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Torture: An American Institution

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A casual glance at the news these days might give one the impression that the Bush Administration invented torture last month. However, in the corporate media equivalent of a scoop, the Washington Post "broke" the story of U.S. torture of Arab and Afghan "detainees" nearly four years ago.

A December 26, 2002 article, perfectly timed to get lost in the holiday shuffle, began like a bad spy novel: "Deep inside the forbidden zone at the U.S.-occupied Bagram air base in Afghanistan, around the corner from the detention center and beyond the segregated clandestine military units, sits a cluster of metal shipping containers protected by a triple layer of concertina wire. The containers hold the most valuable prizes in the war on terrorism-captured al Qaeda operatives and Taliban commanders."

The Post reported that those refusing to cooperate are "sometimes kept standing or kneeling for hours, in black hoods or spray-painted goggles" or "held in awkward, painful positions and deprived of sleep with a 24-hour bombardment of lights" (euphemistically termed "stress and duress" techniques). And these are the lucky ones.

Other detainees (POW status conveniently denied) are handed over to "allies of dubious human rights reputation, in which the traditional lines between right and wrong, legal and inhumane, are evolving and blurred," according to the Post, quoting an unnamed official source as explaining: "We don't kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them." Former CIA inspector general Fred Hitz claimed the Agency doesn't "do torture" but if a country offers information gleaned from interrogations, "we can use the fruits of it."

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This approach, called "operational flexibility," was allegedly something new. At a Sept. 26, 2002 joint hearing of the House and Senate intelligence committees, Cofer Black, then head of the CIA Counterterrorist Center declared: "After 9/11 the gloves come off."

This was certainly news to the rest of the world where U.S.-sponsored torture is hardly a revelation.

There are many examples of direct U.S. torture, i.e. a 1975 Senate investigating committee exposed US methods of interrogating pairs of Vietcong prisoners. In one case, when the first prisoner refused to speak, he was thrown from an airplane at 3000 feet. The second prisoner answered all questions but was thrown from the plane anyway. Other techniques involved cutting off fingers, fingernails, ears, or sexual organs of one prisoner while the other looked on.

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However, thanks to CIA and U.S. training, the true American torture legacy lies in the bloody fingerprints found across the globe. Consider SAVAK, Iran's notorious Shah-era secret police created jointly by the CIA and Israel. Amnesty International deemed SAVAK's history of torture as "beyond belief."

In 1960s Greece, under the rule of paid CIA operative George Papadopoulos, U.S.-equipped police used methods like shoving "a filthy rag, often soaked in urine, and sometimes excrement" down the throat of suspected communists.

During the CIA's holy war against the USSR in Afghanistan, the U.S.-trained and funded Moujahedeen drugged captured Soviet soldiers and kept them in cages. A reporter from the Far Eastern Economic Review told of Soviet soldiers killed, skinned, and hung in a butcher's shop. "One captive," he reported, "found himself the center of attraction in a game of buzkashi," an Afghan form of polo using a headless goat as the ball. In this case, the Soviet captive was used, alive. "He was literally torn to pieces," said the reporter.

Ronald Reagan called the Nicaraguan contras "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers." This noble group of "freedom fighters" regularly attacked civilians, cutting off women's breasts and men's testicles, gouging out eyes, beheading infants, using children for target practice, and slitting throats and pulling the victim's tongue out through the slit. One 14-year-old girl was gang-raped and decapitated. Her head was placed on a stake as a warning to government supporters in her village. The chairman of Americas Watch and Helsinki Watch concluded, "the U.S. cannot avoid responsibility for these atrocities."

Elsewhere in Latin America, Dan Mitrione, head of Orwellian-named U.S. Office of Public Safety trained the Brazilian police force in the 1960s. One of the techniques Mitrione taught involved placing the end of a reed in the anus of a naked man hanging suspended. The other end of the reed is soaked in oil and lit. In Uruguay, Mitrione was called in to help deal with the Tupamaros, a group William Blum calls "perhaps the cleverest, most resourceful, and most sophisticated urban guerillas the world has even seen." Under the guidance of Mitrione, the Uruguayan Senate found that torture had become a "normal, frequent, and habitual occurrence." Techniques included electric shocks to the genitals, electric needles under the fingernails, and use of "a wire so thin that it could be fitted into the mouth between the teeth and by pressing against the gum increase the electrical charge."

Such tactics were honed in Mitrione's own soundproof basement room. Blum writes of Mitrione's use of four street beggars to demonstrate the effects of different voltages on different parts of the body. All four men died.

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Mitrione was eventually kidnapped and killed by the Tupamaros. At his funeral, White House spokesman Ron Ziegler stated: "Mr. Mitrione's devoted service to the cause of peaceful in an orderly world will remain as an example for free men everywhere." (Imagine if he was allowed to "take the gloves off.")

As one official who has supervised the recent capture and transfer of accused terrorists explained: "If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job."

Mickey Z. can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.

 

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