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Sunday, September 12, 2004

Nothing New Under the Sun 

We just received an e-mail from Zemblan patriot J.W., who'd been watching popular television personality Alan Colmes on -- what was the show? We think he said it was Celebrity Speed Wank -- but anyway, Alan Colmes had just admonished the other contestant, the reigning speed-wank champion, that America was in danger of losing its moral superiority. (And if we had to name a subject on which Mr. Colmes's opinion ought to be taken seriously, boy oh boy, the loss of "superiority" would sure be it.) So Zemblan patriot J.W. wanted to know: when did America fucking have this moral superiority to begin with?

We told him we thought the likeliest answer was "from WWII on," but we couldn't be sure, because we're not historians like Gore Vidal. Which reminded us that, damn! -- we've owed Gore a call forever, so we rang him up to verify our answer. Yup, said Gore, WWII. But it all began to disintegrate in 1948 with the founding of the National Security State. And how's tricks with Zemblan patriot J-Dub?

Now it's true that if you ask Gore how often to water the tomato plant, he will tell you about the founding, in 1948, of the National Security State. But in this case his answer seemed particularly germane, because our honored colleages at Cursor had just linked to a superb TomDispatch article by Alfred McCoy, author of The Politics of Heroin; and it had prompted us to wonder whether the events of 9/11, which had already enabled various socially-unacceptable if not downright terrifying pathologies and phobias to assert themselves publicly, in the guise of "patriotism," hadn't also emboldened certain shadowy elements within our government -- elements that had always been quite fastidious in their efforts to conceal the nature of business-as-usual from an easily-shocked electorate; elements with the initials D.R. and D.C. -- to maybe drop the veil a little:
In April 2004, the American public was stunned by televised photographs from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison showing hooded Iraqis stripped naked, posed in contorted positions, and visibly suffering humiliating abuse while U.S. soldiers stood by smiling. As the scandal grabbed headlines around the globe, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld quickly assured Congress that the abuses were "perpetrated by a small number of U.S. military," whom New York Times columnist William Safire soon branded "creeps."

These photos, however, are snapshots not of simple brutality or even evidence of a breakdown in "military discipline." What they record are CIA torture techniques that have metastasized like an undetected cancer inside the U.S. intelligence community over the past half century. A survey of this history shows that the CIA was, in fact, the lead agency at Abu Ghraib, enlisting Army intelligence to support its mission. These photographs from Iraq also illustrate standard interrogation procedures inside the gulag of secret CIA prisons that have operated globally, on executive authority, since the start of the President's war on terror.

Looked at historically, the Abu Ghraib scandal is the product of a deeply contradictory U.S. policy toward torture since the start of the Cold War. At the UN and other international forums, Washington has long officially opposed torture and advocated a universal standard for human rights. Simultaneously, the CIA has propagated ingenious new torture techniques in contravention of these same international conventions, a number of which the U.S has ratified. In battling communism, the United States adopted some of its most objectionable practices -- subversion abroad, repression at home, and most significantly torture itself.

From 1950 to 1962, the CIA conducted massive, secret research into coercion and the malleability of human consciousness which, by the late fifties, was costing a billion dollars a year. Many Americans have heard about the most outlandish and least successful aspect of this research -- the testing of LSD on unsuspecting subjects. While these CIA drug experiments led nowhere and the testing of electric shock as a technique led only to lawsuits, research into sensory deprivation proved fruitful indeed. In fact, this research produced a new psychological rather than physical method of torture, perhaps best described as "no-touch" torture.

The Agency's discovery was a counterintuitive breakthrough, the first real revolution in this cruel science since the seventeenth century -- and thanks to recent revelations from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, we are now all too familiar with these methods, even if many Americans still have no idea of their history. Upon careful examination, those photographs of nude bodies expose the CIA's most basic torture techniques -- stress positions, sensory deprivation, and sexual humiliation.

By 1967, just four years after compiling a torture manual for use against a few top Soviet targets, the CIA was operating forty interrogation centers in South Vietnam as part of its Phoenix Program that killed over 20,000 Viet Cong suspects. In the centers themselves, countless thousands were tortured for information that led to these assassinations. Similarly, just a few months after CIA interrogators first tortured top Al Qaeda suspects at Kabul in 2002, its agents were involved in the brutal interrogation of hundreds of Iraqi prisoners. As its most troubling legacy, the CIA's psychological method, with its legitimating scientific patina and its avoidance of obvious physical brutality, has provided a pretext for the preservation of torture as an acceptable practice within the U.S. intelligence community.

Once adopted, torture offers such a powerful illusion of efficient information extraction that its perpetrators, high and low, remain wedded to its use. They regularly refuse to recognize its limited utility and high political cost. At least twice during the Cold War, the CIA's torture training contributed to the destabilization of two key American allies, Iran's Shah and the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos. Yet even after their spectacular falls, the Agency remained blind to the way its torture training was destroying the allies it was designed to defend.

Had he gone further, General Fay might have mentioned that the 519th Military Intelligence, the Army unit that set interrogation guidelines for Abu Ghraib, had just come from Kabul where it worked closely with the CIA, learning torture techniques that left at least one Afghani prisoner dead. Had he gone further still, the general could have added that the sensory deprivation techniques, stress positions, and cultural shock of dogs and nudity that we saw in those photos from Abu Ghraib were plucked from the pages of past CIA torture manuals.

This is not, of course, the first American debate over torture in recent memory. From 1970 to 1988, the Congress tried unsuccessfully, in four major investigations, to expose elements of this CIA torture paradigm. But on each occasion the public showed little concern, and the practice, never fully acknowledged, persisted inside the intelligence community.

Now, in these photographs from Abu Ghraib, ordinary Americans have seen the reality and the results of interrogation techniques the CIA has propagated and practiced for nearly half a century. The American public can join the international community in repudiating a practice that, more than any other, represents a denial of democracy; or in its desperate search for security, the United States can continue its clandestine torture of terror suspects in the hope of gaining good intelligence without negative publicity.

In the likely event that Washington adopts the latter strategy, it will be a decision posited on two false assumptions: that torturers can be controlled and that news of their work can be contained. Once torture begins, its use seems to spread uncontrollably in a downward spiral of fear and empowerment. With the proliferation of digital imaging we can anticipate, in five or ten years, yet more chilling images and devastating blows to America's international standing. Next time, however, the American public's moral concern and Washington's apologies will ring even more hollowly, producing even greater damage to U.S. prestige.

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