Notes From the Margins…

The CIA’s Torture Gardens

  • December 11, 2014
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America, perhaps more than any other country, has a striking ability to turn even the grimmest evidence of moral failure into a testament to its exalted moral status, and the response to the Senate Intelligence Select Committee Report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program is no exception.

As heavily-redacted as it is,   the report nevertheless constitutes the most complete account so far of the disgusting practices that were adopted by the CIA during the Bush administration’s terrorwars, from ‘waterboarding’ and ‘rectal feeding’ to the full range of ‘enhanced interrogations’ adopted from the SERE program.

The report also makes it clear that the CIA lied systematically to the US government and the American public to hide what it was doing, and deliberately exaggerated the quality of intelligence it received from its interrogation program in order to boost its budget and convince the government of the viability of its methods.

Faced with this dismal picture of lawless cruelty, proponents of American moral ‘leadership’ have been falling over themselves to regain the lost moral high ground.     The tone was set by Obama himself, in a press statement on the report in which he praised the CIA and the intelligence community for its patriotism and heroism,   and expressed his empathy with the ‘agonizing choices’ these operatives were forced to make in order to protect the country, before finally getting round to point out that ‘some of the actions that were taken were contrary to our values.’

In suggesting that such behavior was an aberration, Obama also maintained that the report would restore American exceptionalism, because ‘one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better.’

This same notion was summed up by the indefatigable warmonger John McCain, in an eloquent condemnation of torture to the Senate on Tuesday, in which he argued:

We need not risk our national honor to prevail in this or any war. We need only remember in the worst of times, through the chaos and terror of war, when facing cruelty, suffering and loss, that we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.

At the risk of being accused of ‘anti-Americanism’ I beg to differ.   Because as far as torture is concerned, the historical record suggests that Americans have not always been ‘different, stronger, and better’ than their enemies, and that there has been a consistent discrepancy between what America says about it itself and what it actually does.

Sometimes there has been no discrepancy at all.     As far back as the seventeenth century ‘King Philip’s War’, white settlers were torturing Naragansett Indians in New England, who also tortured them.    During the American Civil War, Union troops in Missouri tortured Confederate guerrillas and ‘bushwhackers’ to get information from them or simply in order to terrorize them.

During the US Army’s brutal suppression of the Philippines rebellion in 1899-1902, US soldiers tortured Filipino ‘insurgents’ openly and with complete impunity.   One common practice, which was later adopted by the Japanese army during World War II, was to pump suspected insurgents full of water and then stomp on their stomachs.

Some soldiers photographed these interrogations and sent them back like holiday snapshots, and they received vocal support from the domestic imperialist lobby.     Despite a high-level investigation into US war crimes in the Philippines, no soldiers were ever charged or prosecuted for these practices.

It was true that the US Army explicitly rejected the use of torture during World War II, but such reticence was quickly dispensed with the onset of the Cold War, as the United States took on primary responsibility for combating leftist anti-colonial and national liberation movements under the banner of counterinsurgency.   In 1954 the Doolittle Report on the Covert Activities of the CIA   declared

It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. If the United States is to survive, long standing concepts of “fair play” must be reconsidered.

This philosophy may have exaggerated the importance of ‘fair play’ as a governing principle of American warfare, but it nevertheless had a number of very real consequences.  One of them was a new willingness to embrace the use of torture in the wars and counterinsurgency campaigns that America participated in or indirectly supported, and also as an instrument of terror and repression by the dictatorships that became its allies during the Cold War.

America was by no means the only country to accept the notion that democratic states had to adopt exceptional methods to defeat an enemy who did not play by the ‘rules; the French military and secret services tortured freely and widely in Indochina and Algeria and exported their techniques to Latin America.     But American acceptance of torture was not seen as compatible with the post-war identification of torture as a moral evil, and did not sit well with America’s claims to ‘moral leadership.’

As a result both the CIA and the US military establishment preferred to outsource torture to its allies, while providing logistical or practical assistance through police training or overseas development programs, such as those operated by the police officer Dan Mitrione in Brazil and Uruguay, who was kidnapped and executed by the Tupamaros.     In Vietnam, Guatemala and El Salvador,   American CIA operatives colluded in torture programs that were already in place or run by others.

These programs generally went far beyond anything that Americans were allowed to do, but American involvement in them was often concealed by a facade of ‘plausible deniability’ that enabled the CIA to maintain a discreet distance.

Nor was torture limited to the CIA. Testimonies from   US veterans during the Vietnam war make it clear that many soldiers routinely tortured Vietcong suspects or potential sources of information during ‘search and destroy’ missions in the countryside, but as in the Philippines, such behavior almost always went unpunished.

In the aftermath of 9/11 discretion and ‘plausible deniability’ were dispensed with – up to a point – as the US national security establishment announced their determination to wage war against al-Qaeda or ‘terror’ in general by ‘taking the gloves off.’   This transformation received full political support from the Bush administration, which tweaked laws and played semantic games so that torture was described as ‘enhanced interrogation’ in order to exempt certain practices from national and international treaties.

The horrors of 9/11 were also instrumental in forging a new culture of cruelty that made it seem legitimate and even essential to torture ‘terrorists.’     Brutish macho fantasies such as 24 disseminated the notion of the ‘ticking bomb terrorist’ from whom information must be obtained by any means in order to ‘save lives’ so that the notion of the ‘good torturer’ achieved a new cultural legitimacy.

The Argentinian torturers of the 1970s   ‘dirty war’ also tried to convince themselves that the torture chamber was a ‘battlefield’ in a new kind of ‘war.’     The Bush administration’s  convoluted attempts to redefine torture did not allow the CIA to go that far, but the agency was nevertheless able to send suspects off to countries that were not bound by semantics or any limitations at all.

As in the Philippines and in Vietnam, the idea that torture might be legitimate rested not just on the otherness of the ‘terrorist’, but on the otherness of the ‘native’ who could not be constrained or fought by ‘civilized norms’.   In the case of the war on terror Arabs and Muslims became the racial, religious or cultural Other, for whom the ‘porno-interrogations’ of Abu Ghraib were supposed to have some special cultural purchase.

So when we look at these histories, we can say for sure that there are other countries that have been worse torturers than the United States, but that does not mean that America has the right to claim the moral high ground.

And torture may not be compatible with the values and principles that America seeks to define itself by, but whatever Obama and McCain might say, these values have not always prevailed in America’s wars, and we should not be fooled into believing otherwise.


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  1. Mike

    11th Dec 2014 - 7:38 pm

    Strong stuff Matt, thanks for reminding us of the miserable historical evidence. Just for the record and following up on your reference to the French in Algeria, you may be interested to know that Marine Le Pen has gotten people rather upset by saying that she supports the use of torture “when necessary to save lives.” Her remarks have sparked a good deal of anger in the French media and she has been forced to retract. It transpires that her father, the famous Front National hero, has long been suspected of playing an active role in torturing Algerians in the 1960s. Anyway, it is always a relief when the extreme right shows their true colors and what we can look forward to when they sweep to power (hope not of course…). Mike

    • Matt

      11th Dec 2014 - 9:20 pm

      Did she really say that? Well no doubt Lieutenant Le Pen was ‘saving lives’ too…Their humanity is humbling.

      • Mike

        11th Dec 2014 - 10:08 pm

        You can watch the video of her remarks on Le Monde’s website. Interrogée par BFM-TV et RMC sur le rapport américain détaillant des sévices infligés par la CIA à des personnes suspectées de terrorisme, la présidente du Front national a estimé que dans les cas où une « bombe (…) doit exploser dans une heure ou deux et accessoirement peut faire 200 ou 300 victimes civiles », « il est utile de faire parler la personne ». It is the famous ticking bomb excuse for using torture. Bonsoir and sweet dreams!

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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