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Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, Justice for Torturers?

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

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Just a reminder that you can still get a signed, personalized copy of Rebecca Gordon's powerful new book, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, for a contribution of $100 or more ($125 if you live outside the United States) to this website. Check out our donation page for the details. Tom]

If you happen to be a potential American war criminal, you've had a few banner weeks. On May 9th, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter presented former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger with the Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Award, that institution's "highest honorary award for private citizens." In bestowing it on the 92-year-old who is evidently still consulting for the Pentagon, he offered this praise: "While his contributions are far from complete, we are now beginning to appreciate what his service has provided our country, how it has changed the way we think about strategy, and how he has helped provide greater security for our citizens and people around the world."

Certainly people "around the world" will remember the "greater security" offered by the man who, relaying an order from President Richard Nixon for a "massive" secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, used a line that may almost be the definition of a war crime: "Anything that flies on anything that moves." The result: half a million tons of bombs dropped on that country between 1969 and 1973 and at least 100,000 dead civilians. And that's just to start down the well-cratered road to the millions of dead he undoubtedly has some responsibility for. Public service indeed.

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Meanwhile, speaking of American crimes in the Vietnam era, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, who ran for president of the U.S. and then became the president of the New School in New York City, was just appointed to "lead" Fulbright University Vietnam, the first private American-backed school there. Its opening was announced by President Obama on his recent visit to that country. Only one small problem: we already know of some children who won't be able to apply for admission. I'm thinking of the progeny-who-never-were of the 13 children killed by a team of U.S. SEALs under Kerrey's command and on his orders in South Vietnam in 1969 (along with a pregnant woman, and an elderly couple whose three grandchildren were stabbed to death by the raiders) -- all of whom were reported at the time as dead Vietcong guerillas.

It seems that if you are a distinguished citizen of the most exceptional country on the planet, even war crimes have their rewards. Consider, for instance, the millions of dollars that were paid for memoirs by top Bush administration officials responsible for creating an American offshore torture regime at CIA "black sites" around the world. Must-reads all! With that in mind, turn to TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, author most recently of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, to consider what "justice" for such figures might look like in a different and better world. Tom

Crimes of the War on Terror
Should George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Others Be Jailed?
By Rebecca Gordon

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"The cold was terrible but the screams were worse," Sara Mendez told the BBC. "The screams of those who were being tortured were the first thing you heard and they made you shiver. That's why there was a radio blasting day and night."

In the 1970s, Mendez was a young Uruguayan teacher with leftist leanings. In 1973, when the military seized power in her country (a few months before General Augusto Pinochet's more famous coup in Chile), Mendez fled to Argentina. She lived there in safety until that country suffered its own coup in 1976. That July, a joint Uruguayan-Argentine military commando group kidnapped her in Buenos Aires and deposited her at Automotores Orletti, a former auto repair shop that would become infamous as a torture site and paramilitary command center. There she was indeed tortured, and there, too, her torturers stole her 20-day-old baby, Simón, giving him to a policeman's family to raise.

Mendez was an early victim of Operation Condor, a torture and assassination program focused on the region's leftists that, from 1975 to 1986, would spread terror across Latin America's southern cone. On May 27th, an Argentine court convicted 14 military officers of crimes connected with Operation Condor, issuing prison sentences ranging from 13 to 25 years. Among those sentenced was Reynaldo Bignone, Argentina's last military dictator, now 88. (He held power from 1982 to 1983.)

Those convictions are deeply satisfying to the surviving victims and their families, to the legal teams that worked for more than a decade on the case, and to human rights organizations around the world. And yet, as just as this outcome is, it has left me with questions -- questions about the length of time between crime and conviction, and about what kinds of justice can and cannot be achieved through prosecutions alone.

Operation Condor

Operation Condor was launched by the security forces of five military dictatorships: Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Brazil soon joined, as did Ecuador and Peru eventually. As a Cold War anti-communist collaboration among the police, military, and intelligence services of those eight governments, Condor offered an enticing set of possibilities. The various services could not only cooperate, but pursue their enemies in tandem across national borders. Indeed, its reach stretched as far as Washington, D.C., where in 1976 its operatives assassinated former Chilean ambassador to the U.S. Orlando Letelier and his young assistant, Ronni Moffitt, both of whom then worked at the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank.

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How many people suffered grievously or died due to Operation Condor? A definitive number is by now probably beyond recovery, but records from Chile's secret police suggest that by itself Argentina's "dirty war" -- the name given to the Argentine junta's reign of terror, "disappearances," and torture -- took the lives of 22,000 people between 1975 and 1978. Thousands more are thought to have died before that country's dictatorship ended in 1983. It's generally believed that at least another 3,000 people died under the grimmest of circumstances in Chile, while thousands more were tortured but lived. And although its story is less well known, the similar reign of terror of the Uruguayan dictatorship directly affected the lives of almost every family in the country. As Lawrence Wechsler wrote in a 1989 article in the New Yorker:

"By 1980, one in every fifty Uruguayans had been detained at some point, and detention routinely involved torture; one in every five hundred had received a sentence of six years or longer under conditions of extreme difficulty; and somewhere between three hundred thousand and four hundred thousand Uruguayans went into exile. Comparable percentages for the United States would involve the emigration of thirty million people, the detention of five million, and the extended incarceration of five hundred thousand."

And what was the U.S. role in Operation Condor? Washington did not (for once) plan and organize this transnational program of assassination and torture, but its national security agencies were certainly involved, as declassified Defense Department communications indicate. In his book The Condor Years, Columbia University journalism professor John Dinges reported that the CIA provided training for Chile's secret police, computers for Condor's database, telex machines and encoders for its secret communications, and transmitters for its private, continent-wide radio communications network. Chilean Colonel Manuel Contreras, one of Condor's chief architects (who was then on the CIA payroll), met with CIA Deputy Director Vernon Walters four times. And what did the CIA get in return? Among other things, access to the "results" of interrogation under torture, according to Dinges. "Latin American intelligence services," he added,

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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 (more...)
 

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