Global Policy Forum

Feels Like the Third Time


By Stephen Kinzer*

American Prospect
June 11, 2004

Newly unearthed, once-classified documents remind us that Abu Ghraib is hardly the first time that torture became policy.

Not everyone was shocked by the revelations of the ways American soldiers have abused Iraqi prisoners. Those who have studied techniques that American interrogators taught and used in Vietnam, Latin America, and elsewhere during past decades felt only a grim sense of recognition.

"We are living an illusion if we think these practices are unique," said Robert White, a former U.S. ambassador to Paraguay and El Salvador. "What is unique is the graphic pictorial evidence that drives it home. But that the United States has been complicit with torture in Vietnam and Latin America, there can be no doubt. It may be sinking into the public consciousness for the first time, but expressions of shock from people whose business is foreign policy are quite hypocritical."

In Vietnam, some American intelligence officers were taught techniques of torture developed by France and other countries that had waged counterinsurgency wars. The best-known of the programs in which the techniques were used, called Operation Phoenix, was aimed at eliminating enemy spies and informers and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Vietnamese, some of whom died during torture.

Many of the most prominent officers accused of promoting torture in Latin America during the 1970s and '80s were graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas, where U.S. trainers instruct officers from Latin American countries. Since the school's founding in 1946, more than 60,000 Latin American officers have attended its courses, among them General Leopoldo Galtieri, who headed Argentina's military junta in the early 1980s; Colonel Roberto D'Aubuisson, leader of a death squad in El Salvador during the same period; and former Guatemalan President Efrain Rios Montt, during whose presidency thousands of Guatemalan civilians were tortured and murdered.

Defenders of the school, which in 2001 was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, say it should not be blamed for the actions of a small number of its graduates. The law under which its name was changed stipulated that each student should receive at least eight hours of instruction in "human rights, the rule of law, due process, civilian control of the military, and the role of the military in a democratic society."

After graduates of the School of the Americas were implicated in the murder of priests and nuns in El Salvador during the 1980s, a group of religious activists in the United States launched a campaign to close it. The campaign is continuing, with another protest scheduled for November near the school's headquarters at Fort Benning, Georgia.

In May, the Washington-based National Security Archive, a private research group that specializes in disseminating once-classified documents, posted on its Web site copies of interrogation manuals that trainers at the School of the Americas distributed to their students starting in the 1960s. It said the manuals "described 'coercive techniques' such as those used to mistreat detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq." One of them, published in 1983, recommends that interrogators seek "to create unpleasant or intolerable situations, to disrupt patterns of time, space, and sensory perception." That manual became the subject of a congressional investigation in the mid-1980s following charges that military interrogators in Honduras used it to plan torture sessions. The CIA later made several changes in the text, including adding a sentence that read, "While we deplore the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them so that you may avoid them."

The National Security Archive also posted a 1992 report prepared for then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney warning that the U.S. Army was using interrogation manuals containing "offensive and objectionable material" that "undermines U.S. credibility, and could result in significant embarrassment."

Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, said he found it remarkable that the United States ambassador to Honduras during the 1980s, John D. Negroponte, has just been named ambassador to Iraq. "That's pretty amazing, because he's no stranger to these kinds of operations, allegations, and scandals," Kornbluh said. "He's going to have to face the fact that these pictures are renewing assessments of our past conduct, as well as our current conduct in other places."

Stories of American involvement in torture abroad have surfaced periodically. In 1996 The Washington Post published a front-page article, headlined "U. S. Instructed Latins on Executions, Torture; Manuals Used 1982-91, Pentagon Reveals." Such stories had only limited impact, most likely for two reasons: They described techniques that Americans taught, rather than used, and they were not accompanied by photographs.

"What this latest scandal shows is how easy it is to deny or ignore or cover up written evidence, and the impossibility of ignoring photographic evidence," Mr. Kornbluh said.

After the pictures from Abu Ghraib became public, Bertha Oliva de Nativí­, who heads the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras, said she found them painfully familiar. "Seeing the photographs of the torture in Iraq, we realized that those were the same techniques listed in the CIA manual," Ms. Nativí­ told the ANSA news agency in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. "They brought back memories from the past."

Father Roy Bourgeois, a leading organizer of protests against the Fort Benning school, said photos from Abu Ghraib "do not represent an isolated incident or an aberration, but are actually part of a pattern that stretches back many years." He said the photos have led some Americans to conclude that their soldiers are not uniquely repulsed by the idea of torture.

"We had 10,000 people at the gate of Fort Benning last November, and I know for a fact we will have many more this year as a result of what has happened in Iraq," Fr. Bourgeois said. "Wherever I go, a lot of people are making that connection."

About the Author: Stephen Kinzer is a New York Times reporter. He is co-author of Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala and the author of All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.

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