The Torture Ban that Doesn’t Ban Torture

If you’re lying on the slab still breathing, with your torturer hanging over you, you don’t much care if he is an American or a mere United States — sponsored trainee.

When President Obama declared flatly this week that “the United States will not torture” many people wrongly believed that he’d shut the practice down, when in fact he’d merely repositioned it.

Obama’s Executive Order bans some — not all — US officials from torturing but it does not ban any of them, himself included, from sponsoring torture overseas.

Indeed, his policy change affects only a slight percentage of US-culpable tortures and could be completely consistent with an increase in US-backed torture worldwide.

The catch lies in the fact that since Vietnam, when US forces often tortured directly, the US has mainly seen its torture done for it by proxy — paying, arming, training and guiding foreigners doing it, but usually being careful to keep Americans at least one discreet step removed.

That is, the US tended to do it that way until Bush and Cheney changed protocol, and had many Americans laying on hands, and sometimes taking digital photos.

The result was a public relations fiasco that enraged the US establishment since by exposing US techniques to the world it diminished US power.

But despite the outrage, the fact of the matter was that the Bush/Cheney tortures being done by Americans were a negligible percentage of all of the tortures being done by US clients.

For every torment inflicted directly by Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and the secret prisons, there were many times more being meted out by US-sponsored foreign forces.

Those forces were and are operating with US military, intelligence, financial or other backing in Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Jordan, Indonesia, Thailand, Uzbekistan, Colombia, Nigeria, and the Philippines, to name some places, not to mention the tortures sans-American-hands by the US-backed Iraqis and Afghans.

What the Obama dictum ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system’s torture, which is done by foreigners under US patronage.

Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so.

His Executive Order instead merely pertains to treatment of “[A]n individual in the custody or under the effective control of an officer, employee, or other agent of the United States Government, or detained within a facility owned, operated, or controlled by a department or agency of the United States, in any armed conflict . . .” which means that it doesn’t even prohibit direct torture by Americans outside environments of “armed conflict,” which is where much torture happens anyway since many repressive regimes aren’t in armed conflict.

And even if, as Obama says, “the United States will not torture,” it can still pay, train, equip and guide foreign torturers, and see to it that they, and their US patrons, don’t face local or international justice.

This is a return to the status quo ante, the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more US-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years.

Under the old — now new again — proxy regime Americans would, say, teach interrogation/torture, then stand in the next room as the victims screamed, feeding questions to their foreign pupils. That’s the way the US did it in El Salvador under JFK through Bush Sr. (For details see my “Behind the Death Squads: An exclusive report on the U.S. role in El Salvador’s official terror,” The Progressive, May, 1984; the US Senate Intelligence Committee report that piece sparked is still classified, but the feeding of questions was confirmed to me by Intelligence Committee Senators. See also my “Confessions of a Death Squad Officer,” The Progressive, March, 1986, and my “Comment,” The New Yorker, Oct. 15, 1990 [regarding law, the US, and El Salvador]).

In Guatemala under Bush Sr. and Clinton (Obama’s foreign policy mentors) the US backed the army’s G-2 death squad, which kept comprehensive files on dissidents and then electroshocked them or cut off their hands. (The file/ surveillance system was launched for them in the ’60s and ’70s by CIA/ State/ AID/ special forces; for the history see “Behind the Death Squads,” cited above, and the books of Prof. Michael McClintock).

The Americans on the ground in the Guatemalan operation, some of whom I encountered and named, effectively helped to run the G-2 but, themselves, tiptoed around its torture chambers. (See my “C.I.A. Death Squad,” The Nation [US], April 17, 1995, “The Country Team,” The Nation [US], June 5, 1995, letter exchange with US Ambassador Stroock, The Nation [US], May 29, 1995, and Allan Nairn and Jean-Marie Simon, “Bureaucracy of Death,” The New Republic, June 30, 1986).

It was a similar story in Bush Sr. and Clinton’s Haiti — an operation run by today’s Obama people — where the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) helped launch the terrorist group FRAPH, the CIA paid its leader, and FRAPH itsef laid the machetes on Haitian civilians, torturing and killing as US proxies. (See my “Behind Haiti’s paramilitaries: our man in FRAPH,” The Nation [US], Oct 24, 1994, and “He’s our S.O.B.,” The Nation [US], Oct. 31, 1994; the story was later confirmed on ABC TV’s This Week by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher).

In today’s Thailand — a country that hardly comes to mind when most people think of torture — special police and militaries get US gear and training for things like “target selection” and then go out and torture Thai Malay Muslims in the rebel deep south, and also sometimes (mainly Buddhist) Burmese refugees and exploited northern and west coast workers.

Not long ago I visited a key Thai interrogator who spoke frankly about army/ police/ intel torture and then closed our discussion by saying “Look at this,” and invited me into his back room.

It was an up to date museum of plaques, photos and awards from US and Western intelligence, including commendations from the CIA counter-terrorism center (then run by people now staffing Obama), one-on-one photos with high US figures, including George W. Bush, a medal from Bush, various US intel/ FBI/ military training certificates, a photo of him with an Israeli colleague beside a tank in the Occupied Territories, and Mossad, Shin Bet, Singaporean, and other interrogation implements and mementos.

On my way out, the Thai intel man remarked that he was due to re-visit Langley soon.

His role is typical. There are thousands like him worldwide. US proxy torture dwarfs that at Guantanamo.

Many Americans, to their credit, hate torture. The Bush/Cheney escapade exposed that.

But to stop it they must get the facts and see that Obama’s ban does not stop it, and indeed could even accord with an increase in US-sponsored torture crime.

In lieu of action, the system will grind on tonight. More shocks, suffocations, deep burns. And the convergence of thousands of complex minds on one simple thought: ‘Please, let me die.’

Allan Nairn is an award-winning U.S. investigative journalist whose writings have focused on US foreign policy in such countries as Indonesia, East Timor, Guatemala, El Salvador and Haiti. Vist his blog.Allan Nairn is an award-winning U.S. investigative journalist whose writings have focused on US foreign policy in such countries as Indonesia, East Timor, Guatemala, El Salvador and Haiti. Vist his blog. Read other articles by Allan, or visit Allan's website.

19 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. bozh said on January 27th, 2009 at 9:51am #

    if US ever conquers the planet and settles it; thus obtains a peace it wanted for the last three centuries, it may then start torturing americans as well.
    and finally via torture of dissenters obtain peace/obedience in US also.
    and the world wld finally live on planet USA.
    if that is not US final solution, then what’s it all about?

  2. Ann Garrison said on January 27th, 2009 at 10:04am #

    Rwanda is a U.S. puppet regime in Central Africa, and its U.S. military-trained president and army, are proxy warriors and torturers serving U.S./Anglophone military, military industrial, and corporate interest in neighboring D.R. Congo.

  3. giorgio said on January 27th, 2009 at 11:20am #

    WELCOME to CHANGE à la OBAMA.
    so that everything will remain the same!

  4. Rahb said on January 27th, 2009 at 11:20am #

    Bozh: “…if US ever conquers the planet and settles it…” They haven’t yet? So far though, when the US has tortured its own or allied people it’s been called “experiments” (i.e. MK-Ultra, radiation experiments, serin tests…) 2005 there was a proposal and beginnings of building military labour camps in the US too (haven’t found out how far that progressed under American noses, but it’s something to be aware of).
    I wonder, had the CIA not trained Egypt and told them to use it on Sayyid Qutb and his lot, could some of the moderates that came after him have helped him to realize that he too was affected by a loss of faith and the jahaliyya which he was so upset by.

  5. bozh said on January 27th, 2009 at 12:07pm #

    rahb, i have heard about the experiments but while writing the post i forgot about it. and, of course, suspects are often tortured.thnx for remind me.

  6. giorgio said on January 27th, 2009 at 12:52pm #

    “Israeli soccer matches were suspended during the assault on Gaza. When the games resumed last week, the fans had come up with a new chant: “Why have the schools in Gaza been shut down?” sang the crowd. “Because all the children were gunned down!” came the answer.

    Aside from its sheer barbarism, this chant reflects the widespread belief among Israeli Jews that Israel scored an impressive victory in Gaza – a victory measured, not least, by the death toll.”

    These are the opening lines of an article in Counterpunch.org, titled
    “Fueling the Cycle of Hate” by Yigal Bronner and Neve Gordon.

    LONG LIVE BARBARITY !!!

  7. Rahb said on January 27th, 2009 at 1:24pm #

    Giorgio: Thanx for the reference to the article. Consider too the ringworm “treatments”/ experiments of Israel on mostly non Ashkenazi Jewish children. Interesting too that Ashkenazim represented as little as 3% of Judaism at one point and now represent over 80% (over 90% in US). Sickening that people can delight in death and suffering (even of children that they have said they will protect). Is it any wonder that torture continues?

  8. giorgio said on January 27th, 2009 at 1:49pm #

    Thanks Rahb,

    “Our civilization can only survive in a climate of freedom of thought and respect for fundamental human rights. All religions, ideologies and political systems should not deny an opposition the right to exist.

    The totalitarian Zionism of today is the only ideology that systematically wants to make the very existence of an opposition a criminal offence!

    Before we can coexist, we must first be able to exist. That right is denied those who are opposed to the Jewish domination. This fanaticism and obscurantism is a serious threat against our civilization and against world peace.

    Each one of us should do something concrete to defend freedom!”

    – quoted from Professor Israel Shahak, author of “Jewish History, Jewish Religion, The Weight of 3000 years”

  9. DavidG. said on January 27th, 2009 at 5:16pm #

    Look, the world loves a hero! Obama is a hero! Isn’t he?

    Truth is, he’s just a typical American. When the settlers came to the Americas, they brought muzzle-loaders with them and Bibles. They told the Indians about a loving God then they shot them all and took their land.

    People like this don’t mind a bit of torture. And Obama’s a lawyer. Boy can those good ‘ol boys extract a lot of different meanings for the word ‘torture’. He could subject you to torture that would make your hair turn white and tell you he was helping you to upgrade your appearance, make you look more distinguished!

    Yeah, imperial nations love torture. And they love killing and genocide too!

    http://www.dangerouscreation.com

  10. DavidG. said on January 27th, 2009 at 5:16pm #

    Look, the world loves a hero! Obama is a hero! Isn’t he?

    Truth is, he’s just a typical American. When the settlers came to the Americas, they brought muzzle-loaders with them and Bibles. They told the Indians about a loving God then they shot them all and took their land.

    People like this don’t mind a bit of torture. And Obama’s a lawyer. Boy can those good ‘ol boys extract a lot of different meanings for the word ‘torture’. He could subject you to torture that would make your hair turn white and tell you he was helping you to upgrade your appearance, make you look more distinguished!

    Yeah, imperial nations love torture. And they love killing and genocide too!

  11. Deadbeat said on January 28th, 2009 at 3:15am #

    Joaquin Bustelo of Marxmail wrote a very interesting critique of Alan Narin’s article. He concludes the following…


    Then we have the response of the Obamaphobic leftists. It’s day two or three
    of his administration. Obama picks up the pen and orders torture banned and
    the Gitmo concentration camp and torture center closed. And what’s the
    reaction?

    From Louis, a forwarded article from counterpunch, “The Torture Ban That
    Doesn’t Ban Torture.”

    SOME of the facts in the article may be all right, but the POLITICS are
    completely wrong, and most of all, the political tone and stance that
    Obama’s ban on torture is a meaningless and empty gesture.

    “When President Obama declared flatly this week that ‘the United States will
    not torture’ many people wrongly believed that he’d shut the practice down,
    when in fact he’d merely repositioned it.

    “Obama’s Executive Order bans some — not all — US officials from torturing
    but it does not ban any of them, himself included, from sponsoring torture
    overseas.

    “Indeed, his policy change affects only a slight percentage of US-culpable
    tortures and could be completely consistent with an increase in US-backed
    torture worldwide.”

    The reality is that Obama’s executive order does not “reposition” U.S.
    torture, at least in no explicit way. It has nothing in there about handing
    over the waterboarding or shock cables to non-employees of the U.S.
    government. If there were, an experienced journalist like the author would
    have quoted it. This is, in reality, what the author *believes* will happen.
    But the presentation as factual reporting of the CONCLUSION the author wants readers to draw shows this is a venting of leftist frustration at what the
    author views as Obama’s hoodwinking of working people, RATHER THAN an
    attempt to convince anyone.

    The issue of whether the United States should be allowed to openly and
    shamelessly carry out torture is not an insignificant one. Saying that
    banning torture by U.S. personnel is meaningless is like saying that banning
    the death penalty is meaningless — capitalism is a murderous system, and
    will continue to murder using everything from malnutrition to killer cops,
    and so on. This is such a classic example of ultraleft idiocy that I am
    embarrassed to say Louis referred this article to the list.

    But just as significant as the ultraleft error involved in the abstract are
    certain social realities. And this is the very heart of the matter, which I
    wrote about earlier in the post, which is the tone and stance you take above
    all towards the Black community and what it sees as its victory and its
    president. The stance implicit in the article is that Obama’s arrival at the
    presidency is in no sense an advance for the Black cause. That’s a
    non-starter. It’s like writing on the morning after the slaves are freed
    that this is meaningless because Blacks will still be oppressed and
    exploited.

    Black folks in the United States just celebrated getting one of their own,
    for the first time, as president. By the time this blog article was posted,
    he’d been in office just under than one hundred hours. A fairly well
    respected leftist journalist, Allan Nairn, writes it for his blog, from
    whence it goes to counterpunch, and from there to BOTH Marxmail and the
    Democratic Underground, as well as many other internet spaces.

    You’ve got a bunch of people on the left, viewed as mostly white –both
    liberals and radicals– dumping on Obama on the feeblest possible foundation
    –that in his order addressing the well-known, hot-button issue of U.S.
    personnel using torture, he does not address something the huge majority of
    Americans don’t even realize is going on– U.S. complicity with and even
    sponsorship of torture by the security forces of other countries.

    This subject could and should have been addressed when Obama signed his
    order, but not by a denunciatory blast asserting (with no evidence) that
    Obama merely “repositioned” U.S. torture but one educating people about the history of “indirect” U.S. torture, explaining things like the school of the
    Americas and calling on Obama to make clear that this is ALSO banned now, or explaining he should extend the order to cover that also.

  12. giorgio said on January 28th, 2009 at 5:19am #

    It’s nice to read another point of view. May be the writer, Bustelo above, has a few good points…so let’s see how Obama’s presidency pans out…but I still think Obama is just window dressing…Ok, the Blacks got a morale boost ! …and that’s about all they will get…the sparkles in Obama’s eyes are all Stars of David…

    The historian Israel Shahak has some interesting remarks about racist Zionists in the days of Martin Luther King which may also explain the present Zionist support for Obama:

    “Nevertheless, Martin L King’s campaigns were supported by many rabbis, not to mention other Jewish figures, some of whom must have been aware of the anti-black racist attitude which forms part of their Jewish heritage.

    Surely one is driven to the hypothesis that quite a few of Martin L King’s rabbinical supporters were either anti-black racists who supported him for tactical reasons of “Jewish interest” (wishing to win Black support for American Jewry and for Israel’s policies) OR were accomplished hypocrites, to the point of schizophrenia, capable of passing very rapidly from a hidden enjoyment of rabid racism to a proclaimed attachment to an anti-racist struggle – and back – and back again.”
    Just this on its own speaks volumes!!!

    I’m all to join Ann Coulter, the rabid neocon, who now seems to have seen the Light! and is now sponsoring Ron Paul for 2012 Presidency. This is really the guy who should be today sitting in that oval office.
    Not Obama!

  13. giorgio said on January 28th, 2009 at 7:15am #

    Uri Avneri, 86+ yrs old Israeli peace activist, has an article in Counterpunch.org on Obama titled “As the US Leans Left, Israel Lurches Right” which should be read. He sees Obama in a very positive light. Here some quotes:

    Of all the beautiful phrases in Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, these are the words that stuck in my mind: “You are on the wrong side of history.”

    He was talking about the tyrannical regimes of the world. But we, too, should ponder these words.

    In the last few days I have heard a lot of declarations from Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert. And every time, these eight words came back to haunt me: “You are on the wrong side of history!”

    Obama was speaking as a man of the 21st century. Our leaders speak the language of the 19th century. They resemble the dinosaurs which once terrorized their neighborhood and were quite unaware of the fact that their time had already passed.

    THEN FURTHER DOWN THE ARTICLE:

    BETWEEN Israel and the United States a gap has opened this week, a narrow gap, almost invisible – but it may widen into an abyss.

    The first signs are small. In his inaugural speech, Obama proclaimed that “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and nonbelievers.” Since when? Since when do the Muslims precede the Jews? What has happened to the “Judeo-Christian Heritage”? (A completely false term to start with, since Judaism is much closer to Islam than to Christianity. For example: neither Judaism nor Islam supports the separation of religion and state.)

    The very next morning, Obama phoned a number of Middle East leaders. He decided to make a quite unique gesture: placing the first call to Mahmoud Abbas, and only the next to Olmert. The Israeli media could not stomach that. Haaretz, for example, consciously falsified the record by writing – not once but twice in the same issue – that Obama had called “Olmert, Abbas, Mubarak and King Abdallah” (in that order).

    ***

    These are not good tidings for the Israeli leaders. For the last 42 years, they have pursued a policy of expansion, occupation and settlements in close cooperation with Washington. They have relied on unlimited American support, from the massive supply of money and arms to the use of the veto in the Security Council. This support was essential to their policy. This support may now be reaching its limits.

    It will happen, of course, gradually. The pro-Israel lobby in Washington will continue to put the fear of God into Congress. A huge ship like the United States can change course only very slowly, in a gentle curve. But the turn-around started already on the first day of the Obama administration.

    INTERESTING READ, ISN’ T IT???

  14. Jack said on January 28th, 2009 at 8:31am #

    Deadbeat,

    Using the black community, and Obama’s incidental skin tone, to immunize him from criticism only serves the interests of those in New York, London and elsewhere who benefit from Obama’s navigation of the Ship o’ Capital.

    Respectfully,

    Jack

  15. Deadbeat said on January 28th, 2009 at 8:47am #

    Jack your response is reactionary because no one is suggesting that Obama be immune from criticism. What Bustelo is pointing out is there is a tendency on the Left to OVER state and INFLATE its critique of Obama without analyzing its POLITICAL consequences. In fact without such nuance the position being taken by Narin effectively will create an environment of suspicion and fracturing rather than one of solidarity. Such fracturing effectively benefits the interests you profess to challenge.

    True Marxist analysis is understanding and apparently Bustelo is offering some words of caution for writers such as Narin who may be so hellbent on criticizing Obama without analysis or justification due to his own biases.

    There is enough room to criticize Obama on solid facts and evidence. The Left must present real facts and evidence to make its case against Obama.

  16. bozh said on January 28th, 2009 at 9:33am #

    bustelo is saying that some of the people on the Lefy are obamaphobic.
    later in the article he speaks of ultraleft’s idiocy.

    i am on the Left, and i’m not obamaphobic but USAphobic. i don’t konw whether joaquin wld categorize me as an ultraleftist. and why ad hominem attacks.

    wld a leftist further rend the left by labeling? i do not think so. bustelo had a chance to show or prove which of nairn’s facts may not be acceptable as facts by juxtapoising own or othe peoples’ facts or just let history decide that.

    i too conclude that US never changes. it will torture people in endless number of ways. thnx

  17. Jack said on January 28th, 2009 at 2:00pm #

    Deadbeat,

    There’s nothing “reactionary” about criticism of the use of race as a shield against critique of Obama’s polices. And I reject, pro forma, any claims to “true Marxist,” or “true conservative,” or “true religion.”

    This race shield smacks of the same race shield used to confuse criticism of Israeli state policy with anti-semitism, of criticism of American state policy with attacks on “Western Civilization,” (often used as a code for “white folks in power”) et cetera ad nauseam ad infinitum.

    “No True Scotsman” is a fallacy much abused, in our times. That you’re using it, now, reveals the weakness of your position, not my “reactionism.”

    Respectfully,

    Jack

  18. Brian said on January 29th, 2009 at 8:47pm #

    Great report.

    I am not surprised by Obama’s inaction. I didn’t vote the man since he’s a conservative.

  19. JusticeForAll said on February 21st, 2009 at 4:55pm #

    Wonders what happened to all the photos of ‘actual torture’ and the videos that Seymour Hersh reported Rumsfeld had, but did not release. The Army interrogators (torturers) were not named, were not charged, were not punished. The Army Reservists prison guards who followed the orders of the Active Duty Army met court martial and were put in prison for immorality and posing in pictures. Those who caused DEATH by TORTURE still serve.

    I voted to end the Iraq war, bring the troops home and end the torture. I wanted it to start from day one, as promised. Silly me, believing in Campaign Promises.

    Foiled again?