The Torture Ban That Doesn’t Ban Torture


If you’re lying on the slab still breathing, with your torturer hanging over you, you don’t much care if he is an American or a mere United States – sponsored trainee.

When President Obama declared flatly this week that “the United States will not torture” many people wrongly believed that he’d shut the practice down, when in fact he’d merely repositioned it.

Obama’s Executive Order bans some — not all — US officials from torturing but it does not ban any of them, himself included, from sponsoring torture overseas.

Indeed, his policy change affects only a slight percentage of US-culpable tortures and could be completely consistent with an increase in US-backed torture worldwide.

The catch lies in the fact that since Vietnam, when US forces often tortured directly, the US has mainly seen its torture done for it by proxy — paying, arming, training and guiding foreigners doing it, but usually being careful to keep Americans at least one discreet step removed.

That is, the US tended to do it that way until Bush and Cheney changed protocol, and had many Americans laying on hands, and sometimes taking digital photos.

The result was a public relations fiasco that enraged the US establishment since by exposing US techniques to the world it diminished US power.

But despite the outrage, the fact of the matter was that the Bush/Cheney tortures being done by Americans were a negligible percentage of all of the tortures being done by US clients.

For every torment inflicted directly by Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and the secret prisons, there were many times more being meted out by US-sponsored foreign forces.

Those forces were and are operating with US military, intelligence, financial or other backing in Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Jordan, Indonesia, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Colombia, Nigeria, and the Philippines, to name some places, not to mention the tortures sans-American-hands by the US-backed Iraqis and Afghans.

What the Obama dictum ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system’s torture, which is done by foreigners under US patronage.

Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so.

His Executive Order instead merely pertains to treatment of “…an individual in the custody or under the effective control of an officer, employee, or other agent of the United States Government, or detained within a facility owned, operated, or controlled by a department or agency of the United States, in any armed conflict…” which means that it doesn’t even prohibit direct torture by Americans outside environments of “armed conflict,” which is where much torture happens anyway since many repressive regimes aren’t in armed conflict.

And even if, as Obama says, “the United States will not torture,” it can still pay, train, equip and guide foreign torturers, and see to it that they, and their US patrons, don’t face local or international justice.

This is a return to the status quo ante, the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more US-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years.

Under the old — now new again — proxy regime Americans would, say, teach interrogation/torture, then stand in the next room as the victims screamed, feeding questions to their foreign pupils. That’s the way the US did it in El Salvador under JFK through Bush Sr. (For details see my “Behind the Death Squads: An exclusive report on the U.S. role in El Salvador’s official terror,” The Progressive, May, 1984 ; the US Senate Intelligence Committee report that piece sparked is still classified, but the feeding of questions was confirmed to me by Intelligence Committee Senators. See also my “Confessions of a Death Squad Officer,” The Progressive, March, 1986, and my “Comment,” The New Yorker, Oct. 15, 1990,[regarding law, the US, and El Salvador]).

In Guatemala under Bush Sr. and Clinton (Obama’s foreign policy mentors) the US backed the army’s G-2 death squad which kept comprehensive files on dissidents and then electroshocked them or cut off their hands. (The file/ surveillance system was launched for them in the ’60s and ’70s by CIA/ State/ AID/ special forces; for the history see “Behind the Death Squads,” cited above, and the books of Prof. Michael McClintock).

The Americans on the ground in the Guatemalan operation, some of whom I encountered and named, effectively helped to run the G-2 but, themselves, tiptoed around its torture chambers. (See my “C.I.A. Death Squad,” The Nation [US], April 17, 1995, “The Country Team,” The Nation [US], June 5, 1995, letter exchange with US Ambassador Stroock, The Nation [US], May 29, 1995, and ALLAN NAIRN and Jean-Marie Simon, “Bureaucracy of Death,” The New Republic, June 30, 1986).

It was a similar story in Bush Sr. and Clinton’s Haiti — an operation run by today’s Obama people — where the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) helped launch the terrorist group FRAPH, the CIA paid its leader, and FRAPH itsef laid the machetes on Haitian civilians, torturing and killing as US proxies. (See my “Behind Haiti’s paramilitaries: our man in FRAPH,” The Nation [US], Oct 24, 1994, and “He’s our S.O.B.,” The Nation [US], Oct. 31, 1994; the story was later confirmed on ABC TV’s “This Week” by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher).

In today’s Thailand — a country that hardly comes to mind when most people think of torture — special police and militaries get US gear and training for things like “target selection” and then go out and torture Thai Malay Muslms in the rebel deep south, and also sometimes (mainly Buddhist) Burmese refugees and exploited northern and west coast workers.

Not long ago I visited a key Thai interrogator who spoke frankly about army/ police/ intel torture and then closed our discussion by saying “Look at this,” and invited me into his back room.

It was an up to date museum of plaques, photos and awards from US and Western intelligence, including commendations from the CIA counter-terrorism center (then run by people now staffing Obama), one-on-one photos with high US figures, including George W. Bush, a medal from Bush, various US intel/ FBI/ military training certificates, a photo of him with an Israeli colleague beside a tank in the Occupied Territories, and Mossad, Shin Bet, Singaporean, and other interrogation implements and mementos.

On my way out, the Thai intel man remarked that he was due to re-visit Langley soon.

His role is typical. There are thousands like him worldwide. US proxy torture dwarfs that at Guantanamo.

Many Americans, to their credit, hate torture. The Bush/Cheney escapade exposed that.

But to stop it they must get the facts and see that Obama’s ban does not stop it, and indeed could even accord with an increase in US-sponsored torture crime.

In lieu of action, the system will grind on tonight. More shocks, suffocations, deep burns. And the convergence of thousands of complex minds on one simple thought: ‘Please, let me die.’

ALLAN NAIRN writes the blog News and Comment at www.newsc.blogspot.com.



ALLAN NAIRN writes the blog News and Comment at www.newsc.blogspot.com.

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