The “normalization” of torture:
An interview with Marjorie Cohn

Marjorie Cohn, editor of The United States and Torture, speaks to Mark Karlin of Truthout about America’s long relationship with interrogation and torture.

[This interview originally appeared in Truthout. You can read it here.]

Mark Karlin: The infamous School of the Americas (SOA) (now euphemistically renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation”) has long been accused of teaching human rights violations, including torture. The Defense Department vigorously denies this accusation.

In Chapter 2 [of your book], Bill Quigley – who writes for Truthout, as well as yourself – outs the truth. Hasn’t the School of the Americas, and its predecessor, which was located in the Panama Canal Zone, been outsourcing torture and human rights violations for decades?

Marjorie Cohn: During the 1970s and 1980s, dictators and military leaders in Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Paraguay used skills they learned at the US Army’s School of the Americas to torture and execute dissidents. SOA graduates assassinated bishops, priests, labor leaders, women, children and community workers, and massacred entire communities. Although the school was cosmetically renamed in 2001 to the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation” (WHINSEC) at Ft. Benning, Georgia, the US government continues to resist accountability for those complicit in the egregious human rights violations perpetrated by the school’s students. There is a growing protest movement against the SOA/WHINSEC. Since the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador in 1980, protesters have increasingly engaged in lobbying and civil disobedience, including regular teach-ins, demonstrations and prayer vigils. Up to 20,000 demonstrators descend on Ft. Benning each year. They want the US government to admit what it has done at the school, allow an independent investigation and accept responsibility for the consequences. They are demanding that the torture school be closed.

MK: The torture and murders that occurred during the “dirty wars” in South America and the military dictatorship/right-wing militias’ suppression of opposition in Central America was something out of the Spanish Inquisition. The US was on the side of the military governments, and yet, they were committing torture and massacres even against US citizens, including nuns. Terry Lynn Karl describes this in Chapter 2, with El Salvador as a case study. How come it took the war on terror to ignite a national discussion on torture and US foreign policy?

MC: During the dirty wars in Latin America, most of the torture was perpetuated by foreign governments (albeit with the backing of the United States). But when the grotesque photographs of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib were published, Americans were confronted with torture being committed by their own government. As additional photographs and reports of torture emerged, and memoranda written by former President George W. Bush’s legal mercenaries were made public, it became impossible to ignore the cruelty being perpetrated by the US government.

MK: We tend to think of torture as physical, but you have a chapter on psychological torture. What forms does that take, in the United States and abroad?

MC: As historian Alfred McCoy explains in his chapter, the CIA has refined the “art”of torture by developing techniques to manipulate human consciousness. Since drug research had been unsuccessful, the CIA explored sensory deprivation and stress positions to be used offensively by CIA interrogators and defensively to train US troops to resist enemy interrogators. In 1963, the CIA created the KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual (KUBARK), which codified secret research on mind control. McCoy observes how they used heat and cold, light and dark, noise and silence, feast and famine, and sensory overload and deprivation to pursue their sordid ends.

MK: What is the role that professionals play – doctors, psychologists, lawyers, etc. – in the normalization of torture as a tool of the state?

MC: Psychologists were an essential component of the Bush torture regime. They helped develop, supervise, implement and disseminate abusive interrogation techniques, modeled on the US military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program. Bush administration officials “engineered” SERE techniques to design counter-resistance methods in order to break detainees. The American Psychological Association (APA), which is the nation’s largest professional mental health organization, “essential cover” for the psychologists’ assistance to the torture regime. Notably, a group of activist psychologists opposed the APA’s complicity. The movement achieved several major successes, which forced a change in APA policies. Psychologist Stephen Soldz documents that movement in his chapter.

Lawyers in the Bush administration’s Justice Department rewrote the law to justify torture and abuse. In a memo signed by Jay Bybee, John Yoo narrowed the definition of torture so the victim must experience intense pain or suffering equivalent to pain associated with serious physical injury so severe that death, organ failure or permanent damage resulting in loss of significant body functions will likely result; Yoo’s definition contravenes the definition in the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT), a treaty the US has ratified which is thus part of the US law under the Constitution’s supremacy clause. Yoo said self-defense or necessity could be used as a defense to war crimes prosecutions for torture, notwithstanding CAT’s absolute prohibition against torture in all circumstances, even in wartime. This memo, and another Yoo wrote with Jay Bybee in August 2002, provided the basis for the administration’s torture of prisoners.

MK: Obviously, in the post-9/11 period, the US got into torture in a big way. Many people have forgotten the photos from Abu Ghraib that showed prisoners who had been tortured to death, or of prisoners being tortured. Waterboarding became the focal point of media attention, not torture in general. Why do you think the visually documented torture by the US military in Iraq (leading to murder in some cases) has become sort of a near-forgotten footnote?

MC: The corporate media have short-term memories. Unless there is a breaking development in the torture saga, it is absent from the national conversation. Torture should be an ongoing story because the Bush officials and lawyers who choreographed the torture program should be facing trial in our courts. But Obama continues to resist accountability for his predecessors. His attorney general, Eric Holder, announced on June 30 that his office will investigate only two instances of detainee mistreatment. He said the department, “has determined that an expanded criminal investigation of the remaining matters is not warranted.” Holder has granted impunity to those who authorized, provided legal cover and carried out the “remaining matters.”

Both of the incidents that Holder has agreed to investigate involved egregious treatment, and both resulted in death. These two deaths should be investigated and those responsible punished in accordance with the law. But the investigation must have a much broader scope. More than 100 detainees have died in US custody, many from torture. And untold numbers were subjected to torture and cruel treatment in violation of US and international law.

MK: Chapter 13 focuses on the criminal accountability of the Bush administration for torture, but there have been no significant charges ever brought, except for low-level military personnel. Are high-level American officials above the law when it comes to torture?

MC: No. Under the well-established doctrine of command responsibility, commanders are liable for torture (considered a war crime under the Geneva Conventions and the US torture statute) if they knew or should have known their subordinates would commit torture and they did nothing to stop or prevent it. Bush officials Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales, Colin Powell and Bush himself, as well as their lawyers, including Yoo and Bybee, engaged in a common plan to authorize torture in violation of CAT and the Geneva Conventions. They knew that interrogators would take action based on that authorization. These officials and lawyers should be investigated and prosecuted for war crimes under US law. There is precedent for holding lawyers criminally liable for giving legally erroneous advice that resulted in great physical or mental harm or death. In US v. Altstoetter, Nazi lawyers were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity for advising Adolf Hitler on how to “legally” disappear political suspects to special detention camps.

MK: As far as Guantánamo, isn’t the whole prison complex there an ongoing state of torture?

MC: Guantánamo has become a powerful symbol of human rights violations – so much so that Amnesty International described it as “the gulag of our times.” Prisoners released from Guantánamo have detailed assaults, prolonged shackling in uncomfortable positions, sexual abuse and threats with dogs. Mustafa Ait Idr, an Algerian citizen who was living in Bosnia when he was sent to Guantánamo, charged that US military guards jumped on his head, resulting in a stroke that paralyzed his face. They also broke several of his fingers and nearly drowned him in a toilet. Mohammed Sagheer, a Pakistani cleric, claimed the wardens at Guantánamo used drugs “that made us senseless.” French citizen Mourad Benchellali, released from Guantánamo in July 2004, said, “I cannot describe in just a few lines the suffering and the torture; but the worst aspect of being at the camp was the despair, the feeling that whatever you say, it will never make a difference.” Benchellali added, “There is unlimited cruelty in a system that seems to be unable to free the innocent and unable to punish the guilty.” Many of the prisoners at Guantánamo refused food to protest being held incommunicado for years with no hope of release. They concluded that death could not be worse than the living hell they were enduring. Attorney Julia Tarver’s client Abdul Rahman told her “of his determination to die and said that, ‘now, after four years in captivity, life and death are the same,'” Tarver wrote in a sworn declaration filed in federal district court.

MK: Isn’t it odd that so many of the same people who promote the concept of American exceptionalism – and the US being a nation of higher moral values than the rest of the world – also condone torture?

MC: It’s not surprising that those who think American lives are worth more than others would objectify groups of people – Arabs, Muslims – to rationalize cruel treatment. This is not a new phenomenon. The people in most of the countries the United States has attacked, or whose repressive governments the US has supported, are non-white.

MK: Under the Obama administration, it has become the policy of the White House that US citizens who are thought – not tried, but “thought” – to be aiding terrorism can be assassinated. This came true – and we may not know of other incidents – when the US military killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone missile attack in Yemen. If the US government can now kill US citizens without a trial, what is to prevent us from being tortured?

MC: Holder is trying to justify the assassination of US citizens without trial under Congress’ Authorization for Use of Military Force after 9/11. But the Geneva Conventions and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both treaties the United States has ratified, forbid extrajudicial executions. They also forbid torture and cruel treatment. But that didn’t stop the Bush administration from torturing and abusing detainees. The first indication that Bush officials would employ torture in their war on terror occurred in December 2001, after US citizen John Walker Lindh was captured in Afghanistan. Lindh’s American interrogators stripped and gagged him, strapped him to a board and displayed him to the press. He was writhing in pain from a bullet, which US officials would leave in his body for weeks in order to “preserve the chain of custody of the evidence” against him. A Navy admiral told the intelligence officer who interrogated Lindh that, “the secretary of defense’s counsel has authorized him to ‘take the gloves off’ and ask whatever he wanted.” Although Lindh was initially charged with terrorism crimes that exposed him to three life terms plus 90 years, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft permitted him to plead guilty to lesser offenses that garnered him 20 years. The condition: that Lindh declare he suffered “no deliberate mistreatment” while in custody.

MK: Of course, no discussion of torture is complete without bringing up the CIA. Frankly, I can’t imagine that the CIA does not engage in torture around the world. How would we ever know if it was?

MC: Since 9/11, CIA involvement in extraordinary renditions, sometimes called “outsourcing torture,” has increased dramatically. Terrorism suspects in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East have been rendered to foreign countries such as Egypt, Syria, Morocco and Jordan, all notorious for torture. The Council of Europe has identified 14 European states which have apparently cooperated with the United States in extraordinary renditions. There are secret CIA prisons, so-called “black sites,” in many countries, including Romania and Poland, in which prisoners have been tortured after having been rendered there. In her chapter, journalist Jane Mayer discusses Ibn Sheikh al Libi, who was tortured in CIA custody. Al Libi provided a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, which Powell cited in his speech before the UN Security Council as he tried to secure a resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq. The CIA knew Al Libi’s information was false; indeed, he later recanted and died under mysterious circumstances.

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Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and past president of the National Lawyer’s Guild. Her books include The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse; Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law; and Cameras in the Courtroom: Television and the Pursuit of Justice.

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