America, Torture and Hypocrisy
[International Committee of the
Red Cross report on U.S. Torture]
by Robert Parry
The International Committee of the Red
Cross's torture report should be required reading for all Americans
not just because its contents are shocking - which they are -
but because it reveals that the United States is not the special
nation that it often pretends to be, and won't be as long as it
chooses to look away from such crimes.
A sad lesson from 9/11 is that the United
States, which has long lectured the rest of the world about human
rights, is no different than any other place after some shocking
attack on its national security.
Washington will sink to levels of paranoia
and barbarism just as fast as others will, especially if its leadership
already has those inclinations as it did under President George
Arguably, the only real differences between
the United States and some other government that debases itself
with torture and vengeance are that the U.S. can inflict far more
damage due to its unprecedented military power and that it is
more prone to self-delusion from its sophisticated national PR.
The 41-page ICRC report, dated Feb.14,
2007, depicts scenes that could have come from the Middle Ages:
naked prisoners forced to stand for long periods with their hands
shackled over their heads or strapped to a bench while subjected
to the drowning sensation of waterboarding or locked in tiny boxes
as they scream and soil themselves.
The scenes reek of sadism, as if President
Bush took some perverse pleasure in inflicting pain and humiliation
on these people, much like an ancient king getting satisfaction
in a grotesque punishment against someone who dared to challenge
his authority. There was a similar sense of sick joy in the way
Bush reacted to the hanging of Iraq's Saddam Hussein on Dec. 30,
But what is perhaps most significant about
Official Washington's blasé attitude toward the disclosures
about Bush's hearty embrace of the dark side is that it is part
of a pattern: the nation's elites have long reacted to evidence
of American complicity in torture and war crimes with a convenient
blindness and a huge supply of double standards.
Though Bush and his inner circle may have
crossed lines by directly involving the U.S. government in gross
violations of international law, presidents of both parties have
aided and abetted similar brutality when committed by American
allies during the Cold War.
Indeed, that record of extraordinary cruelty
is the largely unwritten history of the Cold War, the U.S. government
letting its fear of international communism lead to both tolerance
and encouragement of Nazi-like practices: torture, assassination,
mass slaughters and political repression.
Even after the Cold War ended, the United
States refused to examine this ugly history in any systematic
way. Though Democrat Bill Clinton was the first President elected
after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he ignored calls for serious
examinations of that historical era - until late in his presidency
when he did declassify some documents relating to U.S. policy
Then, after a Guatemalan truth commission
based its investigation partly on the declassified U.S. record,
Clinton issued an apology to the people of Guatemala for Washington's
role in decades of atrocities that killed an estimated 200,000
people, including what was deemed genocide against Mayan Indians
in the country's highlands during the Reagan administration.
While the Guatemalan records are starkly
illustrative of how successive U.S. administrations enabled torture
and mass murder, it represents only a sliver of the sordid Cold
War history, with similar policies replicated in countries around
the world for nearly half a century.
This wasn't just coincidence, either.
Other information that surfaced during the Clinton administration
revealed that the U.S. military pulled together the lessons from
brutal counterinsurgency warfare in the 1950s and early 1960s
into a series of training manuals for Third World militaries.
The U.S. intelligence community began
compiling those lessons in 1965 by commissioning what became known
as "Project X."
Based at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center
and School at Fort Holabird, Maryland, the project was tasked
with the development of lesson plans which would "provide
intelligence training to friendly foreign countries," according
to a brief history, which was prepared in 1991. __Called "a
guide for the conduct of clandestine operations," Project
X "was first used by the U.S. Intelligence School on Okinawa
to train Vietnamese and, presumably, other foreign nationals,"
the history stated. __Linda Matthews of the Pentagon's Counterintelligence
Division recalled that in 1967-68, some of the Project X training
material was prepared by officers connected to the so-called Phoenix
program in Vietnam, an operation that involved targeting, interrogating
and assassinating suspected Viet Cong.
"She suggested the possibility that
some offending material from the Phoenix program may have found
its way into the Project X materials at that time," according
to the Pentagon report. __In the 1970s, the U.S. Army Intelligence
Center and School moved to Fort Huachuca in Arizona and began
exporting Project X material to U.S. military assistance groups
working with "friendly foreign countries." By the mid-1970s,
the Project X material was going to military forces all over the
'School of Assassins'__In 1982, the Pentagon's
Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence ordered
the Fort Huachuca center to supply lesson plans to the School
of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which human rights activists
denounced as the School of the Assassins because it trained some
of Latin America's most notorious military officers.
"The working group decided to use
Project X material because it had previously been cleared for
foreign disclosure," the Pentagon history stated. __According
to surviving documents released under a Freedom of Information
Act request, the Project X lessons contained a full range of intelligence
activities. A 1972 listing of Project X lesson plans covered aerial
surveillance, electronic eavesdropping, interrogation, counter-sabotage
measures, counter-intelligence, handling of informants, break-ins
and censorship. __One manual warned that insurgents might even
"resort to subversion of the government by means of elections
[in which] insurgent leaders participate in political contests
as candidates for government office."
Citizens were put on "'black, gray
or white lists' for the purpose of identifying and prioritizing
adversary targets." The lessons suggested creation of inventories
of families and their assets to keep tabs on the population.
The internal U.S. government review of
Project X began in 1991 when the Pentagon discovered that the
Spanish-language manuals were advising Latin American trainees
on assassinations, torture and other "objectionable"
The manuals suggested coercive methods
for recruiting counter-intelligence operatives, including arresting
the target's parents or beating him until he agreed to infiltrate
a guerrilla organization. To undermine guerrilla forces, the training
manuals countenanced "executions" and operations "to
eliminate a potential rival among the guerrillas." __By summer
1991, the investigation of Project X was raising concerns about
an adverse public reaction to evidence that the U.S. government
had long sanctioned - and even encouraged - brutal methods of
But the PR problem was contained when
the office of then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney ordered that
all relevant Project X material be collected and brought to the
Pentagon under a recommendation that most of it be destroyed.
The recommendation received approval from
senior Pentagon officials, presumably with Cheney's blessings.
Some of the more innocuous Project X lesson plans - and the historical
summary - were spared, but the Project X manuals that dealt with
the sensitive human rights violations were destroyed in 1992,
the Pentagon reported. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost
Even more historically significant than
eliminating most Project X records was the successful Republican
campaign in the mid-1990s to glorify the presidency of Ronald
Reagan, which included putting his name on Washington National
Airport and transforming him into an iconic figure beyond normal
In reality, Reagan was the pleasant face
put on a long record of U.S. tolerance for the most grotesque
actions by pro-U.S. dictators and right-wing terrorists around
In 1980, Reagan's election was greeted
with unalloyed joy by Third World oligarchs and tyrants, tired
of Jimmy Carter's nagging about human rights. Their optimism was
not misplaced. For years, Reagan had been a staunch defender of
right-wing regimes engaged in bloody counterinsurgency campaigns
against leftist enemies.
In the late 1970s, when Carter's human
rights coordinator, Pat Derian, criticized the Argentine military
for its "dirty war" -- tens of thousands of "disappearances,"
tortures and murders -- then-political commentator Reagan joshed
that Derian should "walk a mile in the moccasins" of
the Argentine generals before criticizing them. [See Martin Edwin
Andersen's Dossier Secreto.]
Despite his aw shucks style, Reagan found
virtually every anticommunist action justified, no matter how
From his eight years in the White House,
there is no historical indication that he was troubled by the
bloodbath, torture and even genocide that occurred in Central
America during his presidency, while he was shipping hundreds
of millions of dollars in military aid to the implicated forces.
The death toll was staggering - an estimated
70,000 or more political killings in El Salvador, possibly 20,000
slain from the Reagan-organized contra war in Nicaragua, about
200 political "disappearances" in Honduras and some
100,000 people eliminated during a resurgence of political violence
in Guatemala. Many victims suffered rape and torture before their
Yet, even as the world community has sought
to punish war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and now
Sudan, no substantive discussion has occurred in the United States
about facing up to Reagan's horrendous record of the 1980s - or
holding accountable implicated U.S. officials or the pro-U.S.
killers and torturers in Central America and elsewhere.
Some of those U.S. officials, such as
former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and former
Ambassador to Honduras John Negroponte, returned to key national
security jobs under George W. Bush. Dick Cheney was back, too,
as Vice President.
A Troubling Record
So, given that history of U.S. officials
sanctioning torture and murder by allies and encountering no accountability,
it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that - post 9/11 -
the Bush administration would take the next step and authorize
the barbarism directly.
Still, that troubling reality had to be
kept under wraps to maintain the fiction that "the United
States doesn't torture." Which explains why President Bush
flew into such a rage - and expressed such personal disgust -
when the photographs of the Abu Ghraib abuses in Iraq were leaked.
But Bush couldn't have been outraged by
the forced nudity and the humiliation inflicted on the Abu Ghraib
prisoners, since he had been authorizing similar tactics at secret
CIA prisons and at Guantanamo Bay. Still, he made a lesson out
of the low-ranking prison guards by court-martialing those foolish
enough to let photographs of the abuses reach the public.
There is also evidence that President
Bush authorized "death squad" tactics in Iraq, Afghanistan
and around the globe. Linking those sanctioned executions to the
atrocities of the 1980s in Central America was the description
from some Bush administration officials that they were planning
a "Salvador option" in Iraq. [See Consortiumnews.com's
"Bush's Death Squads."]
In 2007, military criminal cases surfaced
in which elite American snipers and Special Forces units defended
themselves against murder charges by citing loose rules of engagement,
which let them execute unarmed suspects who were on an authorized
death list. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Bush's Global Dirty
Despite all this old and new evidence
of Bush's war crimes, the smart money in Washington is still betting
that the Obama administration - like the Clinton administration
16 years ago - will take the easy route and opt to look forward,
Only an outraged populace - Americans
who believe that their country should live up to the high standards
that it demands of others - could force the politicians to finally
take seriously the need for accountability in the face of war
crimes and to prosecute those responsible for the worst offenses,
however high their rank.
That wouldn't make the United States all
that special - other countries have faced up to dark chapters
of their own history, most recently Peru in convicting ex-President
Alberto Fujimori on April 7 for his role in a political death
But the prosecution of George W. Bush's
war crimes would show that America is a land of integrity that
means what it says about human rights, not just a place for self-congratulatory
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His
latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W.
Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be
ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy &
Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq
and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth'.
International War Crimes