17 October 2014

Torture's back in the news, courtesy of those lurid pictures of exultant Americans laughing as they torture their Iraqi captives in a prison run by the U.S. military outside Baghdad. Apparently it takes electrodes and naked bodies piled in a simulated orgy to tickle America's moral nerve ends. Kids maimed by cluster bombs just don't do it anymore. But torture's nothing new.

            One of the darkest threads in postwar U.S. imperial history has been the CIA's involvement with torture as instructor, practitioner or contractor. Since its inception the CIA has taken a keen interest in torture, avidly studying Nazi techniques and protecting their exponents, such as Klaus Barbie. The CIA's official line is that torture is wrong and ineffective. It is indeed wrong. On countless occasions it has been appallingly effective.

            Remember Dan Mitrione, kidnapped and killed by Uruguay's Tupamaros and portrayed by Yves Montand in Costa-Gavras' film "State of Siege"? In the late 1960s, Mitrione worked for the U.S. Office of Public Safety, part of the Agency for International Development. In Brazil, so A.J. Langguth (a former New York Times bureau chief in Saigon) related in his book "Hidden Terrors," Mitrione was among the U.S. advisers teaching Brazilian police how much electric shock to apply to prisoners without killing them. In Uruguay, according to the former chief of police intelligence, Mitrione helped "professionalize" torture as a routine measure and advised on psychological techniques such as playing tapes of women and children screaming that the prisoner's family was being tortured.

            In the months after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, "truth drugs" were hailed by some columnists such as Newsweek's Jonathan Alter for use in the war against Al Qaeda. This was an enthusiasm shared by the U.S. Navy after the war against Hitler, when its intelligence officers got on the trail of Dr. Kurt Plotner's research into "truth serums" at Dachau. Plotner gave Jewish and Russian prisoners high doses of mescaline and then observed their behavior, in which they expressed hatred for their guards and made confessional statements about their own psychological makeup.

            Start torturing and it's easy to get carried away. Torture destroys the tortured and corrupts the society that sanctions it. Just like the FBI after September 11, the CIA in 1968 got frustrated by its inability to break suspected leaders of Vietnam's National Liberation Front by its usual methods of interrogation and torture. So the agency began more advanced experiments, in one of which it anesthetized three prisoners, opened their skulls and planted electrodes in their brains. They were revived, put in a room and given knives. The CIA psychologists then activated the electrodes, hoping the prisoners would attack one another. They didn't. The electrodes were removed, the prisoners shot and their bodies burned. You can read about it in Gordon Thomas' book "Journey into Madness."

            In recent years, the United States has been charged by the United Nations and also by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International with tolerating torture in U.S. prisons, by methods ranging from solitary, 23-hour-a-day confinement in concrete boxes for years on end, to activating 50,000-volt shocks through a mandatory belt worn by prisoners. And as a practical matter, torture is far from unknown in the interrogation rooms of U.S. law enforcement, with Abner Louima sodomized by a cop using a stick in one notorious recent example.

            The most infamous disclosure of consistent torture by a police department in recent years concerned cops in Chicago in the mid-'70s through early '80s who used electroshock, oxygen deprivation, hanging on hooks, the bastinado and beatings of the testicles. The torturers were white, and their victims black or brown. A prisoner in California's Pelican Bay State Prison was thrown into boiling water. Others get 50,000-volt shocks from stun guns. Many states have so-called "secure housing units" where prisoners are kept in solitary in tiny concrete cells for years on end, many of them going mad in the process. Amnesty International has denounced U.S. police forces for "a pattern of unchecked excessive force amounting to torture."

            In 2000, the U.N. delivered a severe public rebuke to the United States for its record on preventing torture and degrading punishment. A 10-strong panel of experts highlighted what it said were Washington's breaches of the agreement ratified by the United States in 1994. The U.N. Committee Against Torture, which monitors international compliance with the U.N. Convention Against Torture, has called for the abolition of electric-shock stun belts (1,000 in use in the U.S.) and restraint chairs on prisoners, as well as an end to holding children in adult jails. It also said female detainees are "very often held in humiliating and degrading circumstances" and expressed concern over alleged cases of sexual assault by police and prison officers. The panel criticized the excessively harsh regime in maximum security prisons, the use of chain gangs in which prisoners perform manual labor while shackled together, and the number of cases of police brutality against racial minorities.

            So far as rape is concerned, because of the rape factories more conventionally known as the U.S. prison system, there are estimates that twice as many men as women are raped in the United States each year. A Human Rights Watch report in April of 2001 cited a December 2000 Prison Journal study based on a survey of inmates in seven men's prison facilities in four states. The results showed that 21 percent of the inmates had experienced at least one episode of pressured or forced sexual contact since being incarcerated, and at least 7 percent had been raped in their facilities. A 1996 study of the Nebraska prison system produced similar findings, with 22 percent of male inmates reporting that they had been pressured or forced to have sexual contact against their will while incarcerated. Of these, more than 50 percent had submitted to forced anal sex at least once. Extrapolating these findings to the national level gives a total of at least 140,000 inmates who have been raped.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.