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A Brief History of American Torture

Photo by Medill DC | CC BY 2.0

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 times.

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” of 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 captured resistance fighters. Meanwhile back home, black Americans were scorched, skinned, disemboweled and castrated 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 beyond.

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, while aiding or committing torture in support of brutal dictators in various Cold War hot spots around the world from Vietnam to Iran to Greece, South America and the more recent genocides of Guatemala and East Timor. 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 that were used to instruct both US and foreign personnel 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” detainee treatment as long as it happened abroad, considerable vagueness remained about how much torture was too much. Yoo successfully argued that 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 them, largely for political reasons.

Nonetheless, Guantánamo prisoners were subjected to tortures including severe beatings, interrupted drowning (better known as waterboarding), brutal sodomization, 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, and even devised, 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 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 by their hair, ridden like donkeys and urinated on by soldiers like Sgt. Charles Graner, who was fond of sodomizing innocent detainees with found objects.

“The Christian in me says it’s wrong,” Graner said 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 on the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, concluded that the majority of prisoners there — the Red Cross said 70 to 90 percent— 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 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 in 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 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 or even investigate the policies and actions of the Bush officials who authorized and justified torture, he actively protected them from facing justice for their crimes. Obama also declined to declassify a landmark 2014 Senate report 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 to head the CIA. However, unlike the dramatic surge in civilian casualties following Trump’s promise to “bomb the shit out of” Islamic 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 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.

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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. 

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