America's legacy of torture

The World

Torture has been the dirty secret of US foreign policy for years.

Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s numbing report of the CIA’s brutal torture practices against terrorist suspects since 9-11 has provoked a drama of would-be soul searching just two weeks before Christmas.

As the political talk shows fill with experts debating the logic of imposed suffering, we have heard no great voice of outrage from bishops, pastors, rabbis and other religious leaders.

Are they co-opted in sins of silence?

Voices representing the ACLU, United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others have called for the appointment of a new special prosecutor to pursue justice against the government for trampling human rights, coupled with legislation to eradicate this horror. This is perhaps the only way out of a nightmare of our own creation.

Foreign leaders are rightly appalled at the institutionalization of torture in American policy and fear the blowback on their own legal systems at a time of coalition-building against the Islamic State menace.

The scandal is how the terrorist assaults of 9-11 shocked Americans into swallowing egregious moral behavior that we associate with militant Islam and which has instead been put to defense of our putative values.

The CIA has long background in tactics of this kind, according to Hendrik Voss, national organizer of School of Americas Watch (SOAW), the group that has seen many of its members imprisoned for raising awareness about the institute on the Army base at Ft. Benning, Georgia which trained Latin American soldiers for decades in torture tactics — an underground strategy of the Cold War.

“I think the people responsible for the torture should be indicted,” Voss told GroundTruth. “Our movement has been speaking out for at least 20 years and engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. More than 300 activists have served collectively over 100 years in federal prisons, while no one who was responsible for torture has seen a day in court. We think people should be indicted for authorizing torture and violation of international conventions.”

Voss points to CIA and US Army manuals in the 1950s and 1960s that were translated into seven Spanish-language guides, more than 1,000 of which were distributed to military in El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru, and at the School of the Americas (SOA) between 1987 and 1991.

In Latin America, torture was one tactic in a larger web of US strategies that sanctioned lethal ends of targeted opponents, or traumatizing a given prisoner to make life a continuing wound.

In El Salvador, a Nov. 16, 1989 raid by Salvadoran troops on the University of Central America in the capital, San Salvador and the massacre of six Jesuit priests, the housekeeper Elba Ramos and her 16-year-old daughter Celina.

Under pressure from Congressmen Joseph Moakley and Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts — as well as a UN Truth Commission — the Pentagon released training manuals which, with other documents, identified military officers involved in the atrocity who were trained at the SOA. The chain of events leading to the release of the documents was not unlike those preceding this week's release of the Senate's torture report, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, pushed hard for disclosure.

Rep. Jim McGovern, who served on the Moakley Commission, wrote recently in Huffington Post, “As part of our investigation, I was deeply upset to find that 19 of the 26 members of the unit that killed the priests and women had received US taxpayer-paid military training at the US Army School of the Americas.”

The massacres sparked Father Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll missionary who had been arrested and deported for his work in Bolivia, to join public protests that led to the SOAW founding. He went to jail several times for his nonviolent protests.

This Nov. 16 marked the 25th anniversary of the massacres. No one has been tried. Attorneys with the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco filed a case in 2008 at the Spanish National Court, arguing for universal jurisdiction in a human rights atrocity. Presiding Judge Eloy Velásquez has indicted 20 officials from El Salvador’s military for alleged roles in the crime, despite the Spanish Parliament’s reluctance to see the country’s judiciary take on such cases.

But there has to be some universality of judicial values to counter the spreading use of torture.

What did the Reagan policy in El Salvador achieve? The country is a democracy on paper. Drug gangs, fraught with youth deported from America, have created a reign of terror while thousands of people, particularly children, amass at our borders as they try to escape the institutionalized violence of a broken economy.

The anti-communism at all costs strategy the Reagan administration sold to Congress was an abysmal failure in El Salvador. The military was enmeshed with CIA and US military advisors. The 1981 massacre of 767 men, women and children at the village of El Mozote, exposed in 1982 by Raymond Bonner of the New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post, sparked a damage-control campaign by the administration that ran for years.

The debate just now building over the Senate CIA report reflects an evolution of torture tactics from generals and soldiers in Latin America to intelligence agents and sleazy social scientists in the war on terror.

According to Michael Doyle and Marisa Taylor of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau, the psychologists James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen had a consulting company that was paid $180 million by the CIA to develop waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other tactics.

“Their company provided interrogators, psychologists, debriefers and security personnel at CIA detention sites overseas,” McClatchy reports.

The institutionalization of torture in US policy is a direct challenge to the American legal system. If the Army can do it, if the CIA can do it, then local police stations will feel greater impunity in their interrogations of suspects for murder and lesser crimes.

It is a coincidence, but not an accident, that African-American protests have spread in recent days since the failure of grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City to indict police officers who killed black suspects.

“Reprisals against civilian populations and the use of torture are crimes in which we are all involved,” Albert Camus wrote in 1958, responding to French reports on the country’s use of torture against militants in Algeria.

“The moment [such methods] are justified, even directly, there are no more rules and values; all causes are equally good, and war without aims or laws sanctions the triumph of nihilism.”

Torture destroys moral values. That is where we are in America today, debasing our standards to the level of maddened fighters who debase the name of Islam with mass killings of the innocent and by torturing and beheading their prisoners. American operatives have not beheaded anyone, to our knowledge, so at least we’re slightly ahead in the march of civilization.

Jason Berry is a GroundTruth religion correspondent and author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.

Will you help our nonprofit newsroom today?

Every week, more than 2 million listeners tune into our broadcast and follow our digital coverage like this story, which is available to read for free thanks to charitable contributions from listeners like you. But less than 1% of our audience supports our program directly. From now through the end of the year, every gift will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor, which means your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 challenge match.

Will you join our growing list of loyal supporters and double your impact today?