The American Way of Torture

Torture is now solidly installed in America’s repressive arsenal, not in the shadows where it has always lurked, but up front and central, vigorously applauded by prominent politicians.  Rituals of 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, groping around bosoms and crotches.

Covertly, there was always plenty of torture, just as there were assassinations, high and low.   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 practiced 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’ movie State of Siege.  The CIA mounted major cover-up operations to try to discredit the accusations against Mitrione, quoted as having said to 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 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 “ticking time bomb” theory.

Ahead lay the repellent spectacle of Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School, and a supposed liberal defender of civil rights, recommending to Israel the notion of “torture warrants”, with the targets of the warrants being  “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 sterilized needle being shoved under the fingernails.”

With the Great War on Terror, launched after the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11/2001, torture made its march into the full light of day.

One hands-on executive in this itinerary was George Bush’s secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, as Andrew Cockburn described here in 2007. At Guantanamo, 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 Rumsfeld micromanaging the humiliations. (For one prisoner’s horrifying torments in Guantanamo, read Richard Neville’s account  last week on this site of David Hicks’ new book, Guantanamo, My Journey.)

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, 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, authorizing techniques such as use of dogs, stress positions, starvation. On the paper, in Rumsfeld’s handwriting, was the terse instruction, “Make sure this happens!!”

James Bovard wrote on this site earlier this week that “Perhaps Bush’s most important legacy is his embrace of torture:”

“In a June 2010 speech in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he declared, ‘Yeah, we water-boarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I’d do it again to save lives.’ There is no independent evidence that Bush-era torture saved any American lives.

“The fact that a former president can stand up in public and admit that he ordered torture is a sea change for the American republic. (While he was president, Bush consistently denied that the U.S. government engaged in torture.) ? In reality, the Bush administration’s torture policies were simply the most vivid example of its belief that the president was entitled to do as he pleases. Assistant Attorney General Steven Bradbury declared in 2006, ‘Under the law of war, the president is always right.’”

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

As the Bush years drew to a close liberals dared hope that the rule of law would return and with it respect for internationally agreed prohibitions on torture and treatment of combatants.  Anticipation grew that the torturers, with the Bush high command at the apex, would face formal charges. Candidate Obama sedulously fanned that hope.

The moment of opportunity arrived on January 20, the day Obama was sworn in as president and declared that “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” he said. He added that the United States is “ready to lead once more.”

On January 21, 1977, on his first day in office President Jimmy Carter fulfilled his campaign pledge issuing a pardon to those who avoided serving in the Vietnam war by fleeing the U.S. or not registering. If he’d waited a month or two, the honeymoon was already turning tepid and he might well have lost his nerve.

On his second day in office In his second full day in office, President Obama signed a series of executive orders Thursday morning to close the Guantanamo detention center within a year, ban the harshest interrogation methods and review military war crimes trials.

In his first state of the Union address, a week later Obama declared to the joint session of Congress that “I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture. We can make that commitment here tonight.” Within days of this guarantee, Obama’s Justice Department lawyers were telling  U.S. judges in explicit terms  that the new administration would not be moving on from Bush’s policies on the legal status of renditions and of supposed enemy combatants.

These lawyers from Obama’s Department of Justice emphasized to judges that they, like DoJ lawyers instructed by Bush’s lawyers, held that captives seized by the US government and conveyed to secret prisons to be tortured, had no standing in US courts and the Obama regime has no legal obligations to defend or even admit its actions in any US courtroom.   “Enemy combatants” would not be afforded international legal protections, whether on the field of battle in Afghanistan or, if kidnapped by US personnel, anywhere in the world.

The torture system is flourishing, and the boundaries of the American empire marked by overseas torture centers such as Bagram. There are still detainees in Guantanamo ? as of November last year 174 of them. On January 7, 2011, Obama signed a bill barring inmates held there from being brought to the US for trial.

For the past seven months 22-year-old U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, first an army prison in Kuwait, now in Quantico, Virginia, has been held 23 hours out of 24 in solitary confinement in his cell, under constant harassment. If his eyes close between 5am and 8pm he is jolted awake. In daylight hours he has to respond “yes” to guards every five minutes. An hour a day he is taken to another cell where he walks figures of eight. If he stops he is taken back to his other cell.

Manning is accused of giving documents to Wikileaks. He has not been tried or convicted. Visitors report that Manning is going downhill mentally as well as physically. His lawyer’s efforts to improve his condition have been rebuffed by the Army. Accusations that his treatment amounts to torture has been indignantly denounced by prominent conservatives and some liberals.  Gov. Huckabee and others have called for him to be summarily executed.  After the columnist Glenn Greenwald publicized Manning’s treatment in mid-December, there was a moderate commotion. The U.N.’s top monitor of torture is investigating his case.

Meanwhile Manning fights for sanity in Quantico. He faces months, if not years, of the same. Will he end up like accused Chicagoan Jose Padilla, four years in total isolation and silence before his trial  in 2007  (convicted as a terrorist and given 17 years) , with his lawyer informed by prison staff that Padilla had become docile and inactive to the point that he resembled “a piece of furniture.”

Memo to British prime minister David Cameron: Resist all extradition requests by the US government, on the grounds that those accused of terrorism cannot possibly expect anything but torture and a kangaroo trial. Imagine Julian Assange’s fate in a US prison, awaiting trial.

As the British lawyer, Yvonne Ridley, put it on this site earlier this week:

“As 2011 dawns the British Prime Minister David Cameron is faced with some hard choices this year, none more difficult than probably deciding whether or not to scrap our extradition treaty with the US and refuse to hand over a group of British citizens to Barack Obama’s America?.

 “It was Blair’s government that introduced the one-sided 2003 Extradition Treaty to please and appease the Bush Administration. Legislation drawn up in panic and haste is never a good idea nor was it wise to allow America to extend its jurisdiction in to the UK for that is exactly what has happened. And I wonder if the legislation was really drawn up by UK lawyers since a close inspection of the original documents reveal the liberal use of American English.

“I would urge Cameron to resist all of the existing US Extradition requests just as he would if the same demands were being made by some banana republic.”

I wrote here last year,

“The irony is that a moral debate is finally in motion over America’s horrifying sentencing laws. In New York State, the Rockefeller drug laws, which destroyed so many thousands of lives with mandatory sentencing, are being modified. Senator Jim Webb of Virginia is courageously trying to coax into life a national commission to review the criminal justice system. Webb tells the Washington Post that cops and prosecutors often target the wrong people and says he believes society can be made safer while making the system more ‘humane and cost-effective.’ He flourishes a fine piece by Atul Gawande in the March 30 issue of The New Yorker stigmatizing solitary confinement (‘at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons’) as torture.”

That forecast sounds foolish now. But then, maybe I was assuming that a man I mistrusted from the day I clapped eyes on his speeches, would nonetheless improve the public tone on issues of torture and punishment. In fact Obama in this area as in so many others has merely given the ethics and practices of the Bush era his seal of approval.

So?On to the Next Great Awakening. We sure could use one

Wadded up in our intellectual backpacks, ideas that should be explosive get damp and moldy.  Too often, we leftists slog along history’s highway with stale, uncombustible stuff.

Heading into 2011 we give over this issue of our newsletter to Mason Gaffney’s bracing excursion through America’s Great Awakenings.  To many on the left the topic of religion these days is explored overwhelmingly in terms of quavering alarums about the Christian Right. Gaffney challenges this patronizing perspective.

Remember the first five  Awakenings? Gaffney takes us through them.

The First Great Awakening led after many years to the American and Jeffersonian Revolutions.  The Second Great Awakening led, after many years, to the Civil War and Abolition. The Third Great Awakening led, after setbacks, to the Populist and then Progressive Movements. The Fourth Great Awakening led to the New Deal The Fifth Great Awakening led to the second Reconstruction, the Great Society, Feminism, and social upheavals.

When and whence will come the Sixth  Awakening? Will it come soon?  Read Gaffney’s absorbing history and predictions.

History springs endless surprises. Jeff Halper suggested as much in this newsletter two issues ago, apropos Israel and Palestine. Now Gaffney challenges us to think freshly about the intellectual and religious motors of our history and future. On into 2011 with fresh stuff in our backpacks!

Subscribe to CounterPunch and read Gaffney’s  piece,

have it your inbox, prontissimo, as a pdf, or ? at whatever speed the US Postal Service first-class delivery system may muster ? in your mailbox.

I urge you strongly to subscribe now!

And once you have discharged this enjoyable mandate I also urge you strongly to click over to our Books page for your Christmas gifts, most particularly our latest release, Jason Hribal’s truly extraordinary Fear of the Animal Planet ? introduced by Jeffrey St Clair and already hailed by Peter Linebaugh, Ingrid Newkirk (president and co-founder of PETA) and Susan Davis, the historian of Sea World,  who writes that “Jason Hribal stacks up the evidence, and the conclusions are inescapable. Zoos, circuses and theme parks are the strategic hamlets of Americans’ long war against nature itself.”

ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.