Friday, January 07, 2011

Alexander Cockburn on the Normalization of Torture in the U.S.

Just over the edge of 2011, torture is now solidly installed in America's repressive arsenal. Not in the shadows where it used to lurk, but up front and central, vigorously applauded by prominent politicians. Coercion and humiliation seep through the culture, to the extent that before Christmas American travelers began to rebel at the invasive pat-down searches, conducted by the TSA's airport security teams. They complained of being groped around bosoms and crotches.

Covertly, there was always plenty of torture, just as there were assassinations. After World War Two, the CIA's predecessor, OSS, imported Nazi experts in interrogation techniques. But this was the era of Cold War competition: Uncle Sam the Good against the dirty Russians and Chinese. The US government would go to desperate lengths to counter accusations that its agents in the CIA or USAID practised torture.

One famous case was that of Dan Mitrione, working for the US Agency for International Development, teaching refinements in torture techniques to Brazilian and Uruguayan interrogators.

Mitrione was ultimately kidnapped by the Tupamaro guerillas and executed, becoming the subject of Costa Gavras's movie State of Siege. The CIA mounted major cover-up operations to try to discredit the accusations against Mitrione, quoted as having once told his students: "The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect."

The American liberal conscience began to make its accommodation with torture in June 1977, which was the month the London Sunday Times published a major expose of the torture of Palestinians by the Israeli armed forces and the security agency, Shin Bet. Suddenly American supporters of Israel were arguing that certain techniques – sensory deprivation, prolonged stress positions while hooded, incarceration in ‘cells' the size of packing crates, etc – somehow weren't really torture, or were morally justifiable torture under the "ticking time bomb" theory.

Ahead lay the spectacle of Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School, a supposed liberal defender of civil rights, recommending to Israel the notion of "torture warrants". The targets of the warrants would be "subjected to judicially monitored physical measures designed to cause excruciating pain without leaving any lasting damage". One form of torture recommended by the Harvard professor was "the sterilised needle being shoved under the fingernails".

With the Great War on Terror, launched after the 9/11 World Trade Center attack in 2001, torture made its march into the full light of day. Presiding over this journey was George Bush's secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld.

At Guantanamo Bay, it was Rumsfeld who gave verbal and subsequently written approval to torture suspects, using the notorious techniques of isolation, sleep deprivation and psychic degradation, with the Defence Secretary himself micro-managing the humiliations, some of them involving women's underwear.

In the case of Abu Ghraib in Iraq, there is again a trail of evidence showing it was Rumsfeld who personally decreed and monitored stress positions, individual phobias, such as fear of dogs, sleep deprivation and waterboarding.

One US army officer, Janis Karpinski, has described finding in Abu Ghraib a piece of paper stuck on a pole outside a little office used by the interrogators. It was a memorandum signed by Rumsfeld, authorising techniques such as use of dogs, stress positions, starvation. On the paper, in Rumsfeld's handwriting, was the terse instruction, "Make sure this happens!!"

On the home front, torture as a drastic mode of social control flowered luxuriantly in the American prison system, whose population began to rocket in the 1970s to its present 2.5 million total. Informally, licensed male rape went hand in hand with increasingly sadistic solitary confinement and prolonged sensory deprivation – a condition in which some 25,000 prisoners are currently being driven mad.

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