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Selective blindness about torture

Abu Ghraib There is extensive evidence of US intelligence gathering techniques, much of it derived from declassified documents. It points to a clearly navigable path from the paranoia of the anti-communist post-WWII era to Abu Ghraib. This evidence is systematically laid out in Michael Otterman's From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond.

It is clear that the familiar images of American soldiers tormenting Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere cannot possibly be explained away as the actions of a few rogue elements. Such behaviour has a history that reveals the extent of our collective delusion.

This selective blindness has been recently evident, via the widespread shock expressed that so many doctors were involved in the June terror attacks on London and Glasgow. The high esteem in which the medical profession is held, is mostly deserved. However, it is clear that numerous American physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists have actively participated in experiments to test coercive techniques, and in the actual application of these techniques, for more than 50 years.

Definitions of torture are quite rubbery, depending on who is on the receiving end. A 1956 study, commissioned by the CIA, concluded that Soviet and Chinese methods, based on debility, dread and dependence (DDD), 'constitute torture and physical coercion'. However, by 2002, with the Americans employing many of the same techniques, thinking had changed. An administration memo argued that for a physical act to constitute torture 'it must be of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure'.

Soon after WWII it became a matter of national security to understand communist 'brainwashing' techniques. Operating with 'extra-legal powers ... under a veil of secrecy ... the CIA was the primary agency charged with mind control research during the Cold War'. Much of their early work focused on the potential of drugs, such as LSD, to 'loosen lips' during the interrogation process. 'Unwitting soldiers' were used as guinea pigs.

By 1955 stress inoculation, deemed necessary to resist communist coercion, had evolved into the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program, which inflicted on thousands of soldiers tortures such as electric shocks and confinement in an undersized wooden box. Racial, sexual and religious humiliation was frequently practised and students were also learning how to use the techniques to extract information.

Why did it take the CIA so long to discover that debility, dependency and dread were crucial to the psychological breakdown of prisoners? After all, aren't these among the characteristics of destructive human relationships?

The Vietnam War provided excellent opportunities for the Americans, with their South Vietnamese allies, to practise their DDD methods. Thousands of innocent non-combatants fell prey to the Phoenix Program; the majority were murdered, explains Otterman. Electrical torture and sexual abuse were commonly employed by Vietnamese torturers. CIA medical teams conducted radical human experiments. One of these involved attaching electrodes to the exposed brains of prisoners, to test their reactions to various frequencies.

Latin America was another forum for American DDD torture. During the Reagan years, the notorious School of the Americas became an important training venue, particularly as the US turned its attention to Central America.
A popular saying of the CIA-trained interrogators was 'if they are innocent, beat them until they become guilty'. Forty years later, ex-Guantanamo Bay prisoner Moazzam Begg writes in Enemy Combatant:

'...A barrage of kicks to my head and back followed. Lying on the ground, with my back arched, and my wrists and ankles chafing against the metal chains, was excruciating. I could never wriggle into a more comfortable position, even for a moment ... I was there in isolation for about a month or so ... If I nodded off, he woke me ... Eventually I did agree to say whatever they wanted me to say, to do whatever they wanted me to do.'

The severity of techniques used has varied depending on the implementing agency, the administration and the level of public awareness.

As the 'war on terror' gathered pace, the US withdrew support for the Geneva Convention for the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Later, in 2006, the acute embarrassment of Abu Ghraib led to a new Army field manual. However, this manual does not cover the CIA, which continues to operate as usual. Further, the War Crimes Act has been amended and obscured to the point where a wide range of coercive techniques, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation, can be arguably classified as legal.

Evidence of torture should force Australia to confront what we have permitted to be done in our name. Given our acquiescence, complicity and active participation in the 'war on terror', Australia must take some responsibility for the 'collateral damage', even if much of it has been committed by our superpower ally.

no picture greyPeter Hodge works as a teacher and freelance journalist. He is the author of Volunteer Work Overseas for Australians and New Zealanders.



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