The Great Carcan

I knew a torturer. I liked him. The man loved his dog, you have to give him that. A Mongolian shepherd. He’d trained it so that if you pointed a gun or even just made bang-bang fingers, the dog would run and jump and push your arm aside with its paws, so he could take out his own gun and shoot you first. He was heartbroken when that dog died.

Keith wasn’t much good at torture. Overall, he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. When I was in the wild east he was there too, looking for black-market Soviet suitcase nukes, the swashbuckler’s holy grail. The million-dollar price on Osama’s head, that was his undoing.

He went to Afghanistan, told the army he was with CIA, told CIA he was with NATO, told NATO he was with MSF, and so on. He set up shop in a fake rug store. He would abduct you, on a tip or a hunch, hang you upside down and hit you with hoses and shout, “Where’s Osama bin Laden?” In such an extremity you would reach deep into the inmost resources of your spiritual strength, think of the biggest asshole you know, and say, “Abdul! I saw him with bin Laden.” Keith would then abduct Abdul.

It went on this way until Keith had a member of the Afghan parliament in there, hanging upside down like a bat. The police stormed the place, locked him up, and with a creditable semblance of due process, put him away for ten years or so. He had AIDS when they let him out and he died in the Caribbean somewhere, I forget where. Keith Idema, R.I.P. I guess he’s snorkeling eternally in Satan’s frigid smegma in nether hell.

I bet you know torturers too. Successful torturers are often quite respectable. This state is underpinned by torture. You’ll see. Soon – November 3rd through 28th – the Committee Against Torture will review US compliance with the Convention Against Torture (CAT).

The USA has been involved with the Convention Against Torture from inception. The world’s inspiring effort to stop torture was itself inspired by the industrial-scale atrocities of the US puppet Pinochet. The world had watched with growing disquiet as the US rolled Operation Phoenix out for worldwide distribution. USAID’s Office of Public Safety trundled its wares around Latin America. Public-safety psychopath Dan Mitrione peddled torture like Tupperware, demonstrating it himself on kidnapped beggars. Mitrione trained trainers of trainers in Brazil and Uruguay until Tupamaro guerillas nabbed him and administered rough justice. That didn’t stop the US. Long-running state terror in Guatemala reached a new peak that year. Plan Condor spread torture with state-of-the-art development assistance and capacity-building. Chile was to be the template – the US ousted reformers and installed its own torture state.

That was the last straw. The Human Rights Commission traced the mounting pressure of the international community’s response. The UN members defined inadmissible abuses in the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. General Assembly resolution 3218 (XXIX) denounced torture; the body’s next official act, UNGA Res. 3219, explicitly condemned torture in Chile. UNGA Res. 3448 (XXX) intensified its outrage at Pinochet’s regime of state terror. There ought to be a law, the world concluded, so they wrote one, in UNGA Resolution 3452 (XXX). From there it took seven years to hammer out a binding convention. The US delegation took an active role in negotiating the text, taking special care to exclude the “relatively less abhorrent practices” that make the world go round.

When the world adopted the Convention by unanimous acclamation, the US government got to work gutting it. The Departments of State and Justice spent 40 months huddling with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. To “protect the constitution,” as Jesse Helms put it, the government tacked on a package of 19 crippling conditions. These included “common law defenses” for well-meaning torturers – even though the US had signed to affirm that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” The package would let extradition treaties override the CAT’s ban on sending persons back to states that threatened torture. The US proposed to ratify the Convention while denying the competence of the committee that would implement it. As always, the government threw in a legally nonsensical proclamation that the treaty as a whole was “non self-executing.” As Senate Treaty Doc. 100-20, the package abides in our hearts as a Magna Carta for those who torment helpless captives. The blatant bad faith of it proved too embarrassing, even at home, so the incoming Bush administration took another year and whittled it down.

Eventually, grudgingly, the treaty was signed, not by our head of state but by a Deputy Secretary. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee considered the Convention Against Torture in 1990. By this time ratification hearings had the trite stereotyping of minstrel shows. Jesse Helms began the show with furious flag-waving: we have the Eighth Amendment, torture cannot be. Witnesses took up the chorus. US constitution is the “greatest human rights document.” US justice has “no peer.” This superfluous convention, the performers insisted, is for foreign commie tyrants, not for us.

The soaring C+ rhetoric evinced a poignant need to be exemplary in some way. One witness, a donnish enthusiast named Forte, was sure he saw American freedom shining in the eyes of the bewildered populations of invaded Granada and Panama and in the ruthless Romanian police state that liquidated its General Secretary in a coup. The fervent credo’s jittery undertone betrayed what Human Rights Watch called an ”almost paranoid fear” of unfairness. UNESCO’s cheek made it the Great Satan of treaty bodies in a certain set. These patriots feared that the Committee Against Torture would be one more impertinent claque in what one witness called the “hostile diplomatic environment” of the UN. Their underlying fear was more specific, but unspeakable. A government witness could only hint darkly at “things that have happened.” The US government had lately been drawn into independent international courts where authentic rule of law made mincemeat of US pretensions. The government’s first taste of shame and exposure still rankled. The government’s defenders shuddered to think how they might fare in cases of torture, that most grave and inexcusable of crimes.

To get the ratification package under control the Bush Administration had had to lock the crazies back in the basement. Helms missed them, and repined peevishly for his ideological catamite John Bolton. Helms fretted for his country’s sovereignty. Do you mean to say, he asked, that international law is superior to US law? No, it’s part of US law, the witnesses patiently explained. But does that mean it supersedes US law? No, they said soothingly, a torture ban is not unconstitutional. But Helms seemed to fear that tortured suspects might use the CAT to thwart our Constitution’s sovereign wrath in a sort of intolerable lèse-majesté.

Helms played impresario for everyone’s pet cause. The Convention was “a dagger pointed at the heart of Israel” by the diabolic PLO. A patriotic Papist from Notre Dame vowed to contest abortion under CAT Article 16 while defending the “constitutional prerogative” of the death penalty for the formerly unborn. Senators and diplomats gloated at the trap they had laid for abstemious socialist Muammar Gaddafi, arch-boogieman of the day. Seeking esteem, the presumptuous African would feel a “moral compulsion” to join the Convention. Then the US would use it to expose his “phoniness and lies.”

With the patriotic ceremony out of the way, the Justice Department got down to brass tacks. They addressed what they coyly called “law enforcement” concerns. For law enforcement purposes the Convention defined some forms of torture too vaguely, with no threshold or degree. Such ambiguity might encourage unwarranted litigation. Law enforcement, of course, encompassed intelligence in all its many guises. US government official Dan Mitrione was enforcing the law, in a way, when he threaded fine wire between the teeth and gums of randomly kidnapped beggars and slowly electrocuted them – he was training law enforcement in the thresholds and degrees of severe pain.

The Justice Department restricted the definition of mental torture to four specified acts. To constitute torture, those acts must destroy the personality of the subject. The severe mental suffering that Justice inflicts to coerce confessions for plea “bargaining” and intelligence are not to be considered torture – they are compulsion, a vital prerogative of the state. We see how this distinction works today. When Aaron Swartz killed himself, his personality intact, it was state compulsion that he was unable to withstand.

Justice reminded the other treaty parties that US law enforcement staff may exercise discretion in complying with the law. For this reason lawful US sanctions must include all the discretionary torments that have been condoned by US courts. The government also stipulated that “noncompliance with applicable legal procedural standards does not per se constitute torture.” The Department of Justice explained that all sorts of government lawlessness gets excluded in our peerless US courts. Intelligence agencies gag the courts for many reasons, not just for secret torture. Other countries find this hard to understand, so the US government had to spell it out: don’t assume we’re torturing our prisoners just because our peerless justice is arbitrary or clandestine.

Senator Clayton Pell had lined up human rights advocates to shame the Senate into voting for the treaty. The Center for Victims of Torture brought along a handy tally of the most popular torture techniques among US puppet rulers. The Center’s torture trends traced the changing focus of US foreign policy: since 1984 the main source of torture victims had shifted from Chile, Argentina or Uruguay to the Mideast.

Amnesty International reminded the Senators that torture is not mindless savagery – torture has a purpose, to suppress dissent. The US government never lost sight of that purpose, and Human Rights Watch recognized the forward-looking provisions in the ratification package. At that time Human Rights Watch (HRW) had not yet been gelded by warmongering government moles, and with gimlet-eyed candor they showed how the government twisted a landmark affirmation of human dignity into something that read like the work rules for AFSCME Government Torturers Local 12. HRW remarked that the US government’s clever casuistry made it a “role model” for discreet torturers worldwide.

The government redefined torture to leave loopholes for favored torments in the coming “era of psychological torture.” The Department of Justice decreed that if the agony goes away, then it’s not torture. HRW exposed that subtle misdirection: suffering is not the point. The government values the lasting effects: dehumanization, helplessness, infantile dependence, broken human beings. With eerie resonance, HRW’s examples of permissible tortures did, in fact, return after 9/11. The US government’s anti-terror gulag featured all the basic banana-republic techniques: abrupt surprise changes of draconian rules; isolation; proxy torture of prisoners’ dependents with the gnawing dread of disappearance.

In the Orwellian newspeak of the US package, torture begins only when the subject is in custody or under control. This fiction has two convenient features for the torture state. First, the custody exemption legalizes state terror. Many of the most horrifying tortures are exemplary. The public atrocity is a demonstration of official impunity for arbitrary sadism. HRW’s example, from Chile, of demonstrators set afire has counterparts in US practice. Punishing the right of assembly by indiscriminately deafening passers-by is not deemed torture. Blinding an arrestee or breaking her bones and constricting them with tight restraints is not deemed torture. When these crimes are not defined as torture, the outside world can’t help the victim. Second, when torture is conditioned on custody, government officials escape command responsibility. That the government meant to shield its high command from the torture it directs is made clear by another subtle loophole: wilful blindness to torture by subordinates is criminal acquiescence, in the US ‘understanding;’ but negligent oversight may not be criminal at all.

The Justice Department redefines cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (CIDT) to mean unconstitutional acts. This reservation tries to keep the Convention from giving victims more protection than the US government permits. It decrees that nothing in the CAT will be allowed to curtail torture. Furthermore, the reservation would force the Committee Against Torture to become constitutional law scholars. And since formal reservations extend the same terms to all treaty parties, the Committee would quickly be overwhelmed by contradictory minutia. But the Committee’s job is not to reconcile the ins and outs of hand-chopping and stoning with US customs of waterboarding and electric torture and live burial; the Committee’s job is to set minimal standards for the civilized world. In a further attempt to make the US government the sole arbiter of permissible punishment, the Justice Department ruled out World Court involvement in interpretive disputes. Under the terms of the treaty the US signed, that is not an option.

Like most human rights treaties, the Convention Against Torture protects individuals, not states. But the US government acted to deny individuals any recourse to the Committee Against Torture. The State Department’s representative, himself a former prosecutor, acknowledged the state’s contempt for its victims: individual grievances are ‘likely to be frivolous.’ In seeking justice for their treatment, victims of torture may only petition the government that tortured them. That is the prerogative of all totalitarian states.

By declaring that the Convention was not self-executing, the government denied individuals recourse to the courts and kept the courts from enforcing the new law. In the Soering case, the European Court of Human Rights had deemed US executions inhuman and degrading. In response, the US government took care to stipulate that the CAT did not constrain its power of life and death. In the Filártiga case, a US court vindicated a Paraguayan adolescent tortured to death for his father’s political views. Paraguay’s dictator was a CIA satrap and stalwart of the Condor cabal. The uncollectible monetary damages offered in cold comfort by the court were distasteful to the US government, but the court’s invocation of UN resolutions as authorities was too much. As a condition of treaty ratification, the US government decreed that torture abroad must be exempt from private damages – there would be no more Filártigas. The State Department emphasized that intent with a legally meaningless letter to the Senate. Victims farmed out to US satellite states for torture must not come back to haunt us. Clearly, the government was looking ahead to its systematic program of torture by rendition.

If the squirming course of ratification was less than propitious, it didn’t begin to hint at the extravaganza of failure to come. The US promptly flopped into the trap it had set for Gaddafi’s phoniness and lies.

The US submitted its first required report on torture five years late. The government had vowed to respect its constitution by enacting the treaty in US law. In so doing, the government neglected to make torture a crime. The Committee Against Torture gently reminded the government of the straightforward letter of the law, “Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offenses under its criminal law.” In its review (Page 31-32) the Committee called out the same sleazy evasions that Human Rights Watch had exposed in the Senate. The Committee made the modest suggestion that the government investigate, prosecute and punish torturers as required by law.

After 9/11, the US government held back its next torture report for three and a half years. The situation was in flux – they had a global torture gulag to set up. The government sent an entourage of 26 to undergo review but the intelligence agencies, always at the tip of the spear when there’s girls to rape, chose to hide at home. The Committee picked through what one dazed UN official called “the longest list of issues I have ever seen.” The international experts of the Committee catalogued the US government’s disgrace in their Conclusions and Recommendations. The scale of it forced the Committee to pick and choose: they made formal priorities of eight of the 30 US derelictions, scheduling urgent follow-up reporting in one year.

Meanwhile, in Langley and its fiefdoms the US nomenklatura were frantically trying to stick someone else with the blame. The Supreme Court was keenly aware that the Nuremberg Tribunal had tried judges. For these new crimes against humanity, they wanted to make sure the knuckle-draggers took the rap. To that end, the judges gave a nod to the Geneva Conventions in their 2006 Hamdan decision. Even Antonin Scalia, for all his swinish contempt for the bedrock norms of civilization, argued not what he really thought, that these crimes were no big deal, but that this was none of the court’s business – the Supreme Court simply had no jurisdiction.

Feeling betrayed, the torturers immediately started twisting arms in the subsidiary branches of government. Congress obediently gutted its own War Crimes Act by retroactively decriminalizing outrages on human dignity. Congress then made it official that federal courts have no jurisdiction over things you do to “enemy combatants.” The torturers and courts were off the hook. Someone had to take the blame, of course. To stick the executive with the legal exposure, Congress had let advice of counsel justify the torture. After all, if anybody deserved to end up gurning in shame in the Hague, it was CIA tools Bybee and Levin. They had restored Helms’ absurd “common-law defenses” for torturers. But the lawyers in turn, covered their asses by reviving the Nixon dictum: if the President wants you to do it, it’s not illegal. So after all was said and done, the buck stopped where it was meant to, with the pliant, callow empty suit installed expressly to hold the bag, Barack H. Obama.

Soon we’ll see if all that washes. The US government faces the Committee Against Torture in November. Much groundwork has been laid. UN member nations and special procedures are converging on US torture as a serious crime of concern to the international community. This triggers the Committee’s confidential examination powers and, at the Committee’s option, publication of results. The treaty body’s confirmation of widespread and systematic torture will put the US government’s gulag squarely in the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC has turned its attention to systematic torture by the closest US ally and opened an investigation of US government CIDT in Aghanistan. The US may yet have to decide if it wants to use its Security Council veto to escape the law. And if the US were to ward off the ICC, formal condemnation from UN organs would become customary international law in the World Court. The World Court has decided to consider the rights of individual victims. That’s what the government’s torturers fear most of all, the victim’s voice.

The net is tightening. You can see little ripples from the panicked feeding frenzy below: Government hysteria over “insider threats.” CIA and Justice teaming to threaten the Senate. They are trying to decide which ones to sacrifice to save themselves. This is only the beginning. You should see what happens as the desperation mounts.

The government meticulously engineered its legal stance to deny its victims all recourse. In the Senate, Human Rights Watch had remarked with unsettling prescience,

“While this may seem of little consequence at the moment, recent rapid changes in world events serve as reminders that current conditions can change overnight. We leave our children vulnerable to abuses by future governments when we deny to them the full range of protections envisioned by the treaty.”

So it proved. The vulnerable children of 1990 disappeared. But conditions can indeed change overnight. Now we are learning who those vulnerable children were. Khaled El-Masri. Binyam Mohamed. Abou Elkassim Britel. Ali Hussein Ali, who wasn’t born in 1990. Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah. Bisher Al-Rawi. The roll goes on and on. Thahe Mohammed Sabbar. Chelsea Manning. Sherzad Kamal Khalid. Mehboob Ahmad. Jose Padilla, whose mind has been effaced. Salah Al-Salami. Mani Al-Utaybi, Yasser Al-Zahrani, and many more. The randomly-chosen ‘worst of the worst’ who rotted chained like dogs in Camp Nama and Camp No without charge. The hundreds of victims of the secret US death camps.

The pillory, exposure to the peoples’ revulsion. It’s the capitis poena of a peaceful world. Exposure to disgrace condemned the Soviet Union to die. It destroyed South African apartheid. It eliminated the Mubarak regime and Idi Amin Dada’s torture state. Now the carcan is ready to clamp the US government, tether it in public disgrace with nowhere to hide.

They’ll try hard to distract you in November. Don’t let them. They can’t torture the whole world, and the whole world’s coming after them. We don’t need this predatory, parasitic state. Nothing keeps it in place but compulsion under threat of torture. The Soviet acronym CHEKA means linchpin, and CHEKA-style torture is the US government’s linchpin now. Snap the linchpin, and the whole machine breaks down.

Brian Littlefair is the author of Desert Burial. As a consultant specializing in foreign direct investment he worked with foreign joint ventures, international financial institutions and bilateral aid agencies, with volunteer work in food security, transparency, and human rights in the global south. Read other articles by Brian.