A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror

9780805080414_custom-f738395eec5b7662a84419a1012990e3e9b54ce5-s800-c15Since the highly publicized release of the US Senate Torture Report reactions have ranged from outrage, to shameless apologetics, to cold indifference. The New York Times, in an unusual display of adversarial journalism, decried the revelations as “a portrait of depravity that is hard to comprehend and even harder to stomach,” while the Washington Post declared “Torture is wrong, whether or not it has ever ‘worked.’” Both of these responses, while properly critical of state criminality, offer only a partial picture of the culture of power responsible for the atrocities detailed in the report. In order to grasp fully how the CIA constructed this global torture regime it’s necessary to explore the history of US policy, specifically when it comes to the treatment of “enemy” populations. Alfred McCoy’s A Question of Torture is essential reading in tracing this history, beginning with CIA experimentation with Soviet-inspired methods of “mind control” and culminating with the sensory deprivation, stress positions, and “rectal rehydration” (anal rape) of today’s agency. Contrary to myths that the barbaric actions of the CIA represented an assault on “American values”, McCoy demonstrates how torture has long been a key instrument of US policy throughout the Cold War period and in its aftermath. During the Vietnam War the US military enforced a national torture program drawing its tactics from a document called the Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation handbook. Contained in this handbook were instructions for the implementation of “a revolutionary two-phase form of torture that relied on sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain for an effect that, for the first time in the two millennia of this cruel science, was more psychological than physical.” Alongside this embrace of psychological torture was the Phoenix Program, a highly complex assassination program that led to the deaths of 40,994 Vietcong guerillas (Saigon government figures).

Shortly after the inception of these policies, they were replicated in Latin America, first in US-backed South American dictatorships (Brazil for example) and, eventually, in Central American terror states like Honduras. This continuity between US policy in Vietnam and policy in Central America during the 1980s could be perceived most clearly in the Human Resources Manual that the Honduran state drew from in their torture of “communist” subversives. Among the methods relied upon in this manual were sensory deprivation, with an emphasis on forms of solitary confinement, and manipulation of the environment. In one particularly gruesome instance of this paradigm in action, the Caballero unit, named after Honduran Sergeant Florencio Caballero, brutally tortured a “young Marxist” named Ines Murillo. While in Honduran custody Murillo was “stripped naked and subjected to electrical shocks for thirty five days.” Afterwards, she was “moved to a second, secret prison near Tegucigalpa where her questioners … ‘gave her raw dead birds and rats for dinner, threw freezing water on her naked body every half hour for extended periods, and made her stand for hours without sleep and without being allowed to urinate.”

Overshadowing all of these crimes, from those in Indochina to those in Central America, was a culture of impunity that shielded all responsible from even the slightest forms of legal accountability. In this respect, America followed the same path of its imperial predecessors in France and Britain. When colonial France was found to have committed heinous crimes against the Algerian resistance, crimes which included, among other things, the waterboarding of Algerians, a government organized inquiry (the Wuillaume Report) exonerated all high-ranking officials on the flimsy argument that the torture methods employed were “more psychological than physical and therefore [did] not constitute excessive cruelty.” Similarly, when it was exposed that British forces were engaged in torture in Northern Ireland—“five techniques” consisting of wall standing, sleep deprivation, starvation, subjection to noise, and hooding—a government-led investigation (The Compton Report) absolved the perpetrators arguing that the crimes were “necessary against terrorists because ‘information must be sought while it is still fresh … and thereby save members of the security forces and of the civil population.’”

It therefore should come as no surprise to any student of history that President Obama honored this disgraceful tradition when he responded to the Senate exposures of CIA torture by urging that we not “refight old arguments” by going after the culprits (a reasonable position if we internalize the worldview of a state terrorist). Aside from conforming to a societal pattern of callousness and disregard for human life, what MIT international relations scholar John Tirman calls “collective autism”, Obama’s statement evinces a deep-seated ignorance as it relates to the long-term psychological effects of torture. In historical terms, the psychological damage that can be inflicted on a human being via torture is well documented. In 1972 a selection of Danish medical professionals examined “Greek and Chilean refugees for ‘forensic medical evidence of the after-effects of torture,” and concluded “of the 200 victims examined … nearly 70 percent still had ‘mental symptoms at the time of examination.'” Symptoms included “nightmares, depression, panic attacks, and low energy”.

Contemporary cases of torture demonstrate a similar trend. The brutalization of Canadian national Maher Arar is a textbook example. In what’s euphemistically called “extraordinary rendition” Arar was kidnapped by US agents at JFK Airport in New York, “loaded onto a CIA-chartered Gulfstream III jet”, and transferred to a Syrian prison “where he remained for a year being beaten and whipped so savagely that he confessed to anything his tormentors suggested.” Two years after his release Arar reported that he “still [had] nightmares about being in Syria, being beaten, [and] being in jail.” Post-traumatic stress of this kind is a common experience for torture victims who are unable to casually dismiss these crimes against humanity as an “old argument.” For torture victims the “argument” is never truly “old.” It’s perpetually present.

Examining the enormous scope and level of coordination behind the Bush administration’s torture program it’s glaringly obvious that anything less than a criminal prosecution of top administration officials (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice), apologists in the legal profession (John Yoo, Bybee, Alberto Gonzalez), and high-ranking military figures (General Sanchez) will ensure that worse atrocities will be committed in the future. Achieving this will require an honest look at not only the criminality embedded in institutions of power but an equally honest look at the social norms and mores that enabled the US public to silently acquiesce to these monumental crimes. In the words of a recent Washington Post article, “A majority of Americans think that the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, even as about half of the public says the treatment amounted to torture …” Disengaging from this culture of indifference is a necessary prerequisite to overcoming this tradition of state sponsored terror. Only then can the American public help provide the psychological and moral closure, and significantly, legal justice, that the victims of these savage acts rightfully deserve.







The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars

The Deaths of OthersOne of the primary methods powerful states use to legitimize the resort to violence is the construction of elaborate myths about the ruthlessness and moral inferiority of their victims. Examples of this are plentiful from Thomas Jefferson’s demonization of North America’s indigenous population as “merciless Indian savages” to President Obama’s policy of declaring “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” Imperial violence, rationalized by a culture of dehumanization, has long been a central component of American history which assumes varying forms depending on the official enemy. The latest iteration of this historical norm can be observed in President Obama’s drone war, a campaign of international terrorism that has claimed the lives of thousands of people in Pakistan. In his latest State of the Union Address the President vowed to impose “prudent limits” on the drone program. Nothing was said about the numerous reports of civilian casualties, most notably a drone strike that murdered 12 people at a wedding party in Yemen. A recent article from The Intercept refers to a Human Rights Watch report which “describes conflicting accounts of the December 12 attack, but nevertheless concludes that some, if not all, of the victims may have been civilians.” For those who wish to understand the toxic ideology that underlies the President’s chilling silence when it comes to addressing the fate of those victimized by US terror John Tirman’s The Death of Others is an indispensable source. Reviewing the “collective autism” of the American public in responding to the suffering of civilians on the other side of US bombs, Tirman illustrates how warped perceptions of “the other” coupled with an unusual capacity for denial has contributed to a society permeated with “vast carelessness” and puzzling “coldness.” Tirman begins his analysis of the historical roots of this “societal indifference” in what he calls the “frontier myth”, a Puritan ideology which he describes as “the über-narrative that encompassed values often linked to Americans–individualism and self-reliance, producing goods from the wilderness, and other ‘democratic’ values, as well as other ideological bents like Social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny.”

President Andrew Jackson was one of the more enthusiastic proponents of this imperial ideology and demonstrated his loyalty to “‘democratic’ values” by ethnically cleansing the southeastern regions of North America through the Indian Removal Act. In his message to the US Congress President Jackson stated his objective to “[open] the whole territory between Tennessee on the north and Louisiana on the south to the settlement of whites”, a move that would “incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier.” In regard to the fate of the indigenous population Jackson made his genocidal aims more explicit, asking the assembled lawmakers “what good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns and prosperous farms … and filled with the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?” Contemporary analogues to Jackson’s “civilizing mission” are not hard to find in the current public relations project surrounding the benefits of “modernization” which roughly translates into the subordination of the global commons, and by association those who depend on it, to the most predatory forms of state-corporate power.

Recent example of the “vast indifference” within the American intellectual class.

Tirman extends his analysis of this founding myth to more recent conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The civilian massacres of No Gun Ri in Korea (in 1950 the US military killed approximately 400 Korean civilians in the course of 3 days), My Lai in Vietnam and Haditha in Iraq are given particular focus in the text as instructive samples of how Americans ignore the suffering of their victims. This “architecture of indifference” is attributed to three phenomena: the frontier myth, “racism or ethnocentrism”, and Just World Theory. That the widespread acceptance, and sometimes embrace, of cruelty towards foreign populations can be attributed to racism is not a particularly new idea yet Tirman supports this point of view with statistical data. Citing a study carried out by two psychologists examining American “attitudes toward the fate of Iraqis and Afghans compared with Americans during the wars of the last decade”, Tirman notes that “racial difference influences–intensifies–victim derogation and avoidance.” The practice of “victim derogation” (blaming the victim for their own suffering) took on particularly gruesome forms in America’s “twenty years’ war” against Iraq. Under the presidential administrations of George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton and Bush Jr. Iraq sustained a level of death and suffering that should outrage all except the most committed of sadists. Apart from causing the slow deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children, the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the US-imposed sanctions regime were made worse by a criminal bombing campaign, carried out with the stated intent to “accelerate the effects of the sanctions.”

Bombing targets included dams, oil facilities, shipyards and even water treatment facilities. In the middle of this terrorist assault a cable from the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that “incidences of disease, including possible epidemics, will become probable,” and “the entire Iraqi water treatment system will not collapse precipitously, but its capabilities will decline steadily.” During the First Gulf War American journalist Barton Gellman cited a senior Air Force officer justifying Iraqi civilian deaths under the pretext that “‘the definition of innocents gets to be a little unclear,'” because many Iraqis supported the invasion of Kuwait and “‘ultimately the [Iraqi] people have some control over what goes on in their country.'” Putting aside the fact that the laws of war explicitly outlaws attacks on innocent civilians, the Air Force officer’s rationale for bombing civilians is worth further examination. If it was legitimate for this American Air Force officer to murder Iraqi civilians because they had “some control over what goes on in their country,” what can be said about widespread support for countless wars of aggression in America, a country where people not only have “some control over what goes on in their country” but, theoretically, have the most control over policy decisions as citizens of “the land of the free”, the world’s greatest “democracy”? It doesn’t require much thought to predict what would happen if an Afghan soldier justified the murder of a US civilians on similar grounds citing the fact that the invasion of Afghanistan was supported by large majorities of the US public.

Maybe the most penetrating commentary of this book appears in Tirman’s investigation of the psychological underpinnings of this dangerous worldview. Insight in this domain can be gained through an examination of American intellectual culture, journalism and popular forms of entertainment. Central to the psychological response to civilian suffering is a habit of “containing, dispersing, and abstracting culpability, all the while displacing victims.” Ideological subservience of this kind led to the silencing of Vietnamese victims after the My Lai massacre and Iraqi victims under US occupation. When Wikileaks founder Julian Assange appeared on The Colbert Report in 2010 comedian Stephen Colbert criticized Assange as someone out to make a profit off of images of death and various forms of “manipulation.” Colbert also attempted to minimize the significance of the Collateral Murder video on the grounds that it was not “objective” and its title represented an “editorial” (not an accurate description of what occurred on the video i.e. murder). No comment was made on the condition of the children who survived the savage attack or if criminal charges should be brought against the perpetrators (Colbert called the attack “regrettable”). Colbert also asked Assange if he notified the Apache helicopter pilots (the criminals!) before publishing the video. When Assange said they did not need “harm minimization” Colbert, in a textbook example of “displacing victims”, asked “who needed it.” Assange replied “the families of those on the ground” and the “children in the [attacked] van.”  This interview represented what Tirman called “the third stage” of “public reaction to civilian casualties” namely “a more aggressive public stance of questioning the motives of journalists or others who revealed the incident, a tactic readily joined by the war’s supporters, rendering justice (as with My Lai, among others) haphazard or vitiated.”

Tirman concludes his study with an analysis of Just World Theory, a psychological phenomenon of “denial” and “withdrawal”  demonstrating that “[Americans] simply do not want to witness suffering and therefore naturally seek to avoid it,” particularly when the suffering can be traced back to the United States. In all, Tirman describes this socially sanctioned practice of eye-aversion as an example of the American public’s “psychological distancing from the horror of innocent victimization.” Psychological distancing of this kind is only more likely with the advent of remote control warfare where victims are seen as little more than “bugsplats” on a video monitor. It is therefore incumbent that this grotesque culture of state-directed mass killing be challenged as aggressively as possible. Fortunately, we have an example of this in the recent sentencing of 12 of the Hancock 17, a group of anti-drone resisters arrested for staging a protest outside  Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, New York. Town of Dewitt Court Judge David Gideon “gave the defendants the maximum sentence – 15 days in jail (starting immediately) and a $250 fine with a $125 court surcharge.” Among the impassioned closing statements at this shamefully under-reported trial was that of Elliot Adams who stated the following: ” When people talk about Nazi Germany they often talk about the so called ‘Good German’, a name used for those people who could not see the holocaust even as it happened before their eyes, who stood quietly by as their government shifted from a democratic government to a dictatorship, from a progressive liberal country to a demonic empire. One day people may talk about the ‘Good Americans’ who stood by when the balance of power remained broken and found various excuses for not using the portion of power they had to fix it.” In this respect, reading Tirman’s work is much more than an academic inquiry.  Current events make this type of education a moral imperative.



After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina & the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology

right pictureOfficial doctrine in imperial society requires that the crimes of enemy states be circulated as widely as possible irrespective of fact or the historical record. Deviation from this code of conduct invariably elicits a barrage of insults and verbal abuse. Passionate condemnations of dissidents are meant to illustrate the deep humanitarian sensibilities of the intellectual class, moved to speak out against those not sufficiently outraged over the crimes of others, real or perceived. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s After the Cataclysm deconstructs this deeply rooted tradition of imperial society and, in the process, exposes the fabrications, omissions, and flagrant lies of a well-oiled propaganda industry. Reviewing both the scholarly and journalistic record on post-war Indochina, Herman and Chomsky reveal a persistent tendency in the US to obscure (if not ignore entirely) the decisive American role in the brutal destruction of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Rather than reflect seriously on the odious history of US savagery in Indochina, media accounts regularly portrayed the humanitarian consequences of the imperial assault as a quintessential expression of the evils of “communism.” Meanwhile, the US record of chemical warfare, indiscriminate murder of civilians and diplomatic sabotage remained safely concealed from public scrutiny. It was probably for this reason that President Jimmy Carter, a Nobel Laureate who used human rights rhetoric as a basis for his presidency, was able to evade US responsibility for the massive suffering in Vietnam by claiming “the destruction was mutual.” The US destroyed South Vietnam under the pretext that they were defending its inhabitants from northern “aggression.” This bombing occurred despite the fact that  “about half of the population of the South supported the [National Liberation Front]” (official US government estimate).

One of the more transparently criminal operations in the US attack on the NLF was the Phoenix program. Former intelligence officer K. Barton Osborne described the program in an official testimony as “a sterile depersonalized murder program,” with “no cross-check”, “no investigation”, and “no second options.” Interestingly, President Obama’s drone assassination program mirrors the Phoenix program in many ways, excepting the fact that it’s more “sterile” and “depersonalized” than its predecessor. In addition to the material and human damage the US attack on Vietnam caused, it also destroyed the Vietnamese economy. In an attack on Vietnam’s agrarian-based economy, the US bombing devastated the countryside creating a mass population of internally displaced refugees. US bombing campaigns against the montagnard population was particularly brutal driving hundreds of thousands of people off their land (conservative estimates say a minimum of 125,000 people were forcibly expelled from their territory.) All of this information went completely ignored in the elite media and when alluded to was attributed to the so-called “logic” of “communism.”

Equal attention is given to the US aggression in Laos. CIA subversion was vital in undermining any possibility of democratic governance in Laos. This subversion included an attempt to manipulate Laotian elections in 1958 and ,after failing in this effort, backing “a Thai based military attack against the [Pathet Lao] government …”, a government “recognized by the United States.” Hostilities of this kind were submerged beneath orientalist rhetoric about “lovely little Laos” and its “gentle folk” victimized by North Vietnamese communists. Laotian Vice Foreign Minister Khamphay Boupha informed an American representative in Laos that “the US has dropped 3 million tons of bombs–one ton per head,” and “forced 700,000 peasants to abandon their fields.” Much like the US attack on Vietnam the US bombing of Laos also inflicted severe economic costs on the Laotian people. A harsh drought and a US-backed Thai blockade aggravated the economic crisis in the form of food shortages and an “exodus of skilled technicians.” Filtered through the propaganda industry the plight of Laos was described as follows: “Little Laos is in fact tragically caught between the anvil and the hammer: a pawn of the Vietnamese as the front line of defense against Thailand and a client of the Soviet Union in its big power competition with China.”

Excluded from this picture entirely was the United States which at the time was “[refusing] to send any of its rice surplus to Laos (the world’s largest) , despite impending starvation.” The reason for not interfering to stop this US instigated plague of mass starvation was that such an act would “appear to be pro-communist” (official excuse of the White House). In 1975 the US “cut off its malaria prevention program.” Statements from foreign doctors described this decision as responsible for “killing adults and children indiscriminately, infecting pregnant women, and weakening many people so that they cannot work.” Unexploded ordinance is the lasting legacy of the US attack on Laos. During the war thousands were killed by these “golf-ball sized bombs containing explosives and steel bits released from a large canister.” Today this “war debris” continues to maim and murder the people of Laos.

Perhaps the most consequential section of Chomsky and Herman’s study, in terms of the discussion it generated and the insight it provides in regard to imperial ideology, is that on the US media’s role in distorting the post-war situation in Cambodia. Fake photographs, misquotations, and unverifiable allegations characterized this campaign of misinformation. Special attention is devoted to the media response to Francois Ponchaud’s book Cambodia: Year Zero. Among the assertions made in Ponchaud’s book that escaped critical examination was his claim that the killings in Cambodia were centrally organized and directed by the Khmer government. This unverified assertion conflicted with other credible reports that attributed the massacres to peasants, independent of government control, seeking vengeance for the utterly devastating effects of the US bombings of the Cambodian people. Though glossed over or ignored in media treatment of post-war Indochina, the US military destroyed Cambodia in 1973. Cambodia scholar Laura Summers reported that US B-52s “pounded Cambodia for 160 consecutive days, dropping more than 240,000 short ton bombs on rice fields, water buffalo [and] villages …” This tonnage represented “50 percent more than the conventional explosives dropped on Japan during World War II.” In a sharp departure from conventional narratives about post-war Cambodia Summers concluded that the Khmer revolution was “the expression of deep cultural and social malaise unleashed by a sudden and violent foreign assault on the nation’s social structure.”

One striking feature about the US attack on Cambodia and the media response is how closely it resembles the current discussion surrounding the drone bombings in northern Pakistan. In the case of Cambodia the bombings were conducted under the pretext that they were harboring “Viet Cong guerrillas” from Vietnam. Similarly, Pakistani villages are regularly bombed under the pretext that “terrorists” are hiding in the tribal areas. In both cases, the mass murder of civilians is ignored along with elementary principles of international law. In March of 1969, the year the US officially initiated its air war against Cambodia, the Cambodian government protested the killing of “peaceful Cambodian farmers,” adding that “these criminal acts must immediately and definitively stop …” Cambodian leader Prince Sihanouk organized a press conference shortly thereafter on March 28th. At this press conference he made it known that “unarmed and innocent people have been the victims of US bombs,” and in “the latest bombing, the victims … were Khmer peasants, women and children in particular.” In accord with the requirements of the “free press” these protests went unreported. In fact, the US circulated false reports claiming the Cambodian government welcomed the attack.

More than any other book, this text is often cited by propagandists as proof of Chomsky’s “support” for the Khmer Rouge. A simple reading of this book reveals this accusation to be a bad joke at best and at worst a slanderous lie. The purpose of the Cambodia section, and the book as a whole, is stated repeatedly and unambiguously; namely, to illustrate how “available facts were selected, modified, or sometimes invented to create a certain image offered to the general population”, that “the performance of the Free Press in helping to reconstruct a badly mauled imperial ideology has been eminently satisfactory,” and “the only casualties have been truth, decency and the prospects for a more humane world.” In short, the core objective of this text was to demonstrate the capacity for servility within the American intellectual classes, their ability to parrot information without the slightest regard for historical context or documentary evidence. This capacity for servility is regularly renewed in the aftermath of  US imperial projects, the latest being the rape of Fallujah, which is now described as the US military’s effort to “pacify” a violent Iraqi insurgency. Chomsky and Herman’s careful study is, in this respect, an enduring moral refutation of faith-based journalists, scholars and the horrendous crimes of state in which they play a decisive ideological role.


The Washington Connection & Third World Fascism by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman