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Alfred McCoy: Perfecting Illegality

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Headlined to H3 8/14/12

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

Her white hair peeked out from under a brilliant cerulean blue headscarf. Her lips and teeth were stained red from chewing areca nut and betel leaf, a mild stimulant favored by older Vietnamese women.  She was missing her right eye.  She also appeared to be in danger of floating away had a stiff breeze swept along the roadside where we were talking.  Le Thi Xuan couldn't have weighed more than 90 pounds.

But this 77-year-old whose height topped out at four-feet-and-change was a survivor.  That now-empty eye-socket took an elbow from an American Marine back in the 1960s.  That same day she survived a grenade attack that killed one of her sons and gravely wounded another.

Le Thi Xuan also survived torture.  When questioned about the guerrilla fighters that the Americans called "Viet Cong," she told me, "I did not reveal anything, so they kept on beating me.  Once they tired of that, they used electricity to torture me."

Le Thi Xuan's ordeal was no anomaly.  Electrical torture by Americans and their South Vietnamese allies was a commonplace of the Vietnam War.  The prime method involved the use of hand-cranked field telephones to produce electricity and two wires that were generally affixed to sensitive areas of the anatomy: ears, fingers, nipples, genitals.  The use of "water torture" or the "water rag" technique -- what we now know as waterboarding -- was also widespread.

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

The modern American urge to use torture did not, of course, begin on September 12, 2001.  It has roots that reach back to the beginning of the Cold War and a human rights policy riven with contradictions. Publicly, Washington opposed torture and led the world in drafting the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the Geneva Conventions in 1949. Simultaneously and secretly, however, the Central Intelligence Agency began developing ingenious new torture techniques in contravention of these same international conventions.

From 1950 to 1962, the CIA led a secret research effort to crack the code of human consciousness, a veritable Manhattan project of the mind with two findings foundational to a new form of psychological torture. In the early 1950s, while collaborating with the CIA, famed Canadian psychologist Dr. Donald Hebb discovered that, using goggles, gloves, and earmuffs, he could induce a state akin to psychosis among student volunteers by depriving them of sensory stimulation. Simultaneously, two eminent physicians at Cornell University Medical Center, also working with the Agency, found that the most devastating torture technique used by the KGB, the Soviet secret police, involved simply forcing victims to stand for days at a time, while legs swelled painfully and hallucinations began.

In 1963, after a decade of mind-control research, the CIA codified these findings in a succinct, secret instructional handbook, the KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual. It became the basis for a new method of psychological torture disseminated worldwide and within the U.S. intelligence community. Avoiding direct involvement in torture, the CIA instead trained allied agencies to do its dirty work in prisons throughout the Third World, like South Vietnam's notorious "tiger cages."

The Korean War added a defensive dimension to this mind-control research. After harsh North Korean psychological torture forced American POWs to accuse their own country of war crimes, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered that any serviceman subject to capture be given resistance training, which the Air Force soon dubbed with the acronym SERE (for survival, evasion, resistance, escape).

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 
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