Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A culture of torture

As we've seen over the last few weeks, Rep. Paul Ryan's reference to a "culture" in inner cities has created quite a conversation about the history and meaning of culture when it comes to white supremacy and African Americans. However, as I wrote before, I'd suggest that one of the most important things Ta-Nehisi Coates said in response to all of this was:
...is the culture of West Baltimore actually less virtuous than the culture of Wall Street? I've seen no such evidence.
In light of all the current talk about the upcoming release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the use of torture during the Bush/Cheney administration, I'm going to take the liberty of altering that quote in order to make a point. Consider this:
...is the culture of West Baltimore actually less virtuous than the culture of the CIA? I've seen no such evidence.
Just as Rep. Ryan makes no effort to understand the historical context of the culture he witnesses in inner cities, I'd suggest that simply looking at the CIA's use of torture in one moment of time will never be sufficient to get to the root of the problem. That's why I find the title the editorial board of the LA Times uses so off the mark: Time to Expose the CIA's Dark Side. It will take more than the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report to expose the culture of torture that exists in the CIA.

Back in 2007, when the Bush/Cheney administration's use of extraordinary rendition and torture were coming to light, Greg Grandin made the connection so many others missed.
In fact, it was in Latin America that the CIA and U.S. military intelligence agents, working closely with local allies, first helped put into place the unholy trinity of government-sponsored terrorism now on display in Iraq and elsewhere: death squads, disappearances and torture.
The list of examples of what Grandin is referring to are too numerous to recount here. However, it is important to note that during the time he is talking about, the United States operated what was then called the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) which was tasked with training the police/military forces of Central and South American governments in "anti-communist counterinsurgency" techniques. Among those was the use of torture and assassination.
On the lessons taught at the School, former SoA direction of instruction Maj. Joseph Blair said, "The doctrine that was taught was that if you want information you use physical abuse, you use false imprisonment, you use threats to family members, you use virtually any method necessary to get what you want... [including torture] and killing.
Much of what we've learned about the use of those techniques comes from when they were used against American citizens living in South/Central America. Perhaps the most publicized example of that was when four nuns were raped and murdered by Salvadoran death squads in 1980.

But the story of Sister Dianna Ortiz reveals much about the parallels of what happened under the Bush/Cheney administration and her experience in Guatemala in 1989.  She was abducted by military forces, tortured and repeatedly raped. The entire ordeal was captured in videos and pictures taken by her assailants. At one point, an American male came on the scene and told them to stop.
He ordered the men to stop the torture, telling them that I was a North American nun, and that my disappearance had become public, and it was because — my disappearance was beginning to cause an uproar.
Its clear who was in charge - because the Guatemalans who had been torturing Sister Ortiz stopped what they were doing on those orders. The American man helped her get dressed, put her in his car and gave her a dire warning as they drove away.
...during the ride he told me to forgive my torturers, telling me that they were all just trying to fight communism; if I didn’t, that there would be consequences. He reminded me that my torturers had made videotapes and had taken photographs of the part of the torture that I was most ashamed of...[he] told me that if I didn’t forgive my torturers, he would have no other choice than to release the videotapes and the photos to the press.
We know that it was common practice for the CIA to videotape and photograph their use of torture during the Bush/Cheney years. Perhaps now you understand why. That was part of the technique taught at the School of the Americas and carried forward.

All of this is to say that - if we are serious about wanting to "expose the CIA's dark side" - we have to take a long view backwards. What the Bush/Cheney administration did was despicable. But it didn't spring up out of whole cloth during their 8 years in office.

There is also, of course, the question about how that culture is operating going forward. President Obama shut down the black sites operated by the Bush/Cheney administration and ended the use of torture. But short of shutting down intelligence operations, the process of changing a culture will likely take years and happen outside of public scrutiny. As we watch the President maneuver the current battle between the Senate Intelligence Communittee and the CIA, I know that I'll be watching for signs of how he's doing that.


  1. I have no doubt that this administration has slammed the door closed on our abetting other nations in their use of torture as well as ending our own teaching and practice.

    That said, I fully and completely agree that these are acts that could be immediately revived in different administrations with very different views. So long as powerful interests see torture as valuable, the potential is always there.

    We must make clear that our nation's security is not assisted in any way by the violation of international standards of human rights. The claims that torture 'works' are perilously dangerous because it does, indeed, "work' but not as avowed. Torture never has secured evidence, facts, intelligence because that is never its purpose. It is to do to nations what was done to Sr. Ortiz - immobilize them and their activism through terror. It is an act designed with one goal and that is asserting the power of one entity over all others. In 1975 French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote "Discipline and Punish"in which he laid out the role of discipline - torture being only one device - designed to control the actions of others in the service of the sovereign.

    Torture works in that way. Nations and their people are terrorized by the specter of violence, dismemberment, pain, isolation, and harm to loved ones to thwart their resistance to the agent that tortures. Silence is demanded. Compliance required. Submission essential. What, historically has always happened, however, is that torture has generated mass resistance and hate directed at those who engage in the torture be it King, Lord, or Nation.

    The complete eradication of basic humanity through such brutality does harm to the entire fabric of democracy and human equality, but it never goes unchallenged. It creates massive social destabilization in direct opposition to the desired goal of compliance, and it puts those who torture into the category of the damned who must be destroyed. If the acts of any administration use torture in violation of our basic human principles, it involves us as a nation, a people, a part of humanity. Those who accept or allow torture are complicit in the violations, and yes, it is not enough to think exposure of this nation's use of torture 2001-2008 is enough. We have spread the use of torture and its legitimacy throughout the world by pretending it fights an evil. It IS the evil. And we lose our national independence and our humanity whenever we assert that it is all right. If we are to end the practice permanently, we have to accept how often and how long we as a nation have engaged in the practice and accept what hideous damage it has done to our standing in the world and what it has done to us as human beings. We must stop private interests that fund dictators who employ torture, and we must cease to allow our government in any way to engage in the use or teaching of this vile and disgusting practice. The report must be the beginning, NOT the end.

    1. You begin to get at what I would call the "culture of torture" when you talk about it - not as an attempt to get information - but as an attempt to terrorize, oppress and dominate.

      So when I talk about rooting out the culture of torture in the CIA - its not simply about stopping the practice of torture (which PBO has done). Its about reforming the culture that seeks to terrorize and oppress as a way to dominate.

  2. That is what makes this essay by you so important. It is NOT this single 'aberration' that we wish to believe was confined to Bush and Cheney but is embedded now in our entire Cold War mentality. PBO is challenging our basic right to inflict "legitimate US interests" on other people then enforce it via the SOA trainings of others to do our dirty work. We have been imperialist since at least the 1890s, and torture while formally off the books has crept increasingly into our policies as a way of enforcing our national dominance over all others. Bush and Cheney made it manifest - others at least turned a blind eye. Every time we assert interests that are at odds with democracy, with self direction, with other nations' sovereignty, we open the possibility of doing this again. At the end of WW II rather than standing on the very principles we upheld at Nuremberg, we actually embraced the actions of our enemy and incorporated them into our overseas expansionism. Others such as France did the same. It becomes too easy to justify these horrors as a part of national self defense when torture itself increases our vulnerability and never ever ends it. Torture is an end to itself because it is designed simply to assert total domination. That's the lure that has to be challenged.

    1. Excellent point. One could make the point that torture DNA has been imprinted into our national soul since the country was discovered.and Indians were brutalized, then moving later into history when slavery was introduced to this continent. Our "National Body" has metabolized torture. I'm glad you brought the crimes aided and abetted by the Reagan administration (though US was also complicit in bringing Pinochet and his reign of terror into power in 1973). These crimes against humanity are not done in a vacuum by one of "them". There is an energy in the culture that feeds it. I think our task is to start with ourselves as individuals to see if and how we might be feeding this energy. In my case it's allowing fear of these forces and my need to be afraid to rob me of my own power to change myself. I need to stop feeding the monster.


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