themcglynn.com

08 Jun

America’s Political Paralysis Over Torture

Confronting the CIA’s Mind Maze: America’s Political Paralysis Over Torture

by: Alfred W. McCoy, June 7, 2009

Full Article

If, like me, you’ve been following America’s torture policies not just for the last few years, but for decades, you can’t help but experience that eerie feeling of déjà vu these days. With the departure of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from Washington and the arrival of Barack Obama, it may just be back to the future when it comes to torture policy, a turn away from a dark, do-it-yourself ethos and a return to the outsourcing of torture that went on, with the support of both Democrats and Republicans, in the Cold War years.

Like Chile after the regime of General Augusto Pinochet or the Philippines after the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, Washington after Bush is now trapped in the painful politics of impunity. Unlike anything our allies have experienced, however, for Washington, and so for the rest of us, this may prove a political crisis without end or exit.

Despite dozens of official inquiries in the five years since the Abu Ghraib photos first exposed our abuse of Iraqi detainees, the torture scandal continues to spread like a virus, infecting all who touch it, including now Obama himself. By embracing a specific methodology of torture, covertly developed by the CIA over decades using countless millions of taxpayer dollars and graphically revealed in those Iraqi prison photos, we have condemned ourselves to retreat from whatever promises might be made to end this sort of abuse and are instead already returning to a bipartisan consensus that made torture America’s secret weapon throughout the Cold War.

Despite the 24 version of events, the Bush administration did not simply authorize traditional, bare-knuckle torture. What it did do was develop to new heights the world’s most advanced form of psychological torture, while quickly recognizing the legal dangers in doing so. Even in the desperate days right after 9/11, the White House and Justice Department lawyers who presided over the Bush administration’s new torture program were remarkably punctilious about cloaking their decisions in legalisms designed to preempt laterprosecution…………………..

Physical torture is a relatively straightforward matter of sadism that leaves behind broken bodies, useless information, and clear evidence for prosecution. Psychological torture, on the other hand, is a mind maze that can destroy its victims, even while entrapping its perpetrators in an illusory, almost erotic, sense of empowerment. When applied skillfully, it leaves few scars for investigators who might restrain this seductive impulse. However, despite all the myths of these last years, psychological torture, like its physical counterpart, has proven an ineffective, even counterproductive, method for extracting useful information from prisoners……..

A Secret History of Psychological Torture

The roots of our present paralysis over what to do about detainee abuse lie in the hidden history of the CIA’s program of psychological torture. Early in the Cold War, panicked that the Soviets had somehow cracked the code of human consciousness, the Agency mounted a “Special Interrogation Program” whose working hypothesis was: “Medical science, particularly psychiatry and psychotherapy, has developed various techniques by means of which some external control can be imposed on the mind/or will of an individual, such as drugs, hypnosis, electric shock and neurosurgery.”

All of these methods were tested by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s. None proved successful for breaking potential enemies or obtaining reliable information. Beyond these ultimately unsuccessful methods, however, the Agency also explored a behavioral approach to cracking that “code.” In 1951, in collaboration with British and Canadian defense scientists, the Agency encouraged academic research into “methods concerned in psychological coercion.” Within months, the Agency had defined the aims of its top-secret program, code-named Project Artichoke, as the “development of any method by which we can get information from a person against his will and without his knowledge.”………………………..

During the 1950s, two neurologists at Cornell Medical Center, under CIA contract, found that the most devastating torture technique of the Soviet secret police, the KGB, was simply to force a victim to stand for days while the legs swelled, the skin erupted in suppurating lesions, and hallucinations began – a procedure which we now politely refer to as “stress positions.”

The Agency spent the next 30 years promoting these torture techniques within the U.S. intelligence community and among anti-communist allies. In its clandestine journey across continents and decades, the CIA’s psychological torture paradigm would prove elusive, adaptable, devastatingly destructive, and powerfully seductive. So darkly seductive is torture’s appeal that these seemingly scientific methods, even when intended for a few Soviet spies or al-Qaeda terrorists, soon spread uncontrollably in two directions – toward the torture of the many and into a paroxysm of brutality towards specific individuals. During the Vietnam War, when the CIA applied these techniques in their search for information on top Vietcong cadre, the interrogation effort soon degenerated into the crude physical brutality of the Phoenix Program, producing 46,000 extrajudicial executions and little actionable intelligence.

In 1994, with the Cold War over, Washington ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture, seemingly resolving the tension between its anti-torture principles and its torture practices. Yet when President Clinton sent this Convention to Congress, he included four little-noticed diplomatic “reservations” drafted six years before by the Reagan administration and focused on just one word in those 26 printed pages: “mental.”

These reservations narrowed (just for the United States) the definition of “mental” torture to include just four acts: the infliction of physical pain, the use of drugs, death threats, or threats to harm another. Excluded were methods such as sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain, the very techniques the CIA had propagated for the past 40 years. This definition was reproduced verbatim in Section 2340 of the U.S. Federal Code and later in the War Crimes Act of 1996. Through this legal legerdemain, Washington managed to agree, via the U.N. Convention, to ban physical abuse even while exempting the CIA from the U.N.’s prohibition on psychological torture.

This little noticed exemption was left buried in those documents like a landmine and would detonate with phenomenal force just 10 years later at Abu Ghraib prison.

War on Terror, War of Torture

Right after his public address to a shaken nation on September 11, 2001, President Bush gave his staff secret orders to pursue torture policies, adding emphatically, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” In a dramatic break with past policy, the White House would even allow the CIA to operate its own global network of prisons, as well as charter air fleet to transport seized suspects and “render” them for endless detention in a supranational gulag of secret “black sites” from Thailand to Poland.

The Bush administration also officially allowed the CIA ten “enhanced” interrogation methods designed by agency psychologists, including “waterboarding.” This use of cold water to block breathing triggers the “mammalian diving reflex,” hardwired into every human brain, thus inducing an uncontrollable terror of impending death……………………………………………………………………

For “more physical and psychological stress,” CIA interrogators used coercive measures such as “an insult slap or abdominal slap” and then “walling,” slamming the detainee’s head against a cell wall. If these failed to produce the results sought, interrogators escalated to waterboarding, as was done to Abu Zubaydah “at least 83 times during August 2002” and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad 183 times in March 2003 – so many times, in fact, that the repetitiousness of the act can only be considered convincing testimony to the seductive sadism of CIA-style torture.

In a parallel effort launched by Bush-appointed civilians in the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave General Geoffrey Miller command of the new American military prison at Guantanamo in late 2002 with ample authority to transform it into an ad hoc psychology lab. Behavioral Science Consultation Teams of military psychologists probed detainees for individual phobias like fear of the dark. Interrogators stiffened the psychological assault by exploiting what they saw as Arab cultural sensitivities when it came to sex and dogs. Via a three-phase attack on the senses, on culture, and on the individual psyche, interrogators at Guantanamo perfected the CIA’s psychological paradigm.

After General Miller visited Iraq in September 2003, the U.S. commander there, General Ricardo Sanchez, ordered Guantanamo-style abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. My own review of the 1,600 still-classified photos taken by American guards at Abu Ghraib – which journalists covering this story seem to share like Napster downloads – reveals not random, idiosyncratic acts by “bad apples,” but the repeated, constant use of just three psychological techniques: hooding for sensory deprivation, shackling for self-inflicted pain, and (to exploit Arab cultural sensitivities) both nudity and dogs. It is no accident that Private Lynndie England was famously photographed leading an Iraqi detainee leashed like a dog……………………………

“Behind the Green Door” at the White House

Further up the chain of command, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as she recently told the Senate, “convened a series of meetings of NSC [National Security Council] principals in 2002 and 2003 to discuss various issues relating to detainees.” This group, including Vice President Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and CIA director George Tenet, met dozens of times inside the White House Situation Room.

After watching CIA operatives mime what Rice called “certain physical and psychological interrogation techniques,” these leaders, their imaginations stimulated by graphic visions of human suffering, repeatedly authorized extreme psychological techniques stiffened by hitting, walling, and waterboarding. According to an April 2008 ABC News report, Attorney General Ashcroft once interrupted this collective fantasy by asking aloud, “Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.”

In mid-2004, even after the Abu Ghraib photos were released, these principals met to approve the use of CIA torture techniques on still more detainees. Despite mounting concerns about the damage torture was doing to America’s standing, shared by Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice commanded Agency officials with the cool demeanor of a dominatrix. “This is your baby,” she reportedly said. “Go do it.”………………………..

Just to be safe, when Vice President Cheney presided over the drafting of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, he included clauses, buried in 38 pages of dense print, defining “serious physical pain” as the “significant loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.” This was a striking paraphrase of the outrageous definition of physical torture as pain “equivalent in intensity to … organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” in John Yoo’s infamous August 2002 “torture memo,” already repudiated by the Justice Department.

Above all, the Military Commissions Act protected the CIA’s use of psychological torture by repeating verbatim the exculpatory language found in those Clinton-era, Reagan-created reservations to the U.N. Convention and still embedded in Section 2340 of the Federal code. To make doubly sure, the act also made these definitions retroactive to November 1997, giving CIA interrogators immunity from any misdeeds under the Expanded War Crimes Act of 1997 which punishes serious violations with life imprisonment or death……..

The Price of Impunity

This time around, however, a long-distance torture policy may not provide the same insulation as in the past for Washington. Any retreat into torture by remote-control is, in fact, only likely to produce the next scandal that will do yet more damage to America’s international standing.

Over a 40-year period, Americans have found themselves mired in this same moral quagmire on six separate occasions: following exposés of CIA-sponsored torture in South Vietnam (1970), Brazil (1974), Iran (1978), Honduras (1988), and then throughout Latin America (1997). After each exposé, the public’s shock soon faded, allowing the Agency to resume its dirty work in the shadows.

Unless some formal inquiry is convened to look into a sordid history that reached its depths in the Bush era, and so begins to break this cycle of deceit, exposé, and paralysis followed by more of the same, we’re likely, a few years hence, to find ourselves right back where we are now. We’ll be confronted with the next American torture scandal from some future iconic dungeon, part of a dismal, ever lengthening procession that has led from the tiger cages of South Vietnam through the Shah of Iran’s prison cells in Tehran to Abu Ghraib and the prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

The next time, however, the world will not have forgotten those photos from Abu Ghraib. The next time, the damage to this country will be nothing short of devastating

Share

Comments are closed.

© 2019 themcglynn.com | Entries (RSS) and Comments (RSS)

Global Positioning System Gazettewordpress logo