April 10, 2009 - Consortium News
International Committee of the Red Cross's torture report should be
required reading for all Americans not just because its contents are
shocking - which they are - but because it reveals that the United
States is not the special nation that it often pretends to be, and
won't be as long as it chooses to look away from such crimes.
A sad lesson from 9/11 is that the United
States, which has long lectured the rest of the world about human
rights, is no different than any other place after some shocking attack
on its national security.
Washington will sink to levels of
paranoia and barbarism just as fast as others will, especially if its
leadership already has those inclinations as it did under President
George W. Bush.
Arguably, the only real differences
between the United States and some other government that debases itself
with torture and vengeance are that the U.S. can inflict far more
damage due to its unprecedented military power and that it is more
prone to self-delusion from its sophisticated national PR.
The 41-page ICRC report,
dated Feb.14, 2007, depicts scenes that could have come from the Middle
Ages: naked prisoners forced to stand for long periods with their hands
shackled over their heads or strapped to a bench while subjected to the
drowning sensation of waterboarding or locked in tiny boxes as they
scream and soil themselves.
The scenes reek of sadism, as if
President Bush took some perverse pleasure in inflicting pain and
humiliation on these people, much like an ancient king getting
satisfaction in a grotesque punishment against someone who dared to
challenge his authority. There was a similar sense of sick joy in the
way Bush reacted to the hanging of Iraq's Saddam Hussein on Dec. 30,
But what is perhaps most significant
about Official Washington's blasÚ attitude toward the disclosures about
Bush's hearty embrace of the dark side is that it is part of a pattern:
the nation's elites have long reacted to evidence of American
complicity in torture and war crimes with a convenient blindness and a
huge supply of double standards.
Though Bush and his inner circle may have
crossed lines by directly involving the U.S. government in gross
violations of international law, presidents of both parties have aided
and abetted similar brutality when committed by American allies during
the Cold War.
Indeed, that record of extraordinary
cruelty is the largely unwritten history of the Cold War, the U.S.
government letting its fear of international communism lead to both
tolerance and encouragement of Nazi-like practices: torture,
assassination, mass slaughters and political repression.
Even after the Cold War ended, the United
States refused to examine this ugly history in any systematic way.
Though Democrat Bill Clinton was the first President elected after the
collapse of the Soviet Union, he ignored calls for serious examinations
of that historical era - until late in his presidency when he did
declassify some documents relating to U.S. policy in Guatemala.
Then, after a Guatemalan truth commission
based its investigation partly on the declassified U.S. record, Clinton
issued an apology to the people of Guatemala for Washington's role in
decades of atrocities that killed an estimated 200,000 people,
including what was deemed genocide against Mayan Indians in the
country's highlands during the Reagan administration.
While the Guatemalan records are starkly
illustrative of how successive U.S. administrations enabled torture and
mass murder, it represents only a sliver of the sordid Cold War
history, with similar policies replicated in countries around the world
for nearly half a century.
This wasn't just coincidence, either.
Other information that surfaced during the Clinton administration
revealed that the U.S. military pulled together the lessons from brutal
counterinsurgency warfare in the 1950s and early 1960s into a series of
training manuals for Third World militaries.
The U.S. intelligence community began compiling those lessons in 1965 by commissioning what became known as "Project X."
Based at the U.S. Army Intelligence
Center and School at Fort Holabird, Maryland, the project was tasked
with the development of lesson plans which would "provide intelligence
training to friendly foreign countries," according to a brief history,
which was prepared in 1991.
Called "a guide for the
conduct of clandestine operations," Project X "was first used by the
U.S. Intelligence School on Okinawa to train Vietnamese and,
presumably, other foreign nationals," the history stated.
Linda Matthews of the Pentagon's Counterintelligence Division recalled
that in 1967-68, some of the Project X training material was prepared
by officers connected to the so-called Phoenix program in Vietnam, an
operation that involved targeting, interrogating and assassinating
suspected Viet Cong.
"She suggested the possibility that some
offending material from the Phoenix program may have found its way into
the Project X materials at that time," according to the Pentagon
In the 1970s, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center
and School moved to Fort Huachuca in Arizona and began exporting
Project X material to U.S. military assistance groups working with
"friendly foreign countries." By the mid-1970s, the Project X material
was going to military forces all over the world.
'School of Assassins'
In 1982, the Pentagon's Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for
Intelligence ordered the Fort Huachuca center to supply lesson plans to
the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which human rights
activists denounced as the School of the Assassins because it trained
some of Latin America's most notorious military officers.
"The working group decided to use Project
X material because it had previously been cleared for foreign
disclosure," the Pentagon history stated.
surviving documents released under a Freedom of Information Act
request, the Project X lessons contained a full range of intelligence
activities. A 1972 listing of Project X lesson plans covered aerial
surveillance, electronic eavesdropping, interrogation, counter-sabotage
measures, counter-intelligence, handling of informants, break-ins and
One manual warned that insurgents might even "resort to subversion of
the government by means of elections [in which] insurgent leaders
participate in political contests as candidates for government office."
Citizens were put on "'black, gray or
white lists' for the purpose of identifying and prioritizing adversary
targets." The lessons suggested creation of inventories of families and
their assets to keep tabs on the population.
The internal U.S. government review of
Project X began in 1991 when the Pentagon discovered that the
Spanish-language manuals were advising Latin American trainees on
assassinations, torture and other "objectionable" counter-insurgency
The manuals suggested coercive methods
for recruiting counter-intelligence operatives, including arresting the
target's parents or beating him until he agreed to infiltrate a
guerrilla organization. To undermine guerrilla forces, the training
manuals countenanced "executions" and operations "to eliminate a
potential rival among the guerrillas."
By summer 1991,
the investigation of Project X was raising concerns about an adverse
public reaction to evidence that the U.S. government had long
sanctioned - and even encouraged - brutal methods of repression.
But the PR problem was contained when the
office of then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney ordered that all relevant
Project X material be collected and brought to the Pentagon under a
recommendation that most of it be destroyed.
The recommendation received approval from
senior Pentagon officials, presumably with Cheney's blessings. Some of
the more innocuous Project X lesson plans - and the historical summary
- were spared, but the Project X manuals that dealt with the sensitive
human rights violations were destroyed in 1992, the Pentagon reported.
[For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]
Even more historically significant than
eliminating most Project X records was the successful Republican
campaign in the mid-1990s to glorify the presidency of Ronald Reagan,
which included putting his name on Washington National Airport and
transforming him into an iconic figure beyond normal criticism.
In reality, Reagan was the pleasant face
put on a long record of U.S. tolerance for the most grotesque actions
by pro-U.S. dictators and right-wing terrorists around the world.
In 1980, Reagan's election was greeted
with unalloyed joy by Third World oligarchs and tyrants, tired of Jimmy
Carter's nagging about human rights. Their optimism was not misplaced.
For years, Reagan had been a staunch defender of right-wing regimes
engaged in bloody counterinsurgency campaigns against leftist enemies.
In the late 1970s, when Carter's human
rights coordinator, Pat Derian, criticized the Argentine military for
its "dirty war" -- tens of thousands of "disappearances," tortures and
murders -- then-political commentator Reagan joshed that Derian should
"walk a mile in the moccasins" of the Argentine generals before
criticizing them. [See Martin Edwin Andersen's Dossier Secreto.]
Despite his aw shucks style, Reagan found virtually every anticommunist action justified, no matter how brutal.
From his eight years in the White House,
there is no historical indication that he was troubled by the
bloodbath, torture and even genocide that occurred in Central America
during his presidency, while he was shipping hundreds of millions of
dollars in military aid to the implicated forces.
The death toll was staggering - an
estimated 70,000 or more political killings in El Salvador, possibly
20,000 slain from the Reagan-organized contra war in Nicaragua, about
200 political "disappearances" in Honduras and some 100,000 people
eliminated during a resurgence of political violence in Guatemala. Many
victims suffered rape and torture before their deaths.
Yet, even as the world community has
sought to punish war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and now
Sudan, no substantive discussion has occurred in the United States
about facing up to Reagan's horrendous record of the 1980s - or holding
accountable implicated U.S. officials or the pro-U.S. killers and
torturers in Central America and elsewhere.
Some of those U.S. officials, such as
former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and former
Ambassador to Honduras John Negroponte, returned to key national
security jobs under George W. Bush. Dick Cheney was back, too, as Vice
A Troubling Record
So, given that history of U.S. officials
sanctioning torture and murder by allies and encountering no
accountability, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that - post
9/11 - the Bush administration would take the next step and authorize
the barbarism directly.
Still, that troubling reality had to be
kept under wraps to maintain the fiction that "the United States
doesn't torture." Which explains why President Bush flew into such a
rage - and expressed such personal disgust - when the photographs of
the Abu Ghraib abuses in Iraq were leaked.
But Bush couldn't have been outraged by
the forced nudity and the humiliation inflicted on the Abu Ghraib
prisoners, since he had been authorizing similar tactics at secret CIA
prisons and at Guantanamo Bay. Still, he made a lesson out of the
low-ranking prison guards by court-martialing those foolish enough to
let photographs of the abuses reach the public.
There is also evidence that President
Bush authorized "death squad" tactics in Iraq, Afghanistan and around
the globe. Linking those sanctioned executions to the atrocities of the
1980s in Central America was the description from some Bush
administration officials that they were planning a "Salvador option" in
Iraq. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Bush's Death Squads."]
In 2007, military criminal cases surfaced
in which elite American snipers and Special Forces units defended
themselves against murder charges by citing loose rules of engagement,
which let them execute unarmed suspects who were on an authorized death
list. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Bush's Global Dirty War."]
Despite all this old and new evidence of
Bush's war crimes, the smart money in Washington is still betting that
the Obama administration - like the Clinton administration 16 years ago
- will take the easy route and opt to look forward, not backward.
Only an outraged populace - Americans who
believe that their country should live up to the high standards that it
demands of others - could force the politicians to finally take
seriously the need for accountability in the face of war crimes and to
prosecute those responsible for the worst offenses, however high their
That wouldn't make the United States all
that special - other countries have faced up to dark chapters of their
own history, most recently Peru in convicting ex-President Alberto
Fujimori on April 7 for his role in a political death squad.
But the prosecution of George W. Bush's
war crimes would show that America is a land of integrity that means
what it says about human rights, not just a place for
ę 2009 Consortium News