Déjà Violence

Joel Bleifuss

For all the hooha over the horror of U.S. treatment of Iraqi prisoners, the fact is such torture has been the rule, not the exception. Indeed, this scandal features a cast of characters who were in power the last time the U.S. sanctioned torture.Take Donald Rumsfeld. In 1983, he didn’t let a few gassed Kurds get in the way of maintaining good relations with Saddam Hussein. Seymour Hersh convincingly reports in the New Yorker that Rumsfeld authorized expanding the “black” program used to interrogate Taliban “enemy combatants” in Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib’s “prisoners of war” in Iraq.And who could forget John Negroponte? Between 1981 and 1985, he was the U.S. ambassador to Honduras. As ambassador, Negroponte filed reports with the State Department that gave the impression that the Honduran military supported human rights. At the same time, he was overseeing the construction of El Aguacate airbase, which was used as a U.S. training camp for the Nicaraguan Contras and as a torture center for Battalion 316, a Honduran army intelligence unit. The Baltimore Sun reported in 1995 that Battalion 316, which was trained and supported by the CIA, used “shock and suffocation devices in interrogations. Prisoners often were kept naked and, when no longer useful, killed and buried in unmarked graves.” In August 2001, a mass grave was unearthed at El Aguacate containing 185 corpses, including two Americans.Negroponte will become the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in July. Judging by his record, he is the man for the job.The use of torture by the Honduran army under U.S. guidance was not an aberration but a matter of policy. Until 1992, the last year of Dick Cheney’s stint as Secretary of Defense, the U.S. Army used CIA-prepared torture manuals to train foreign military officers both at the School of the Americas and on-site in Latin America. One of these, the Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual—1983, had these tips:For centuries “questioners” have employed various methods of inducing physical weaknesses: prolonged constraint; prolonged exertion; extremes of heat, cold or moisture; and deprivation of food or sleep. … Subject is completely stripped and told to take a shower. Blindfold remains in place while showering and guard watches throughout. Subject is given a thorough medical examination, including all body cavities. … Throughout his detention, subject must be convinced that his ‘questioner’ controls his ultimate destiny, and that his absolute cooperation is necessary for survival. … The threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself. For example, the threat to inflict pain can trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain. … A threat should be delivered coldly, not shouted in anger. … If a subject refuses to comply once a threat has been made, it must be carried out. The torture situation is an external conflict, a conflict between the subject and his tormentor.The CIA’s training manual does caution, “The routine use of torture lowers the moral caliber of the organization that uses it and corrupts those that rely on it.” Look no further than the Bush administration.This manual, along with others, was supposedly withdrawn from circulation and destroyed in 1992. However, their expertise apparently made its way to Iraq. For example, another CIA manual, advised that in order to forcibly recruit spies, “the counterintelligence agent could cause the arrest of the employee’s parents, imprison the employee, or give him a beating as part of the placement plan.”The situation in Iraq is different than in Central America in the ’80s. For one thing, the United States’ crusade against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua used a privately-funded proxy army, the Contras. As the Iran-Contra scandal proved, such off-the-books arrangements can get politically messy. Indeed, were it not for pardons by President George H.W. Bush, some Reagan administration officials and current Bush administration officials would have done time.To avoid such embarrassments, the Pentagon now uses legal, if secret, contracts to outsource work to bona fide corporations. This outsourcing of military contracts mushroomed during the first Bush administration as a policy initiative of then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who would later go on to make millions working for the same companies he provided contracts to, such as Halliburton.Like the privately-funded Contras in the ’80s, today publicly funded yet legally unaccountable corporations do the dirty work: corporations operating under secret government contracts, like CACI, two of whose employees have been implicated in the torture at Abu Ghraib; corporations, like the one, as yet unnamed, whose interrogator is being investigated by the Justice Department for possible murder; and corporations like DynCorp.In the late ’90s, DynCorp employees who worked for the U.N.’s international police force in Bosnia were involved in gun running, rape and sex trafficking. The DynCorp site supervisor, for example, videotaped himself raping two young women, while another employee bought an underage girl as a sex slave for $700 and kept her in his apartment. Two DynCorp employees who reported these crimes to the company were summarily fired. The guilty sex offenders also were fired but never charged with a crime. The company is currently under a 10-year contract with the State Department to hire 1,000 law enforcement officers to train the Iraqi police and run the Iraqi prison system.There are no laws in place that regulate the overseas behavior of the employees of Pentagon contractors. In an interview with “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross, P.W. Singer, author of Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry put it this way:We have a senior military leadership and a senior political leadership that’s in denial. … When Secretary Rumsfeld talks about military outsourcing, the examples that he uses are things like mowing lawns at military bases or answering phones. … The reality is that contractors are out there doing everything from logistics to training up local forces to actually fighting in battles in Iraq to doing interrogations, and we have to deal with this broader system. Right now, it’s unregulated and there are not the laws in place to deal with what happens when it goes bad.And the scandal will continue to unfold. Al-Watan, a Saudi daily, has quoted a European intelligence service report as saying that “worse and uglier violations” have taken place at other prisons in Iraq, such as the systematic rape of women, the sodomy of men and the use of electric shock against the Iraqi prisoners.Which brings to mind Rumsfeld’s response to the looting of Baghdad after the fall of Saddam: “Stuff happens.” Of course some stuff didn’t happen, like the destruction of the Iraqi national oil ministry, which was guarded from the get-go. In other words, what happens or doesn’t happen is a matter of policy—not fate.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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