Perfecting Illegality

August 17th, 2012

Published on TomDispatch, by Alfred McCoy, August 14, 2012.

… Some years ago, investigating a military intelligence unit that had routinely subjected Vietnamese to torture, I got in touch with former Staff Sergeant David Carmon.  When Army criminal investigators questioned Carmon in the early 1970s, he admitted using the water rag method on a detainee.  “I held the suspect down, placed a cloth over his face, and then poured water over the cloth, thus forcing water into his mouth,” he said, according to his sworn statement.  

Once-classified military documents show that he also admitted using electrical shock on detainees.  Decades later, he was still unrepentant.  “I am not ashamed of anything I did, and I would most likely conduct myself in the same manner if placed in a Vietnam-type situation again,” he told me.  American torturers of the post-9/11 era are, as best we can tell, generally no less unrepentant.

Until this moment, Americans (other than those who abused her) could have known nothing of Le Thi Xuan’s torture.  Similarly, for decades almost no one knew of the rampant use of torture by Carmon’s unit.  (The wartime investigation of it was buried in military files in the National Archives and forgotten.)  But torture by U.S. military personnel has a long history, going back to the Indian Wars and to the Philippine Insurrection at the turn of the last century, and its use has been no accident.  As TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy makes clear in his latest piece, there’s a secret post-World War II and post-9/11 history of torture that’s been covered up and covered over — a bipartisan effort that extends to the present.  It’s a sordid story that McCoy has been unraveling for years and brings up to date in his new book, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation.  Knowing it can teach us a lot about America’s covert past, its present, and where the country may be headed in the years to come. Nick Turse

Impunity at Home, Rendition Abroad: How Two Administrations and Both Parties Made Illegality the American Way of Life, by Alfred W. McCoy.

After a decade of fiery public debate and bare-knuckle partisan brawling, the United States has stumbled toward an ad hoc bipartisan compromise over the issue of torture that rests on two unsustainable policies: impunity at home and rendition abroad.

President Obama has closed the CIA’s “black sites,” its secret prisons where American agents once dirtied their hands with waterboarding and wall slamming. But via rendition — the sending of terrorist suspects to the prisons of countries that torture — and related policies, his administration has outsourced human rights abuse to Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere.  In this way, he has avoided the political stigma of torture, while tacitly tolerating such abuses and harvesting whatever intelligence can be gained from them.

This “resolution” of the torture issue may meet the needs of this country’s deeply divided politics. It cannot, however, long satisfy an international community determined to prosecute human rights abuses through universal jurisdiction. It also runs the long-term risk of another sordid torture scandal that will further damage U.S. standing with allies worldwide.

Perfecting a New Form of Torture … //

… Impunity in America:

  • Such a normalization of “enhanced interrogation techniques” created public support for an impunity achieved by immunizing all those culpable of crimes of torture. During President Obama’s first two years in office, former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz made dozens of television appearances accusing his administration of weakening America’s security by investigating CIA interrogators who had used such techniques under Bush.
  • Ironically, Obama’s assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 provided an opening for neoconservatives to move the nation toward impunity. Forming an a cappella media chorus, former Bush administration officials appeared on television to claim, without any factual basis, that torture had somehow led the Navy SEALs to Bin Laden. Within weeks, Attorney General Eric Holder announced an end to any investigation of harsh CIA interrogations and to the possibility of bringing any of the CIA torturers to court.  (Consider it striking, then, that the only “torture” case brought to court by the administration involved a former CIA agent, John Kiriakou, who had leaked the names of some torturers.)
  • Starting on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the country took the next step toward full impunity via a radical rewriting of the past. In a memoir published on August 30, 2011, Dick Cheney claimed the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on an al-Qaeda leader named Abu Zubaydah had turned this hardened terrorist into a “fount of information” and saved “thousands of lives.”
  • Just two weeks later, on September 12, 2011, former FBI counterterror agent Ali Soufan released his own memoirs, stating that he was the one who started the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah back in 2002, using empathetic, non-torture techniques that quickly gained “important actionable intelligence” about “the role of KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.”
  • Angered by the FBI’s success, CIA director George Tenet dispatched his own interrogators from Washington led by Dr. James Mitchell, the former SERE psychologist who had developed the agency’s harsh “enhanced techniques.” As the CIA team moved up the “force continuum” from “low-level sleep deprivation” to nudity, noise barrage, and the use of a claustrophobic confinement box, Dr. Mitchell’s harsh methods got “no information.”
  • By contrast, at each step in this escalating abuse, Ali Soufan was brought back for more quiet questioning in Arabic that coaxed out all the valuable intelligence Zubaydah had to offer. The results of this ad hoc scientific test were blindingly clear: FBI empathy was consistently effective, while CIA coercion proved counterproductive.
  • But this fundamental yet fragile truth has been obscured by CIA censorship and neoconservative casuistry. Cheney’s secondhand account completely omitted the FBI presence. Moreover, the CIA demanded 181 pages of excisions from Ali Soufan’s memoirs that reduced his chapters about this interrogation experience to a maze of blackened lines no regular reader can understand.
  • The agency’s attempt to rewrite the past has continued into the present. Just last April, Jose Rodriguez, former chief of CIA Clandestine Services, published his uncensored memoirs under the provocative title Hard Measures: How Aggressive C.I.A. Actions after 9/11 Saved American Lives. In a promotional television interview, he called FBI claims of success with empathetic methods “bullshit.”
  • With the past largely rewritten to assure Americans that the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” had worked, the perpetrators of torture were home free and the process of impunity and immunity established for future use.

Rendition Under Obama: … //

… How to Unclog the System of Justice One Drone at a Time:

  • After a decade of intense public debate over torture, in the last two years the United States has arrived at a questionable default political compromise: impunity at home, rendition abroad.
  • This resolution does not bode well for future U.S. leadership of an international community determined to end the scourge of torture. Italy’s prosecution of two-dozen CIA agents for rendition in 2009, Poland’s recent indictment of its former security chief for facilitating a CIA black site, and Britain’s ongoing criminal investigation of intelligence officials who collaborated with alleged torture at Guantanamo are harbingers of continuing pressures on the U.S. to comply with international standards for human rights.
  • Meanwhile, unchecked by any domestic or international sanction, Washington has slid down torture’s slippery slope to find, just as the French did in Algeria during the 1950s, that at its bottom lies the moral abyss of extrajudicial execution. The systematic French torture of thousands during the Battle of Algiers in 1957 also generated over 3,000 “summary executions” to insure, as one French general put it, that “the machine of justice” not be “clogged with cases.”
  • In an eerie parallel, Washington has reacted to the torture scandals of the Bush era by generally forgoing arrests and opting for no-fuss aerial assassinations. From 2005 to 2012, U.S. drone killings inside Pakistan rose from zero to a total of 2,400 (and still going up) — a figure disturbingly close to those 3,000 French assassinations in Algeria. In addition, it has now been revealed that the president himself regularly orders specific assassinations by drone in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia off a secret “kill list.”  Simultaneously, his administration has taken just one terror suspect into U.S. custody and has not added any new prisoners to Guantanamo, thereby avoiding any more clogging of the machinery of American justice.
  • Absent any searching inquiry or binding reforms, assassination is now the everyday American way of war while extraordinary renditions remain a tool of state.  Make no mistake: some future torture scandal is sure to arise from another iconic dungeon in the dismal, ever-lengthening historical procession leading from the “tiger cages” of South Vietnam to the salt pit in Afghanistan and “The Hole” in Somalia. Next time, the world might not be so forgiving. Next time, with those images from Abu Ghraib prison etched in human memory, the damage to America’s moral authority as world leader could prove even more deep and lasting.

(full long text).

(Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror, which provided documentation for the Oscar-winning documentary feature film Taxi to the Darkside. His recent book, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation, University of Wisconsin, 2012) explores the American experience of torture during the past decade. Copyright 2012 Alfred W. McCoy. – Copyright 2012 Alfred W. McCoy).

Links:

Olympic Realities: Kidnappings, Torture, Cover Up and One Woman’s Lone Battle, on Dissident Voice, by Felicity Arbuthnot, August 13, 2012;

CIA Releases Its Instructions For Breaking a Detainee’s Will, on The Washington Post, by Joby Warrick Finn and Julie Tate, August 26, 2009;

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