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America's amnesia.

When Veronica de Negri first saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, she happened to be writing her testimony for the Chilean commission investigating human rights abuses during the regime of Augusto Pinochet.

"That kind of abuse was what I lived in Chile under Pinochet," says de Negri, who came to the United States twenty-seven years ago. Even the vocabulary carried an echo. "They told us, too, they were trying to soften us up."

De Negri was detained in 1976. "I was beaten up. I had electroshock," she says. "I was raped not just by the torturers but with a mouse. It's very repulsive. Imagination cannot reach the reality."

She recognizes that "the torturers in my case were Chilean," but she blames Washington for helping to overthrow Salvador Allende in 1973, for supporting Pinochet, and for training Chilean torturers. De Negri left Chile with her family in 1977, but her son Rodrigo Rojas went back almost a decade later. "He was participating in a national strike on July 2, 1986, when he was arrested, badly beaten, and set on fire and burned alive by Pinochet's forces," she says.

Americans are "very naive," she says. "They don't want to see" the involvement of the United States in torture over the years. The Abu Ghraib scandal "is nothing new," she says. "This has been happening behind your eyes for many years."

The United States likes to see itself with a halo on its head, and whenever a revelation like Abu Ghraib or My Lai surfaces, U.S. citizens tend to shrug it off as an anomaly. When you look at the last fifty years of U.S. history, it is anything but.

From Greece to Iran to Indonesia to Vietnam and throughout Latin America, the U.S. government has been complicit in the torture or murder of hundreds of thousands of people.

"If we had photographs of what our so-called allies in Honduras and El Salvador and Chile were doing, based on training they had received from us in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the American public would have been even more horrified," says Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. This was torture by proxy, but it was at the direction of Washington. "The only difference between this kind of conduct now and in the past is that there wasn't somebody with a digital camera back then keeping track of what was going on," says Kornbluh.

A. J. Langguth was "stunned and repulsed" by the pictures of the abuse at Abu Ghraib. "But it wasn't a big surprise to me," he says. Langguth is the author of Hidden Terrors, which chronicles the U.S. involvement in torture in Brazil and Uruguay in the 1960s and early 1970s. The book focuses on Dan Mitrione, the U.S. officer who professionalized the work of the torturers and ultimately was captured and executed by the Tupamaros in Uruguay.

"I first heard about our policies in torture when I was in Brazil in the '70s," Langgurh says. "A friend of mine in the Brazilian military told me of the kinds of things going on, and when I chastised the Brazilians for doing that, he said, 'Come on, you know who's teaching us.'"

"This is an open secret," says Alex Taylor, an informal spokesperson for the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International, which Sister Dianna Ortiz, a victim of Guatemalan torture herself, helped found. "It has been happening for decades. The American public needs to educate itself about how widespread it's been. Since the 1950s, the United States has used torture as policy first in the war against communism and now in the war against terrorism.

For Taylor, who was born in Guatemala, the issue is personal. "My mother was tortured and disappeared in Guatemala in 1971," he says. "I was a child of nine when this happened. I witnessed the whole abduction."

He is reluctant to talk in more detail about this tramna, but he assigns a lot of the blame to Washington. "The United States helped the Guatemalan military with the techniques of torture," he says.

William Blum, author of Rogue State, confirms the role of the U.S. military. "From the 1960s through the 1980s, Guatemalan security forces, notably the Army unit called G-2, routinely tortured 'subversives,'" he writes. "The CIA advised, armed, and equipped the G-2, which maintained a web of torture centers."

Blum also notes in that book that some of the more lurid activities at Abu Ghraib and in Afghanistan were not new. "At the U.S. Navy's schools in San Diego and Maine during the 1960s and 1970s, students were supposedly learning about methods of 'survival, evasion, resistance, and escape' which they could use," he writes. "A former student, Navy pilot Lieutenant Wendell Richard Young, claimed ... that students were tortured into ... masturbating before guards, and, on one occasion, engaging in sex with an instructor."

At these schools, Blum says, students were introduced to a "torture device called the 'water board': the subject strapped to an inclined board, head downward, a towel placed over his face, and cold water poured over the towel; he would choke, gag, retch, and gurgle as he experienced the sensation of drowning."

On May 13, The New York Times reported that CIA interrogators used this same "water-boarding" technique on Al Qaeda operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Amnesty International said, "This would be a clear case of torture," and it added that "water submersion is a technique that has been used by countries notorious for their use of torture," including Indonesia under Suharto, the Congo under Mobutu, and Chile under Pinochet. In Latin America, where the technique was commonplace, it was called "el submarino."

"That U.S. interrogators or their proxies have been subjecting prisoners to 'water-boarding' and other forms of mock drowning is alarming," says William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "Who instructed neophyte guards and interrogators in these techniques?"

U.S. torture instructors have often gone by the manual. The CIA put out at least two manuals on torture, according to the National Security Archive. The first was entitled "KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation, July 1963." It says that "the electric current should be known in advance, so that transformers and other modifying devices will be on hand if needed." The manual delineates "the principal coercive techniques of interrogation," which include "deprivation of sensory stimuli through solitary confinement or similar methods, threats and fear, debility, pain, heightened suggestibility and hypnosis, narcosis, and induced regression."

The authors of this manual were aware of the illegality of these methods. "Interrogations conducted under compulsion or duress are especially likely to involve illegality and to entail damaging consequences" for the CIA. "Therefore prior approval" is required "if bodily harm is to be inflicted" and "if medical, chemical, or electrical methods or materials are to be used." A third category requiring prior approval was whited out.

The second manual, entitled "CIA, Human Resource Exploitation Manual-1983," repeated passages verbatim from the first one and instructed interrogators "to create unpleasant or intolerable situations, to disrupt patterns of time, space, and sensory perception"--tactics that U.S. personnel used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(These manuals are available at the National Security Archive website,

The most infamous manuals were the ones that the School of the Americas used between 1987 and 1991. There were at least seven of these army interrogation manuals, which were kindly translated into Spanish for the Latin American military officers who were attending. These manuals, which were widely used, gave instruction on false imprisonment, blackmail, beatings, torture, and assassination. In light of the controversy over the legal status of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, the following passage from one of the manuals is particularly relevant. The insurgent "does not have a legal status as a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention," it says.

Father Roy Bourgeois is the founder of SOA Watch, which has been campaigning to shut down the School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, for the past fourteen years. "We see a real close connection between the torture we're reading about in Iraq and the torture that has been connected with the School of the Americas," he says. "These were not a few bad apples. Apples do not torture. These were real soldiers at the School of the Americas and Iraq that we trained in the techniques of torture."

The School of the Americas trained more than 8,000 Salvadoran soldiers, Father Bourgeois says. Many of them, most notoriously Roberto d'Aubuisson, were involved in torture and assassinations. About 75,000 Salvadorans were killed, most by members of the Salvadoran armed forces.

Investigative reporter Allan Nairn, writing in the May 1984 issue of The Progressive, revealed that the ties between the United States government and the brutalizers of El Salvador were deeper than mere attendance at the School of the Americas. "Early in the 1960s, during the Kennedy Administration, agents of the U.S. government in El Salvador set up two official security organizations that killed thousands of peasants and suspected leftists over the next fifteen years," Nairn wrote. "These organizations, guided by American operatives, developed into the paramilitary apparatus that came to be known as the Salvadoran death squads."

During the Reagan Administration, in violation of U.S. law, the CIA continued to "provide training, support, and intelligence to security forces directly involved in death squad activity," Nairn wrote.

Dr. Juan Romagoza was one of those victims. Detained for two months at the end of 1980 and the beginning of 1981, Romagoza says he was tortured in the presence of U.S. advisers.

"At the beginning, I thought I'd never make it out of there alive," he says. "I saw people being killed. I suffered terrible physical mistreatment. I was kicked and beaten up and kept naked and blindfolded, and I was bound and hung up by my hands. They used electric shocks in every possible way and rape with instruments with sticks and poles and all kinds of things, and then they shot me in the arm while I was there."

Dr. Romagoza, now the executive director of La Clinica del Pueblo in Washington, D.C., is adamant about the presence of U.S. advisers. "There were North Americans with the high-ranking Salvadoran military officers," he says. "They all were there when I was hanging from my hands, and they were asking questions and laughing."

Asked about the abuses in Iraq, he says he feels "a tremendous sadness." And it reminds him of the horrors he was subjected to. "It's as if it goes on and on," he says. "How can people do that? And how can the United States pursue this blind policy that is so inhuman and arrogant, that assumes one person is worth more than another? We should not look at it as an isolated thing. This is a systemic approach to dealing with other people and other nations: the abuse of human rights, the rapes, the torturing, this goes on in many countries that the U.S. has supported and financed. I'm a survivor of that policy. In the long run, the United States must see the dignity and value of all human life."

In 2002, Dr. Romagoza and two other plaintiffs won a civil lawsuit brought by the Center for Justice and Accountability against two senior Salvadoran generals, Jose Guillermo Garcia and Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who had come to live in Florida. Romagoza was awarded $20 million.

The United States also was actively involved in torture and assassination in Honduras in the early 1980s. The CIA organized, trained, and financed an army unit called Battalion 316, The Baltimore Sun reported in 1995. It kidnapped, tortured, and killed hundreds of Hondurans. It "used shock and suffocation devices in interrogations. Prisoners often were kept naked and, when no longer useful, killed and buried in unmarked graves," the paper said.

The U.S. embassy in Honduras, led at the time by Ambassador John Negroponte, knew about the human rights abuses but covered it up. "Determined to avoid questions in Congress, U.S. officials in Honduras concealed evidence of human rights abuses," the Sun reported. Negroponte has denied involvement, and during his confirmation hearing before the Senate for his post as U.N. ambassador, he testified, "I do not believe that death squads were operating in Honduras."

Oscar and Gloria Reyes were two victims of the Honduran torturers. "On July 8, 1982, some military people went to our home, ransacked it, detained us, and brought us to the torture house," Oscar Reyes recalls. "There were a lot of people being tortured that night. You could hear the screaming. They used electrical shock on my body and my genitals, and they hanged me by my hands and were hitting me almost all night long. Then they put me in front of a tree and gave me a fake execution. That was probably the most terrible moment I had. On my wife, they used electrical shock in her vagina. It was so bad that she had permanent damage to her ovaries and she had to have a hysterectomy."

Oscar and Gloria Reyes are two plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Justice and Accountability against a former Honduran colonel they implicate in their torture. The defendant has denied any involvement.

Meanwhile, President Bush has appointed Negroponte to be the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

My Lai still lingers in the American memory as the single most abhorrent act of barbarism by the U.S. military in Vietnam, many U.S. citizens have forgotten about--or never heard about--two other human rights scandals there.

One of these was brought to light by the Toledo Blade in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series last year that exposed the brutality of the Tiger Force, a U.S. unit in 1967 that "left a trail of atrocities," with possibly hundreds of civilians as its victims. "Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers," The Blade reported. "Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed--their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings."

Then there was an entire U.S. effort that was based on torture and assassination. That effort was called the Phoenix Program, which ended up killing more than 20,000 Vietnamese, by the CIA's own count.

One CIA officer assigned quotas of assassinations for officers to fulfill, Douglas Valentine writes in The Phoenix Program. There was even a bounty and a "contest between the Phoenix advisers to see who could rack up the biggest body count," he writes. One participant barged in on a dinner that a lieutenant Was having and "dumped a dirty bag on the table. Eleven bloody ears spilled out."

Memory is a prerequisite for morality. And it is the lack of memory that struck many of the people I talked to for this story. "The idea that we have no past history of torture is amnesia," says William Blum.

The Chilean American writer Ariel Dorfman calls such historical amnesia a "false innocence" and explores its roots. "It is entirely functional to the sort of empire that the United States has become," he says. "It is true that the media does not serve up enough analysis and information to allow people here to judge what is happening. But it is also true that too many people are willingly blinding themselves to truths that are looking them in the face."

A. J. Langguth agrees that torture is an integral part of being an empire. "We are the beneficiaries of an empire, and the empire rests on a number of props that we don't care to look at," he says. "And torture has been, and I'm afraid will continue to be, one of the tools."

Discarding this tool may not be easy, says Dorfman. "If Americans were to truly acknowledge (let me emphasize that word 'truly') what is being done in their name, they would have to change the way they live and remember, work and play," he says. "Or give up seeing themselves as ethical."

Matthew Rothschild is Editor of The Progressive.
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Author:Rothschild, Matthew
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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