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Peter Van Buren: Torture Superpower

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Headlined to H3 12/18/12

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

 

On New Year's Eve 2003, Khaled el-Masri, an unemployed car salesman from Germany on vacation in Macedonia, was removed from a bus and kidnapped by the CIA due to a confusion of names.  His evidently bore some similarity to an al-Qaeda suspect the Agency wanted to get its hands on.  Five months later, after spending time under brutal conditions in an "Afghan" prison called "the Salt Pit" (run by the CIA), he was left at the side of a road in Albania.  In between, his life was a catalogue of horrors, torture, and abuse.

Last week, the European Court of Human Rights finally rendered a judgment in his favor, confirming the accuracy of the story he's told for years about his sufferings, fining the Macedonian government for its role in his case, and concluding for the first time in a court of law that "the CIA's rendition techniques amounted to torture."  El-Masri's attempt to bring a case in the U.S. legal system against "George Tenet, the former director of the C.I.A., three private airline companies, and 20 individuals identified only as John Doe" for his mistreatment was long ago thrown out, thanks to the "state secrets privilege" -- such a trial, so the government claimed, could compromise U.S. national security.  In this way, American courts, including the Supreme Court, typically avoided the subject of Bush administration and CIA torture tactics.

El-Masri was one of more than 9,000 individuals who were then being held in a globe-spanning archipelago of injustice, a series of "black sites" and borrowed prisons (as well as borrowed torturers in many cases).  Some of those prisoners were, like el-Masri, innocent of any crime whatsoever; some like him had been kidnapped by the CIA; most, whether reasonable suspects or not, were charged with nothing.  The crown jewel of this system was, of course, the U.S. prison built in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which the present president promised to close within a year of coming into office and which still couldn't be more open.

If the former Soviet Union had built such an overseas gulag, run on the basis of torture and abuse, or if China did so today, there would be no question what Americans would have called it.  Official Washington, along with its attendant pundits and think tanks, would have made a professional living off denouncing it as typical of what to expect of such oppressive single-party states.  It would have been decried as a horror and a nightmare, an indefensible moral abomination, and a stain on humanity, no matter the information its torturers drew from the prisoners under their control. 

And yet when Washington does it, the heated discussion in this country is largely about just how "effective" torture techniques are in eliciting "useful" information.  Our courts generally avoid the subject and no one has been prosecuted for its horrific acts.  In the meantime, a totally innocent man, whose name sounded like that of a terror suspect, was kidnapped, hooded, shackled, sodomized, flown to a prison in Afghanistan, held without recourse, beaten, tortured, slammed into walls, deprived of sleep, given inadequate food and water, endured total sensory deprivation, and then months later was released in a strange land without a helping hand of any sort.  No one in the U.S. government then or since has felt compelled to offer him an explanation, or recompense for what he went through, or an apology of any sort.  And with the exception of the usual suspects (like the American Civil Liberties Union), Americans seem to feel few regrets of any sort.

This, then, is what the United States became under George W. Bush and remains under Barack Obama -- the sort of country your mother brought you up to avoid.  It's shameful.  Former State Department official and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren, who was hassled by his employer before his retirement for being an honest man and writing a tell-all book about his year on a forward operating base in Iraq, offers a look at just what kind of damage we've done to ourselves in the course of all this. Tom

An All-American Nightmare
Why Zero Dark Thirty Won't Settle the Torture Question or Purge Torture From the American System
By Peter Van Buren

If you look backward you see a nightmare. If you look forward you become the nightmare.

There's one particular nightmare that Americans need to face: in the first decade of the twenty-first century we tortured people as national policy. One day, we're going to have to confront the reality of what that meant, of what effect it had on its victims and on us, too, we who condoned, supported, or at least allowed it to happen, either passively or with guilty (or guiltless) gusto. If not, torture won't go away. It can't be disappeared like the body of a political prisoner, or conveniently deep-sixed simply by wishing it elsewhere or pretending it never happened or closing our bureaucratic eyes. After the fact, torture can only be dealt with by staring directly into the nightmare that changed us -- that, like it or not, helped make us who we now are.

The president, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has made it clear that no further investigations or inquiries will be made into America's decade of torture. His Justice Department failed to prosecute a single torturer or any of those who helped cover up evidence of the torture practices.  But it did deliver a jail sentence to one ex-CIA officer who refused to be trained to torture and was among the first at the CIA to publicly admit that the torture program was real.

At what passes for trials at our prison camp in Guantanamo, Cuba, disclosure of the details of torture is forbidden, effectively preventing anyone from learning anything about what the CIA did with its victims. We are encouraged to do what's best for America and, as Barack Obama put it, "look forward, not backward," with the same zeal as, after 9/11, we were encouraged to save America by going shopping.

Looking into the Eyes of the Tortured

Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. As an act, it is all about pain, but even more about degradation and humiliation. It destroys its victims, but also demeans those who perpetrate it. I know, because in the course of my 24 years as a State Department officer, I spoke with two men who had been tortured, both by allies of the United States and with at least the tacit approval of Washington. While these men were tortured, Americans in a position to know chose to look the other way for reasons of politics. These men were not movie characters, but complex flesh-and-blood human beings. Meet just one of them once and, I assure you, you'll never follow the president's guidance and move forward trying to forget.

The Korean Poet

The first victim was a Korean poet. I was in Korea at the time as a visa officer working for the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. Persons with serious criminal records are normally ineligible to travel to the United States. There is, however, an exception in the law for political crimes. It was initially carved out for Soviet dissidents during the Cold War years. I spoke to the poet as he applied for a visa to determine if his arrest had indeed been "political" and so not a disqualification for his trip to the U.S.

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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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