The recent outcry against CIA “waterboarding” of suspected terrorists and their purported sympathizers, and the continuing concern about the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, has opened the door for an historic review of U.S. torture policy and tactics.
Anyone who is vaguely familiar with the last 50 years of American CIA-military intervention in countries around the world knows that recent accounts of waterboard torture and the events at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq are in keeping with a long record of abuse and torture at the hands of U.S. military and CIA personnel.
A report by the organization known as School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) states that recent revelations of torture “are part of a larger pattern of abuse at the hands of U.S. soldiers, U.S.-trained soldiers, ‘independent contractors’ and intelligence agents around the world.” The report goes on to say that U.S. Army intelligence manuals advocating torture techniques have been used for at least a decade to train some 64,000 Latin American soldiers at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, renamed in 2001 the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Additionally, the Schools of the Americas Watch document quotes the Washington Post (“U.S. instructed Latins on Execution, Torture,” Sept. 21, 1996) as saying “that the manuals promoted executions, torture, blackmail and other forms of coercion.”
Finally, the report quotes Jennifer Harbury, a human rights lawyer as saying: “What’s the great surprise over Abu Ghraib?” Harbury’s husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, “was tortured for two years, and then either dismembered or thrown from a helicopter by Guatemalan military officials receiving generous CIA payments. This has been standard operating procedure for years.” (For a graphic description of U.S. torture tactics in Latin America,search online for John Stockwell, “The Secret Wars of the CIA.”)
Perhaps the most ghastly historical example of torturous prisoner interrogations, terrorism and murder by U.S. soldiers and para-military CIA operatives was found in “The Phoenix Program,” which was initiated in South Vietnam in 1968. In 1973, the late U.S. Sen. Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, released a report that documented the horrors of the program. Chapter Four, page 36 of the report, “Results of the 1973 Church Committee Hearings on CIA Misdeeds,” states: “The program was originally designed to ‘neutralize,’ assassinate or imprison members of the civilian infrastructure of the National Liberation Front (NLF).” The function of Phoenix was ... “to collate intelligence about the Viet Cong (NLF) infrastructure, interrogate civilians picked up at random by military units carrying out sweeps through villages, and ‘neutralize’ targeted members of the NLF.” Those various tasks were carried out by CIA-led South Vietnamese soldiers. Because of the difficulties in distinguishing Viet Cong from the general population, vast numbers of innocent persons were detained, questioned, tortured and murdered.
In the report, former CIA agent Ralph McGehee said the Phoenix Program killing quota for 1969 called for the elimination of 1,800 Viet Cong per month. The program assassinated, tortured and jailed large numbers of Vietnamese civilians without evidence of juridical procedures. This fact was substantiated by CIA Director William Colby, in testimony before Congress in July 1971. Colby also admitted that the Phoenix Program caused 20,587 Vietnamese deaths. Other, later independent reports put the figure in the 60,000 range.
In a letter dated Jan. 13, 1968, a close friend of mine, who was a Green Beret officer and medical doctor in Vietnam, wrote the following: “One of our A teams captured a ‘VC suspect’ — a 15-year-old Vietnamese girl. They decided she knew valuable information, so they made her talk. The way they did it was they burned her with a hot electric wire on the tongue, breasts and genitalia. The reason I know about it was later that night they brought her in for me to treat. I couldn’t believe it. I can’t believe people can do this to their fellow human beings. She could not talk or swallow, and her perineum was extremely burned. I was really sick. Then later I learned ... the interrogator had invited all of his friends so that there were 20-30 ghouls from the compound here to watch this girl strip and be tortured. The sickening thing is that you and I are as guilty as they, for they represent the U.S. and you and I are part of it.”
Unfortunately, that girl’s experience was only part of an extended, systematic program of U.S. atrocities throughout South Vietnam. Sadly, the torture tactics sometimes concluded with decapitation of detainees, such as in the case reported to me by a friend who is now a member of Veterans for Peace.
In the case of Abu Ghraib, the cases of sexual humiliation, simulated sex acts, forced public masturbation and uses of hood coverings and electrical wires on Iraqi detainees has been blamed on one general and a few “bad apples” in the enlisted ranks who were not properly trained, disciplined or supervised. Unfortunately, the Abu Ghraib atrocities, as well as the waterboard torture, are manifestations of a deeper culture of sadism carried over from the terror practices used by CIA-military intelligence teams during the past 50 hears. These practices have to stop.
Bill Wickersham, of Columbia, is an adjunct professor of Peace Studies at MU and a member of Veterans for Peace.