Dispatches From the Edge: Torture Tangle; Thai T-Shirts

By Conn Hallinan
Thursday May 07, 2009 - 06:21:00 PM

Tangled webs  

Piece by piece, the who, what, when, where and why of the Bush administration’s torture regime is unraveling—one by one, countries that either denied or publicly tsk-tsked the “enhanced interrogation” techniques of the CIA are being revealed as abettors and co-conspirators. 

Take Poland, which has long denied having anything to do with the CIA’s “rendition” program that transported detainees to secret prisons to be tortured. But Polish investigative journalist Mariusz Kowalewski, of the conservative daily Rzeczpospolita, has doggedly tracked down rumors that the United States has a prison and secret base north of Warsaw at Stare Kiejkuty. Kowalewski and his colleagues managed to find supposedly “lost” flight logs for nearby Szymany Airport that indicated that a Gulfstream, numbered N379P—nicknamed the “torture taxi”— landed at Szymany five times between February and July 2003.  

On board one of those flights was the so-called “architect” of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. According to the Red Cross, Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times and spent an entire month naked and standing, his wrists chained to the ceiling. 

For the past year, Warsaw public prosecutor Robert Majewski has been investigating the then governing Social Democrats to find out if then Prime Minister Leszek Miller and President Aleksander Kwasniewski abused their powers by turning over the secret base to the CIA. 

According to a report in Der Spiegel, an earlier investigation by the Council of Europe, a human rights organization, found that the secret base was known about at the highest levels of the Polish government. “The order to give the CIA everything they needed came from the very top, from the president,” a member of Polish military intelligence told investigators from the Council. 

Kwasniewski denies the charge, but the public prosecutor is closing in. “No European country is so sincerely and vigorously investigating former members of the government as is currently the case in Poland,” Wolfgang Kaleck from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin told Der Spiegel.  

Dick Marty, special investigator for the Council of Europe, says the ripples unleashed by the Obama administration’s declassification of the CIA torture memos will eventually spread all over Europe, revealing “which governments tolerated and supported the illegal practices of the CIA.” 

Next up in the box? 

Germany, which gave the CIA over-flight rights and refused to pursue 13 CIA agents implicated in the kidnapping and rendition of German citizen Khalid el-Masri? 

Italy, whose intelligence services helped the CIA kidnap Islamic cleric Abu Omar in Milan and render him to be tortured in Egypt? 

Spain, which may have given the “torture taxi” landing rights in the Canary Islands? 

Britain, whose MI6 intelligence agency worked closely with CIA torturers in Morocco? 

Romania, which is rumored to have hosted a secret prison like the one in Poland? 

There are a couple of ripples right here at home. As Black Commentator columnist Carl Bloice points out, why was then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice the first top official to green-light the torture? Certainly, part of it was a desperate drive by the Bush administration to get people to confess to a non-existent link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, thus giving the Bush administration cover for the invasion of Iraq.  

But as Bloice points out, there was also Rice’s odd comment in May 2002: “I don’t think anybody could have predicted…that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked plane as a missile.” The administration had been warned that something involving airplanes was afoot, so what was she talking about? Did the White House know that a hijacking was in the works and turned a blind eye because they figured they could use it to whack Iraq?  

And then there is Wolfie.  

Paul Wolfowitz, who was forced to resign under fire as president of the World Bank in July 2007 after he tried to get his girlfriend a cushy job and fill the bank with right-wing ideologues, was right in the middle of this all.  

According to Gordon Trowbridge of the Detroit News, when Wolfie was Vice President Dick Cheney’s number two guy, one of his jobs was to push the al Qaeda-Saddam Hussein link to justify the war. Apparently Wolfie was gung ho on using torture to do just that and, according to Trowbridge, demanded regular updates on the results of the interrogations. 

In the weeks ahead, the ripples are likely to spread in wider and wider circles.  


Red vs. yellow 

Sometimes it is hard to figure out who are the good guys and the bad guys in the ongoing crisis in Thailand, or exactly what is the meaning behind wearing red or yellow shirts. 

But shirt color does indeed tell a tale.  

The Red Shirts represent the urban and rural poor, who have traditionally been marginalized by the country’s army, wealthy elites and monarchy. Yet the Red Shirts also champion Thaksin Shinawarta, a billionaire former Prime Minister who brutally suppressed Muslim unrest in the country’s south and organized anti-drug death squads that killed some 2,500 people.  

The Yellow Shirts, on the other hand, represent the forces that have dominated Thai politics for decades. They backed the 2006 military coup that drove Thaksin out of power, and support a constitution that would enshrine the power of the elites. The Yellow Shirts are closely aligned with the army and the monarchy, and last year brought Thailand to a standstill by seizing its international airport. 

The Thaksin government came into power in 2001 with an odd mixture of populism combined with support for big business. Debt relief for farmers and a universal health care system recruited the poor to his Thai Rak Thai Party (Thais Love Thais), and big capital backed his business-friendly, free market policies. 

But Thaksin has a penchant for brutality. He took a scorched earth policy toward a low-level Muslim independence/autonomy movement in the South, and simply murdered Thais involved in the drug trade. He also pulled off an inside deal with his telecom group, the Shin Corp, that netted him and his family $1.9 billion.  

What scared Thailand’s traditional elites was the growing political strength of the poor, and the 2006 coup was aimed at re-establishing the power of the throne, the army and the middle class. But a 2007 referendum on a constitution that would have cemented the elites’ domination of the country was overwhelming rejected. 

While the Red Shirts still back the ousted Thaksin, the movement appears to be taking on a life of its own. Rather than just supporting the Thai Rak Thai Party, the Red Shirts have formed a movement called Real Democracy and that, according to Thai author and activist Giles Ji Ungpakorn, is demanding “an end to the long-accepted quiet dictatorship of the army and the palace.” 

According to Giles, every time a government is elected that the elites don’t like, they either overthrow it with a coup or use the courts to declare the government illegal. Thailand has had 18 military coups under its constitutional monarchy. 

There appears to be a growing division between Thaksin and his Red Shirt followers. The ousted Prime Minister—currently living in the United Kingdom to avoid a jail term for corruption—is a supporter of the monarchy and the Red Shirts are moving increasingly toward republicanism.  

“A republican movement is growing,” says Giles. “Many left-leaning Thais, like myself, are not Thaksin supporters. We oppose his human rights abuses. But we are with the citizens movement for Real Democracy.” 

Current Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has ruled out early elections but says he will lift the current state of emergency that was called after Red Shirts chased the Asian summit meeting out of the resort of Pattaya several weeks ago. 

In the face of army troops, the Red Shirts called off their demonstration March 13, but there is deep anger that while driving the Red Shirts off the streets, the army and the police allow the Yellow Shirts free reign to employ violence against their Red Shirt opponents. 

“The stakes are very high,” Giles writes in The Guardian, and he is worried about backroom politics. “The old elites might want to do a deal with Thaksin to stop the Red Shirts from becoming totally republican. But whatever happens, Thai society cannot go back to the old days. The Red Shirts represent millions of Thais who are sick and tired of military and palace intervention in politics.” 


The R word  

According to India’s leading independent investigative journalist, P. Sainath, Indian newspapers have instructed their staffs not to use the word “recession,” because it will “upset the happy buying mood.” In a scathing piece in The Hindu, he writes: 

“The year 2006 is on record in the media as one of our boom years. But it is the data from that year that places us at 132 in the United Nations Human Development Index. That’s a fall from the already dismal 128 we held—and places us below Bhutan. In terms of underweight children and malnourishment, India is a disaster zone. Many below us in the index fare a lot better on that front. We have the largest number of such children on the planet. And there are no issues? That the dominant political forces are able to evade the issues does not mean an absence of them. That we are unable to give coherence to the giant processes unfolding around us says more about the media, less about the issues.”