[Pnews] A Brief History of American Torture

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue May 8 10:53:42 EDT 2018


  A Brief History of American Torture

by Brett Wilkins <https://www.counterpunch.org/author/l2l4l54ldlc/> - 
May 8, 2018

American torture is back in the news 
again as Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump’s pick to head the Central 
Intelligence Agency, prepares for what could be a rocky Senate 
confirmation hearing with some tough questions about her role overseeing 
a secret torture prison in Thailand and destroying tapes of brutal 
detainee interrogation sessions.

Haspel’s nomination, and to a lesser degree her earlier appointment as 
deputy CIA director, reopened what more well-meaning observers, 
including torture survivor Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), have called “one of 
the darkest chapters” in US history, the so-called “enhanced 
interrogation” abuse of men, women and children caught up in America’s 
endless war on terror. However, post-9/11 detainee abuse can only be 
called a chapter if we recognize that it is part of a much larger story, 
one which begins with some of the first European usurpers to set foot on 
North American soil and one which continues essentially uninterrupted to 
the present day.

*Genocide and Slavery*

Torture is almost always a crime attributed to other, less civilized 
peoples. When most Americans do think of their own country’s torture, if 
they think of it at all, they usually imagine it to be a regrettable 
departure the civilized norm misguidedly perpetrated amid the terror and 
fury ignited by the deadliest attack on US soil in generations. Yet 
torture has been an unspoken weapon in America’s arsenal since the 
earliest colonial days. In a nation built on a foundation of genocide 
and slavery, horrific violence 
including widespread torture, was a critical tool for securing and 
maintaining white dominance in the same way that great global violence 
has been crucial to perpetuating America’s superpower status in modern 

The same founding fathers who constitutionally proscribed “cruel and 
unusual punishment” endorsed and committed the most heinous crimes 
against both Native Americans and black slaves — witness Thomas 
Jefferson calling for the “extermination or removal” 
Virginia’s Indians. Ever fearful of revolt and revenge, white 
Southerners subjected black slaves to the some of the cruelest 
punishments imaginable 
to break both their physical and psychological ability to resist.

*A World of Hurt*

By the dawn of the twentieth century, American torture went global 
following the imperial conquest of former Spanish colonies, including 
the Philippines, where US occupation troops faced courts-martial for, 
among other crimes, waterboarding 
resistance fighters. Meanwhile back home, black Americans were scorched, 
skinned, disemboweled and castrated 
<http://www.umass.edu/legal/Hilbink/250/Garland.pdf>while still alive by 
otherwise upstanding citizens, including women and children, during many 
of the thousands of lynchings that plagued the Jim Crow South and far 

During World War II, the vast bulk of the most barbarous tortures were 
committed by America’s German and Japanese enemies. Yet rather than 
punish some of the worst offenders, the United States paid both Nazi 
and Japanese 
war criminals for their grisly knowledge as it sought an edge over the 
Soviet Union in biowarfare, weapons, mind control, espionage and other 
technologies and techniques. It wasn’t long before the US was carrying 
out its own torture programs, like the notorious Project MK-ULTRA 
<https://www.history.com/topics/history-of-mk-ultra>, while aiding or 
committing torture in support of brutal dictators in various Cold War 
hot spots around the world from Vietnam 
Iran <http://www.newsweek.com/watching-torture-94887> to Greece 
South America <https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB514/> and the 
more recent genocides of Guatemala 
East Timor <https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB176/index.htm>. 
There are too many other examples to list in this “brief history.”

*Torture by the Book*

Starting in the early 1960s, the CIA, then the US military, produced 
torture manuals <https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB122/> that were 
used to instruct both US and foreign personnel 
<http://www.soaw.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=98> in 
kidnapping, interrogation, assassination and democracy suppression. 
These manuals introduced or perfected many of the methods that would 
later become all too familiar to the world as the “enhanced 
interrogation techniques” employed by the George W. Bush administration 
in the post-9/11 era. Cold War operatives like Dan Mitrione 
a USAID official who kidnapped and then tortured homeless Uruguayans to 
death in a soundproof Montevideo dungeon to teach local security forces, 
informed and inspired Bush-era officials who would prove all too willing 
to authorize appalling physical and psychological tortures in the name 
of national security.

By September 11, 2001, the United States had literally written the book 
— a whole series of them — on torture. The shocking slaughter of nearly 
3,000 Americans on that bright, blue Tuesday morning, coupled with the 
hard-line ideology of many leading Bush officials, led to torture 
becoming official administration doctrine 
Bush falsely argued that domestic and international laws 
against torture no longer applied in the new worldwide war. Justice 
Department lawyer John Yoo even asserted 
that the president had unlimited wartimes powers to order the massacre 
of an entire village of civilians if he so desired.

*“If the Detainee Dies, You’re Doing it Wrong”*

Although administration and CIA attorneys now endorsed “cruel, inhuman 
or degrading” 
treatment as long as it happened abroad, considerable vagueness remained 
about how much torture was too much. Yoo successfully argued 
abuse is only torture if the pain inflicted was equal to “organ failure, 
impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Jonathan Fredman, a CIA 
attorney, asserted 
that “if the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong.” Plenty of detainees 
would indeed die, but we’re not quite there yet.

First came Guantánamo Bay, where men and boys captured during the early 
days of Bush’s anti-Islamist crusade, many of them sold for hefty 
bounties, were sent for interrogation. Bush called these people the 
“worst of the worst.” However, according to Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who 
was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush, Vice 
President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld all knew 
that the majority of GITMO detainees were innocent butrefused to release 
largely for political reasons.

Nonetheless, Guantánamo prisoners were subjected to tortures including 
severe beatings 
interrupted drowning (better known as waterboarding), brutal 
shackling in excruciating “stress positions,” prolonged sleep, sensory 
and dietary deprivation, solitary confinement, and exposure to extreme 
temperatures and maddeningly repetitive loud music 
Medical professionals, including leading psychiatrists and 
psychologists, actively participated in 
<https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2009/07/first-do-harm/>, and even 
these torture sessions and techniques.

*“You Can’t Spell Abuse Without Abu”*

As the war on terror expanded to include countries that had absolutely 
nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, people resisting US invasion and 
occupation, as well as innocent men, women and children, were imprisoned 
and abused. The most notorious of these torture prisons was Abu Ghraib 
near Baghdad, Iraq, where prolonged vicious beatings, sexual humiliation 
and death threats were common, and where men, at least one boy 
and, allegedly, numerous women 
<https://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0528/p01s02-woiq.html> were raped by 
their jailers. As one former guard there quipped 
“you can’t spell abuse without Abu.”

Abu Ghraib detainees were forced to sleep in flooded cells without 
mattresses, stripped naked and forced to crawl and bark like dogs, 
attacked with dogs 
forced to curse Islam and eat pork and food from dirty toilets. Old 
women were dragged around 
<https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/may/20/iraq.gender> by their 
hair, ridden like donkeys and urinated on by soldiers like Sgt. Charles 
Graner, who was fond of sodomizing 
<https://www.cbsnews.com/news/abuse-video-shows-pow-torment/> innocent 
detainees with found objects.

“The Christian in me says it’s wrong,” Graner said 
<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A46523-2004May21.html> of 
torturing prisoners. “But the corrections officer in me says, ‘I love 
making a grown man piss himself.’”

Gen. Antonio Taguba, who compiled a scathing report 
<https://www.npr.org/iraq/2004/prison_abuse_report.pdf> on the Abu 
Ghraib torture scandal, concluded that the majority of prisoners there 
— the Red Cross said 70 to 90 percent 
<https://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/30/world/the-reach-of-war-abu-ghraib-scant-evidence-cited-in-long-detention-of-iraqis.html>— were 
innocent. Female relatives of wanted Iraqi insurgents were also jailed 
at Abu Ghraib as bargaining chips 
One woman was thrown in a cell with the corpse of her murdered son. 
Perhaps the most shocking yet little-known fact about Abu Ghraib is that 
at least 34 detainees died 
there while in US custody, with nearly half of these deaths officially 
listed as homicides. By 2006, at least 100 prisoners 
<https://www.cbsnews.com/news/report-108-died-in-us-custody/> had died 
in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them violently.

*Tortured to Death*

The most well-publicized detainee death happened at the notorious “Salt 
Pit,” a CIA black site, or secret prison, in Afghanistan, where Gul 
Rahman died 
of hypothermia after being stripped naked and chained to a wall in 
near-freezing temperatures. Abuse of prisoners, who were often kidnapped 
from third countries 
a practice known as extraordinary rendition, was rampant at black sites 
around the world, including Detention Center Green in Thailand, which 
Gina Haspel ran 
in late 2002.

Black site prisoners were hung by chains from ceilings for days on end, 
stuffed into boxes, deprived of sleep, shackled naked in cold 
temperatures and subjected to mock executions. Prior to Haspel’s 
arrival, CIA torturers at Detention Center Green waterboarded the wrong 
man, a cooperative man, 83 times 
in a month. In addition to supervising Detention Center Green, Haspel 
also played a key role 
in the destruction of videotaped CIA torture sessions.

Scores of friendly nations 
as well as some of the world’s most notorious dictators, including 
Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and the mullahs of 
Iran, cooperated 
with the CIA’s rendition program. The US also outsourced torture 
<https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/02/14/outsourcing-torture> and 
interrogation by sending abductees to these and other countries knowing 
they would be abused, as well as by allowing agents from some of the 
world’s worst human rights violators, including China, Uzbekistan, Saudi 
Arabia and Libya, to interrogate and even abuse 
detainees inside Guantánamo.

*Bush Impunity, Trump Opportunity*

There was widespread hope that the election of Barack Obama, who 
promised to end and investigate torture, would usher in an age of 
justice and transparency. However, not only did Obama, who explained 
that he wanted to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” fail 
to prosecute 
even investigate the policies and actions of the Bush officials 
<https://www.salon.com/2009/05/18/torture_25/> who authorized and 
justified torture, he actively protected them from facing justice for 
their crimes. Obama also declined to declassify a landmark 2014 Senate 
detailing brutal, even deadly, detainee abuse by CIA operatives, and 
torture continued 
at Guantánamo and elsewhere under his watch despite an early executive 
order banning it.

In a very real sense, Obama’s dubious decision to “look forward” set the 
stage for President Trump to look backwards into the darkest depths of 
our nation’s past and openly embrace torture, which he did on the 2016 
campaign trail when he vowed 
to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” and during his 
presidency when he nominated two torture supporters 
head the CIA. However, unlike the dramatic surge 
in civilian casualties following Trump’s promise to “bomb the shit out 
State militants and kill their innocent families, there hasn’t been any 
reported spike in torture under the current administration. There have, 
however, been continued allegations 
of detainee abuse at Guatánamo Bay.

There have also been well-documented cases 
of abuse, including widespread sex crimes 
at prisons, many of them for-profit, holding immigrants and asylum 
seekers who often languish behind bars for years as their cases slowly 
proceed through the system. Meanwhile, solitary confinement — which 
former Vietnam POW John McCain and others have called a form of torture 
<https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/03/30/hellhole> every bit as 
awful as physical torment — is used to punish and break inmates, 
including children 
at prisons, jails and detention facilities across America.

*Return to Darkness?*

To this day, not a single US government, military or intelligence 
official who devised, authorized, supervised or implemented America’s 
decades-old torture regime has been brought to justice or even 
criminally investigated for what are very clearly grave violations of 
domestic and international law. The American people don’t seem to care. 
A 2016 International Red Cross survey found that nearly half 
of Americans believe it is acceptable to torture enemy combatants to 
obtain important information. This, despite the fact that military and 
intelligence veterans, as well as the Senate torture report, concur that 
torture doesn’t work and produces unreliable information at best.

Denial — from the highest levels of government to mainstream media still 
reluctant or refusing to even say or print the word torture to a public 
which still embraces torture despite its barbarity and inefficacy — is 
the order of the day when it comes to facing America’s tortured history. 
Our nation’s failure to honestly examine its darkest deeds raises the 
all-too-real prospect of their repetition, a chilling possibility that 
seems likelier than ever given Trump’s choice of Haspel, someone accused 
of torturing for torture’s sake — and enjoying it 

/*Brett Wilkins* is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. 
Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human 
rights and war and peace. /

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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