The most compelling argument for investigations into Bush-era torture policies is to ensure something like this never happens again, and it is usually couched in language that implies this hadn't happened before. But it has, and our nation's track record on confronting torture as official policy is not sterling. Ask Sister Dianna Ortiz or the thousands of others tortured by people trained at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, or Linda Macdonald and the thousands of Canadians who were tortured as part of Dr. Ewen Cameron's CIA-funded experiments.
If President Obama is to put a full stop to U.S. torture and ensure it never happens again, he'll have to take on the most powerful branch of our government, one whose history of recognizing the rule of law - even our own - is mixed at best.
More below the fold....
American Exceptionalism - "Never Again."
This week Morning Feature looks at torture through the prism of American Exceptionalism. Wednesday we explored how this supposed "city on a hill" was "founded on original sin," genocide against one race and the enslavement of another, both involving torture. Yesterday we explored the culture of torture in the Philadelphia police department during the tenure of Mayor Frank Rizzo, and how the investigations there offer a better blueprint than the Nürnberg trials. Tomorrow we'll conclude by considering what we should tell our overseas friends, and our children, about our nation's history of torture.
Guatemala is a beautiful land with a horrific recent history. I recall riding a bus past a home where a man was sitting cross-legged in front of his home, sharpening his machete. An American woman on the bus shuddered and wondered aloud if he were planning some crime, seemingly oblivious the possibility that for this man, as for many Guatemalans, a machete is a household tool no different than most Americans owning a hammer or a hand saw. Maybe it was simple racism, or maybe her impressions were skewed by the massive police presence we saw everywhere we went.
Sister Dianna Ortiz might have shuddered, not at the man with his machete but at the police. An American nun, she went to Guatemala to work with the local people. She was abducted and tortured by Guatemalan security police, and her testimony is chilling and graphic. The building where she was tortured stands next to the U.S. Embassy, and many Guatemalans feel that is no coincidence. Our involvement in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America, training army and police forces at the School of the Americas, has been shameful. Sister Dianna was "rescued" by an American, in the sense that he interrupted the torture and got her out of the country. But that rescue came with a warning, as she relates in her testimony:
The American, Alejandro, put me into his jeep and drove off, and 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. In perfect American English, Alejandro 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. He also told me he was going to take me to see a friend at the U.S. Embassy. And at this point, the jeep stopped in traffic, and I jumped out and ran.
There was no rescue for Linda Macdonald or hundreds like her. Suffering from depression in 1963, her family suggested she visit the clinic of Dr. Ewen Cameron in Montreal. Neither she nor her family realized she had been put into a CIA-funded experiment testing theories of mind control. She was diagnosed an acute schizophrenic and put in the "sleep room," where she was kept in a medical coma for 86 days. Cameron's idea was to erase her mind and build a new one. It worked only half-way:
I was -- had to be toilet trained. I was a vegetable. I had no identity, I had no memory; I had never existed in the world before. Like a baby. Just like a baby that has to be toilet trained.
[Showing a photo to her interviewer, she continues:]
This is -- this is one of the twins, in 62 before I went to [Cameron's clinic], and this is the same one I think. I just look at the pictures and I know that is who they are, but I don't remember them as my children at all. I mean, I know that they came from my body -- um -- but, there's no -- that's all. I don't know, and that's because I was told that. So, these are my children.
As best I can determine, apart from the Iran-Contra scandal in the late 1980s, no U.S. government official has been charged with a crime related to our support of torture in Central America, nor were any U.S. charges brought when the horrors of Cameron's work were made public in 1977.
It's Okay If You're An American?
Cameron served on the Nürnberg Medical Tribunal - the Doctors' Trial - punishing Nazi-era psychologists for the same sorts of experiments he would later commit himself. He served as president of the World Psychological Association, as well as president of American Psychological Association (APA) and the Canadian equivalent. Small wonder that the APA's stance on torture has been muddled at best.
As has been the CIA's stance on democracy. From Mossadeq in Iran to Arbenz-Guzman in Guatemala to Allende in Chile and elsewhere, the CIA took a dim view of democracy if election results did not favor U.S. interests. Indeed the history of the CIA is a case study in unconstitutional government. Before the Iraq War, George Bush cited as justification that Saddam Hussein had refused to comply with U.N. resolutions. What Bush never mentioned is that the U.S. never paid the $17 billion ordered by the World Court in 1986 in reparations for our support of the Contras in Nicaragua. In fact, the principal architect of that terrorism and torture policy, John Negroponte, later became our first Director of National Intelligence.
Iran-Contra and the Fourth Branch
The officials implicated, indicted, and convicted in the Iran-Contra scandal were not charged with fomenting terrorism or torture. They were charged with crimes relating to the Boland Amendment, a series of three laws passed between 1982 and 1984 to block U.S. funding to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. President Reagan signed the bills, and those who believe in the three-branch organizational chart of U.S. government we learned in high school would expect that to be the end of the matter.
But there has grown since World War II a fourth branch of government, one that does not appear on that high school civics organizational chart because it is not authorized in the U.S. Constitution. It's the National Security Branch, and it consists primarily of the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, the CIA, and elements of the FBI, along with some other government (and some non-government) actors. To call it the National Security Council grossly understates its often near-autonomous ambitions and influence.
That influence was highlighted by the Iran-Contra scandal. Put most simply, the National Security Branch decided that Congress was wrong to pass the Boland Amendment, and the President was wrong to sign it. So they decided to subvert it, selling weapons to Iran in exchange for Iran influencing the Shia group Hezbollah to release U.S. hostages seized in Lebanon. The money from the arms sales was funneled though Honduras to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
The scandal broke in November, 1986, and later that month President Reagan appointed a special commission headed by former Senator John Tower of Texas. The Tower Commission interviewed more than 80 witnesses, and its 200-page report found that President Reagan had only limited knowledge of the actions of the National Security Branch, and specifically did not know - though the report said he should have - that money from arms sales to Iran had been funneled to Nicaragua.
Ultimately 14 government officials were charged with crimes and 11 were convicted. Several convictions were reversed, as the prosecution had used evidence gathered by the Tower Commission under grants of immunity. President and former CIA director George H.W. Bush pardoned most of the rest in 1992 before he left office.
The National Security Branch had won, and several of those implicated in Iran-Contra were later appointed to positions in the George W. Bush administration.
A powerful, implacable adversary:
Those calling for President Obama to immediately cleanse the stain of the Bush-era torture policies are overlooking the considerable power held by the National Security Branch. Though most are executive agencies and thus theoretically answerable to the President as Chief Executive, in fact they've been more than willing to play Congress and the President against each other. The Congressional committees created after Watergate to provide oversight have too often confused "oversee" with "overlook." And when Congress and the President agreed to end some program, such as through the Boland Amendment, the National Security Branch have often just gone around them.
So the calls for investigations to ensure the Bush-era abuses are never repeated seem to miss some lessons of history. There were investigations after Iran-Contra, and prosecutions, and convictions. The next president pardoned those whose convictions had not already been overturned, and the National Security Branch flexed its unconstitutional muscles yet again. Merely winning a few convictions will not guarantee "Never again," just as merely winning an election does not guarantee National Security Branch loyalty to a U.S. president.
The investigations are necessary, yes. But they are not enough. Tomorrow we'll conclude this series by examining the deeper issue of how to defeat the National Security Branch, that clenched fist of American Exceptionalism. It's a battle I believe President Obama is willing to fight, but to win it he'll need a lot of support in Congress, the courts, and from the American people.
Until and unless we win that battle, we cannot guarantee there will never again be a Sister Dianna Ortiz, a Linda Macdonald, or an Abu Ghraib.
Given the nature of this week's series, I chose not to include Kossascopes today. They will return next week.