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Torture: Who Gives The Orders? 

The abuses of Abu Ghraib are not an aberration of US foreign policy but an extension of it. From School of the Americas-trained officers disappearing people in Latin America to the use of CIA training man-uals in the Shah's Iran, the US has accommodated torture for decades.

The war has been a disaster; the occupation continues to be a great disaster. It hasn't generated anything but more violence and hate. What simply cannot be is that after it became so clear how badly it was handled there (would) be no consequences.
- Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Zapatero

When the images from Abu Ghraib first appeared, an Argentinean friend telephoned in distress. For her, those images were a rerun of a national nightmare of the "Dirty War" of 1976-83, an experience that she and her compatriots had tried to forget on the premise that it was an aberration, a departure from the norm of civilized behavior.

The images from Iraq had ruptured that shield. Torture was not, after all, an aberration.

The distress of my Argentinean friend was equaled, if not exceeded, in the Muslim world. There the images punctured any remaining illusions that the occupation of Iraq was a cause that could be defended and, at a stroke, discredited not only the friends of America in the Muslim world but also those more numerous Muslims who stand on their own account for the values of political secularism, the rule of law and democracy.

That language has been appropriated by the United States and its partners in order - as many in the Muslim world now perceive it - to mask a ruthless pursuit of the right of the US to monopolize the world's resources. For the Argentinean, it was a reminder of a perception that many would rather forget: that the accommodation of torture, to put it no higher, has followed US security policy for decades.

IN THE SHADOWS OF HISTORY
The former CIA operative Robert Baer, who joined the CIA in the 1970s, said in a recent interview that when he worked for the agency torture was a sacking offence. He cited the example of two CIA operatives in Guatemala who were dismissed when a Guatemalan colonel they were running was accused of torture.

Yet in Vietnam, thousands of prisoners had already died in US "tiger cages." In Iran under the Shah's regime, the Savak used methods outlined in CIA training manuals. In Latin America in the 1970s and early 1980s torture and disappearance became established practices throughout the continent under military dictatorships that had the support of the United States, whose officers had been trained in the US-run School of the Americas in Panama and whose security policies were coordinated through a network organized and run by US agencies.

Argentina, Chile, Brazil, El Salvador, Guate-mala, Honduras, Paraguay tortured wholesale under successive US administrations without suffering any sanctions from Washington. President Carter (1976-80) tried to take a different course, and was accused of being "soft on communism." When Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980, a pandemic of torture and extra-judicial murders spread throughout Central America, practiced by military officers who had received US training in "interrogation techniques." If the methods were not publicly approved, the results were applauded.

In the Reagan years (1980-88), torture was a central part of a pattern of abuse and illegality that underlay a wider strategic policy. CIA recruited "deniable assets," many of them Cuban exiles, who could pursue Ronald Reagan's definition of freedom with fewer constraints than salaried employees. US diplomats who protested were marginalized, US and international law was broken and Congress was deceived.

When the Iran-Contra scandal erupted in late 1986, a few scapegoats were charged but the high-level politicians escaped unscathed. When the first George Bush (director of the CIA from 1976-77) succeeded Ronald Reagan as US president in 1989, he distributed pardons to those in the outgoing administration who might otherwise suffer judicial inconvenience, including the former president himself.

After the Clinton interregnum (1992-2000), George W. Bush celebrated his arrival in Washington by welcoming back to power many of the men implicated in the 1980s abuses in Central America. John Negroponte, the US ambassador to Honduras during that period, was implicated both in the activities of the Contras in Nicaragua and with death squads in Honduras. He has now been named as ambassador to Iraq. James Steele, who served in El Salvador in 1985, is now serving as US advisor to the Iraqi security forces. Both men were also implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Speaking of...

  • Isabel Hilton on the US history of torture.

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