Shocking visual images have dominated the Iraq news in the past weeks. First, of criminal torture of prisoners by Americans, and then of the beheading of American Nicholas Berg by a group the CIA alleges is headed by the Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Many stories have raised the rather absurd question of whether the practice of torture by Americans is an aberration. There is abundant proof, however, that both the abusive interrogation practices and the photographic documentation of them are techniques that the CIA has sanctioned and taught over more than 30 years.
When the Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979, the files of his much-feared CIA-trained intelligence service, SAVAK, were opened to journalists. The noted Egyptian reporter Mohammed Heikal wrote that he was shown a film of a female prisoner being stripped naked, who screamed and broke down as her nipples were burned with a lighted cigarette.
It was explained that this was a training film for other torturers. The film, Heikal wrote, was also given to the CIA, which then made copies for use by the intelligence services of Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia.
An Indonesian unit, Kopassus, which received special U.S. Army training in the United States, later practiced similar torture techniques in East Timor. They too made a habit of photographing their torture sessions, which became an important factor in inducing Congress to vote against further U.S. aid and training to the unit. (Ironically, former Kopassus commander Prabowo Subianto, once the Pentagon’s special favorite, was later denied a U.S. visa, under the provisions of the U.N. Convention Against Torture.)
In the 1980s the CIA first taught the extreme techniques it had long used—including assassination—to its proxy army the Contras in Central America. Then, following exposure and heavy criticism from Congress, it backed away from condoning such practices.
A CIA interrogation manual, now accessible on the National Security Archives Web site, originally had the typewritten caution that in “questioning” suspects, “[c]oercive techniques [i.e. torture] always require prior HQS [Headquarters] approval.” At some point, presumably after Congressional reproof, the sentence was stricken out and replaced by the handwritten “[c]oercive techniques constitute an impropriety and violate policy.”
They may have violated CIA policy on paper. But CIA operatives continued to work within foreign intelligence groups for whom torture was a normal activity. One such group was the special Guatemala army unit responsible in 1989 for the kidnap, rape and torture of the American nun Dianne Ortiz.
The change in policy apparently consisted only of seeking greater deniability through increased use of third parties. This characterizes the situation at Abu Ghraib prison. There, according to Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba’s report, Army military officers and the CIA “set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses,” leaving the actual abuses to inexperienced and untrained Army reservists. These reservists are the ones now prominently blamed in the U.S. media, not the faceless operatives from the OGA’s (Other Government Agencies, including the CIA).
Of course, the U.S. Army had its own earlier experience with torture in Vietnam. Sen. John Kerry is now being attacked for having told Congress about this, truthfully, in 1971. In Kerry’s words at the time, fellow soldiers at the so-called “Winter Soldier” investigation had “told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power.” It was more customary then to kill the prisoners (who were often civilians) after they had been tortured.
Much of the army interrogation, torture and executions occurred as part of the CIA-coordinated Phoenix Program, where standard interrogation techniques (as in Iraq) included rape, water torture, and electrocution. Another veteran testified in Congress that, “I never knew an individual to be detained as a VC suspect who ever lived through an interrogation in a year and a half.”
There is precedent, too, for the alleged al-Qaeda video of the beheading of Nick Berg—the videos in the 1980s of the mutilations and executions of Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan. These videos were disseminated to weaken the morale of the Soviet troops fighting there. Those who took them were the Afghan mujahideen, many of whom received special training in terrorist tactics from the CIA.
PNS contributor Peter Dale Scott is a former Canadian diplomat and professor of English at UC Berkeley. Scott’s most recent book is Drugs, Oil and War: The United States in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Indochina (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). His website is www.peterdalescott.net.