The Guardian

The Guardian May 26, 2004

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Torture by the book

So the White House is "shocked" by the evidence of torture and 
other abuses during the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. I 
don't know why: after all, prisoners in the United States are 
regularly, routinely and frequently ill-treated, abused and, yes, 

Don't take my word for it; heaven knows, I could be prejudiced. 
Take Amnesty International's.

That organisation's report on the US prison system last year also 
got up the nose of the US administration by alleging that the 
methods used in these ghastly places to "control" inmates 
amounted to the routine use of torture.

But what else could they call the use of sadistic devices like 
electric stun belts that allow a guard to give a prisoner a 
searing jolt of pain that makes the prisoner lose control of his 

Not to mention confining prisoners in small underground cells 
(known as being "in the hole" or "the pit"), placing them in 
solitary confinement for long periods, using physical punishment 
with specially developed steel clubs, keeping prisoners shackled 
for long periods, and many other practices designed to break the 
prisoner's spirit.

However, even if we ignore the US domestic prison scene, it still 
takes the cake that White House spokesmen can refer to what 
happened in Bagdad's Abu Ghraib prison as "un-American".

If anything, it epitomises American military and intelligence 
practices all over the globe for the last half-century or so. The 
US military helped the pro-Nazi post-war Greek monarchy's 
government in the brutal suppression of "the Communists" in the 
Greek Civil War.

The US began developing its "counter-insurgency" interrogation 
techniques there and in the Philippines, where the US was engaged 
in rooting out more Communists, this time the Huks, the armed 
wing of the Philippino national liberation struggle.

Then came Korea, and US forces quickly made a name for themselves 
by their vicious savagery against civilians, their racist 
contempt for "the gooks", and their atrocities, most of which are 
still blanked out of accounts of the conflict.

By the time of the Vietnam War, most of the US paraphernalia of 
"insurgency suppression" was in place: the Special Forces 
(including the Green Berets and Delta Force), the CIA's 
paramilitary units, assassination squads and teams of 

These last-named were trained in physical and psychological 
torture. Their job was to get the information by whatever means 
it took, and that is just what they did.

Who can forget the boastful accounts of taking prisoners up in a 
helicopter to interrogate them. As well as the prisoner actually 
being questioned, another prisoner would be taken up, one who had 
already told them all he knew.

This second prisoner, when the chopper was up high enough, would 
be "questioned" as though they thought he still had information. 
At each question, which of course he could not answer, he would 
be rushed to the open door of the hovering helicopter, and pulled 
back at the last moment.

On the third or fourth such rush he would not be pulled back but 
would be sent screaming out the chopper door to fall to the 
jungle way below. Then the interrogators would turn to the other 
prisoner, the one they really wanted to question.

According to US officials, this monstrous use of murder to 
terrify other prisoners into talking worked very well. Many of 
their techniques of persuasion worked very well, so in the mid 
1960s the Pentagon created "Project X", an initiative to create 
training guides no less, drawn from US counter-insurgency 
experience in Vietnam.

Also in the '60s, the CIA weighed in with its own training 
manual: KUBARK Counter-intelligence Interrogation  July 
1963. This manual includes a detailed section on "The 
Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources".

Notice how the material is deliberately depersonalised. These are 
not instructions on how to torture people, but merely how to 
obtain information from "sources" that are "resistant".

The KUBARK manual contains concrete assessments on the 
relative merits of employing "Threats and Fear", "Pain" and 
"Debility". This is an official US manual, remember.

In the early 1980s, a new manual was produced, the innocuously-
titled Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual-1983, 
which incorporated material from the previous ones as well as the 
fruit of plenty of "experience in the field" over the previous 20 

These manuals were meant for use against "insurgents" everywhere. 
The Spanish-language versions of the manuals were popularised at 
the US Army's School of the Americas, originally located in the 
US-administered Panama Canal Zone.

Known to anti-imperialists as "the School of Assassins", the 
School of the Americas trained the military officer corps as well 
as the police and security forces of every reactionary regime in 
Latin America.

The US experts taught them how to suppress or neutralise trade 
unions and indigenous movements, how to capture and kill "rebel 
leaders" (i.e. leaders of revolutionary or democratic movements), 
and of course how to interrogate prisoners.

In Argentina, in Pinochet's Chile, in El Salvador and in numerous 
other countries of Central and South America, US interrogators 
and those they had trained waged a fiendish war of terror and 
horror against the people and their democratic rights.

The 1983 manual recommended that prisoner interrogation include 
the threat of violence and deprivation and noted that no threat 
should be made unless the questioner "has approval to carry out 
the threat".

The interrogator was advised to "manipulate the subject's 
environment to create an unpleasant or intolerable situation, to 
disrupt patterns of time, space, and sensory perception".

Protests about US involvement in torture in Latin America 
prompted cosmetic adjustments to the language of the manuals in 
the late '80s. But, as the recent experience in Iraq shows, they 
were purely cosmetic: the substance has not changed at all.

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