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Ho hum. Yet another report showing that the CIA uses torture. This isn’t news. It’s a very old story, going back decades. And it’s not just the CIA. Last week’s Senate report was only one in a long line of exposes that have documented this quite routine American practice. When American officials were not themselves doing the torturing, they were training willing allies to do so. Often this training was quite formal, taking place in the U.S. Army School of the Americas, based in Fort Benning, Georgia. Torturing is as American as Wall Street, racism and the NRA. It’s an intrinsic part of American exceptionalism.

Washington is the home of short memories. Only 20 months ago another American commission confirmed that beginning right after 9/11, Americans indisputably “engaged in the practice of torture” in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and in the CIA’s many secret “black sites” around the world for detaining prisoners. Pushed by the president and Dick Cheney, Bush administration lawyers found twisted ways to justify the use of torture in the fight against al-Qaeda. This was widely known. A few years earlier yet, in 2008, the Senate’s armed services committee had released a report documenting the army’s role in torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Everyone knew about Abu Ghraib.

Let me emphasize that we’re not talking here of American practices during wars, like in Vietnam, where American soldiers often practiced the utmost cruelty, including murder and rape (e.g. My Lai) Nor is it about the slaughter by American-trained allies of innocent civilians, such as the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador in 1989; 19 of the 26 killing squad members had been trained at the School of the Americas (SOA).

The issue here is how American captives are treated and interrogated, whether they’re alleged jihadists, Communists, or whoever America’s mortal enemy is at a given moment. There’s always someone who needs torturing. That’s why seven U.S. army and CIA interrogation manuals were prepared in the late 1980s for foreign soldiers being trained at the SOA. They’re often called “the torture manuals.” They were also distributed by American forces to the many other Central and South American military dictatorships that were fighting a “dirty war” against alleged Communists with the enthusiastic backing of the Ronald Reagan government. Every one of them used torture, sometimes with American officials in the very room. All this was well-known at the time. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras became nightmare states, and the three countries remain mired in world-class violence today.

Women were not spared. Both the present Presidents of Brazil and Chile, Dilma Rousseff and Michelle Bachelet, were tortured by brutal military dictatorships that were close allies of the U.S. Last week, by coincidence, Brazil’s National Truth Commission released its report on the human rights abuses committed during Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, a regime supported by a succession of American administrations. As elsewhere, some torture methods had been imported into Brazil by the 300 Brazilian military personnel who attended the School of the Americas. 

In apartheid South Africa, another close ally of Reagan’s America, torturing to death black freedom fighters like Steve Bantu Biko was commonplace, as all the world knew, though the white regime didn’t need the pedagogical services of the School of the Americas. The torture manuals of the 1980s had themselves been based on a CIA “Counterintelligence interrogation manual” drawn up decades earlier, in 1963, at the height of the Cold War, to be used against Soviet spies.

Even Soviet defectors were tortured to check out their bona fides, using techniques that would later be used against alleged al-Qaeda detainees. But you didn’t have to be al-Qaeda and it didn’t have to be Abu Ghraib. Any Afghan unlucky enough to find himself in an American jail in Afghanistan — al-Qaeda, Taliban or just some poor guy — was a candidate for torture, as were many of the Afghan prisoners turned over by American and Canadian troops to Afghan officials. This was well-known known at the time.

The inescapable truth of the matter is that torturing alleged enemies of the United States seems no big deal for many Americans, nor for many government officials or much of the media. All of this was demonstrated throughout the past fortnight. The Senate report was “full of crap” (Cheney) and the CIA officials who tortured and the expensive psychologists they employed to devise the tortures were patriots. Many seemed prouder that the report had been made public than they were distressed by its contents. Now they wait for the next report.

What’s torture? This may be a complex, nuanced subject for some. It’s not to me. Or Maher Arar, handed over by Canada to the Americans, then handed over to the Syrians, who did what everybody knew they would do — they tortured him. Ask Senator John McCain. Ask President Dilma Rousseff. Ask anyone who’s been tortured.

What’s torture? Here’s the test: If it was done to you, to our side, would we consider it torture? Let Dick Cheney try it for himself and he’ll know.

And it doesn’t even work in getting bad guys to spill the beans.


This article was originally posted in the Globe and Mail.

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Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...