely from survivors, but there are a few from the perpetrators that give us an insight into how a group of men, bonded together by an ideology that tells them they are engaged in mortal struggle against evil, rapidly descend into a morass that permits any physical and sexual violation. Once the rules are discarded, anyone can become a victim.

    Even before 9/11 the Bush administration demonstrated an unusual contempt for rules and constraints. After 9/11 the disregard became widespread. Within weeks of the attack on the twin towers the use of torture was openly discussed in the establishment press. Conservative voices argued the hypothetical case of the ticking bomb and the terrorist subject. Surely torture, they said, was legitimate to pre-empt an atrocity? Liberal voices like the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz argued that torture was probably inevitable and should therefore be acknowledged and regulated by the courts through a system of licenses to torture.

    In the Senate hearings on 7 May 2004, Donald Rumsfeld described the abuses of Abu Ghraib as “fundamentally un-American”, a claim echoed throughout the administration. This is historically questionable but even if it had been true in the past, there was a policy shift after 9/11 when the CIA general counsel issued a new set of rules governing interrogation. The new rules sanctioned methods that cause “temporary physical or mental pain.” By any definition the door was officially opened to torture.

    With the war on Afghanistan the gloves came off. On 21 November 2001, 8,000 Taliban soldiers and civilians surrendered at Konduz to the warlord (and US ally) General Abdul Rashid Dostum. They were loaded into containers, without food water or enough air to be shipped to Sheberghan prison, 120 kilometres away. Then the containers were machine-gunned. Those who survived were later massacred in the presence of US special forces.

    In the attempt to dismantle al-Qaeda and capture Osama bin Laden, the US set up a network of secret prisons, an international gulag into which prisoners vanish, all rights suspended, all information denied to families, all methods permitted.

    The camp at Guantanamo Bay is the most notorious, a place occupied (in the words of George W. Bush), by the most evil of the evil, but there are many others. Exact numbers worldwide are unknown, in addition to the 700 in Guantanamo itself, there are an estimated 10,000 detainees in Iraq and 1,000 in Afghanistan. Of this host of prisoners, scarcely a handful has ever been charged with any crime, despite the treatment they have received.

    The pattern of abuse is global. The New York Times(12 May 2004) reported that the Afghan Human Rights Commission has noted forty-four complaints of abuse by US personnel against detainees in Afghanistan, at a range of bases from Bagram to Kandahar and Gardez. The methods inflicted include sexual humiliation, beating, sleep deprivation and being repeatedly photographed when naked while in US custody. The abuses have been documented for more than a year, yet the US embassy in Kabul claimed this week that it had been unaware of any complaints.

    Detainees released from Guantanamo have their own harrowing stories of ill- treatment at the hands of US allies in Afghanistan and of US personnel there. Others are farmed out for torture by proxy regimes in Egypt, Uzbekistan, Syria and Jordan. Several of the deaths in custody in Iraq are attributed to individuals among the 20,000 “private contractors” sent there at US taxpayers’ expense, operating in a legal black hole, immune from official reprimand or judicial sanction.

    The pattern is too widespread, the official response to the disclosures too muted to allow for any doubt that the sanction for torture comes from a high level of policy.


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