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Steve Weissman: Bush Reaps What Kennedy Sowed

Torture: Bush Reaps What Kennedy Sowed

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Thursday 24 June 2004

New photos of American soldiers raping and killing Iraqis will likely emerge in the coming days, as Secretary Rumsfeld obliquely warned us weeks ago. Far more graphic than any images we have yet seen, they will again drag Team Bush through the mud, further mocking their claims to uphold human rights and mucking up their celebration of "Iraqi sovereignty."

Taking the scandal beyond coercive interrogation, the new horror show will make real the brutality that war brings out, especially against men and women who look, dress, talk, eat, and worship in ways that seem so foreign. In young soldiers from Kansas and West Virginia, we will see the same contempt that European conquerors showed in their colonial flings, even as they preached the Word of God or the Values of Western Civilization. In jargon of an electronic age, we will hear the blood-curdling echoes of earlier American heroes wresting control of an entire continent from those who lived there before, not to mention those pumped-up imperial forays across the Pacific and into Latin America.

Remember Manifest Destiny and the White Man's Burden, the high-minded phrases that hid the old down-and-dirty? War on Terror, Democracy (of an export kind), and the New American Century follow in the same tradition, celebrated or despised depending on which side of the boot one sees and who ends up with the oil. Only now, most of the world - and growing numbers of Americans - want to shed the whole bloody business.

Which brings us back to those coercive interrogation techniques. Call them stress and duress, torture-lite, or just plain torture, they remain central to America's colonial adventures from Vietnam to Iraq.

When John F. Kennedy entered the White House in 1961, he and his advisors looked warily at the growing nationalism in the old European colonies. Self-proclaimed communists - like Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam or Fidel Castro in Cuba - raised a red flag, while even non-communists - like Sukarno in Indonesia - threatened Western control of oil and strategic minerals.

JFK responded by sending several thousand more Americans into Southeast Asia and proclaiming his Alliance for Progress in Latin America. Scholars and conspiracy addicts still speculate on whether he would have further escalated or pulled out of Vietnam had he not been killed, but his impact south of the border became obvious early on. Whatever his original intent, his liberal sounding Alliance helped native elites stave off needed reforms, defended yanqui corporations, and strengthened local armies. Six military coups overthrew civilian governments before he died, and a seventh took control in Brazil a few months after.

JFK favored the kind of muscular foreign policy that today's neo-conservatives push, and many of them at the time supported his approach, whatever the human cost or long-range consequences.

Both in Vietnam and Latin America, Kennedy relied heavily on American military advisors, many of them Green Berets, in whom he showed enormous interest. They knew how to withstand torture. They also knew how to apply it - and how to teach client armies to do the same.

Fighting in foreign lands against rebels who often had at-least passive support from their people, the US advisors and the armies they trained needed to produce intelligence on the run. Torture, or coercive interrogation, was one way to get it.

Whether to elicit information or simply to terrorize the opposition, torture had historically played a role in holding down rebellious population. But, always in character, the New Frontier brought new thinking to bear.

The theory came initially from the CIA's Office of Science and Technology, which spent a fortune studying how to make unwilling people talk. Starting in the 1950s, the spooky scientists tested LSD and other drugs, brainwashing, hypnosis, polygraphs, electric shock, and a wide range of other physical and psychological pressures.

They also borrowed from the French, who perfected their torture techniques in losing colonial wars against the Vietnamese and Algerians. No doubt, the British "cousins" also offered ideas from their equally nasty effort to hold an empire together.

The CIA summed up this macabre research in a classified manual they called "KUBARK Counter Intelligence Interrogation - July 1963." KUBARK was code for the CIA, which used the ideas in its murderous Operation Phoenix in Vietnam. The US military also used the manual extensively, notably at Fort Benning's School of the Americas, teaching it to upcoming officers from throughout the hemisphere and helping create the most notorious tyrants and torturers.

One passage strikes almost everyone who sees it: In choosing an interrogation site, "the electric current should be known in advance, so that transformers and other modifying devices will be on hand if needed."

But the KUBARK manual goes far beyond how to create pain. In fact, it points out the limitations. "Direct physical brutality creates only resentment, hostility, and further defiance," the authors warn. "The threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself. The threat to inflict pain, for example, can trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain."

Read the manual for yourself. You can find it - and a Reagan-era update - online at the National Security Archive. Here you will see exactly why the Pentagon wanted young prison guards at Abu Ghraib to keep the Iraqis naked, sexually humiliate them, sic dogs on them, force them into stress positions, continually break up their eating and sleeping routines, deprive them of sensory stimulation, and apply several other clear-cut violations of the Geneva Conventions.

As the 1963 manual makes clear, the Pentagon's goal in 2003 was not to produce unbearable pain. Instead, the Pentagon wanted to exploit their captives' internal conflicts, make them wrestle in themselves, force them to regress toward childhood, make them feel dread and guilt, and render them unable to hold back information interrogators wanted.

Whether in Afghanistan, Guantánamo, Iraq, or its global gulag of secret torture centers, Team Bush did not conjure all this up as they rushed to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Stress and duress, and the people trained to use it, have been in the American arsenal for years. They were there ready for the administration to use. Bush lawyers did not even have to think up the argument that stress and duress was something less than torture. The canard has been around as long as the techniques themselves.

Where Bush and his advisers showed their originality was in characteristically going too far. The KUBARK manual warned field interrogators never to use the techniques without explicit approval of higher-ups, who would weigh the need for intelligence against the risk that outsiders might learn that Americans were using torture.

Later versions carried warning labels: "The use of force, mental torture, threats, insults or exposure to inhumane treatment of any kind as an aid to interrogation is prohibited by law, both international and domestic; it is neither authorized nor condoned."

"While we deplore the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them so that you may avoid them."

Beyond the obvious CYA, the Pentagon and CIA both tried to maintain plausible denial, having senior officials decide when to apply which methods, or letting foreign nationals do most of the dirty work. Mr. Bush ignored such restraints, making wholesale, even boastful use of coercive techniques that his predecessors had tried to use on the sly.

Mr. Bush will continue to proclaim that torture is un-American and that he has ordered "humane treatment" for those his forces capture. But no one will believe him or his successors unless Congress makes into binding law the notion best expressed by Michael Ignatieff, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"I just think we need to start with one simple idea, which is that liberal democracies do not torture, ever, period," says Ignatieff. "Wars on terror are a battle for hearts and minds. We can't win a battle for hearts and minds if we are seen to be torturing and abusing people in our care."


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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