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Torture goes all the way to the top

By Lance Selfa | June 25, 2004 | Page 9

THE REVELATIONS of the use of systematic torture on prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and throughout the U.S.-directed gulag of secret prisons around the world has shocked millions of Americans. As well it should.

But the revelations shouldn't blind us to some hard truths, the first of which is that torture in the U.S. gulag is not some aberration. It is the inevitable result of two factors: U.S. imperialism in general, and the occupation of Iraq in specific.

The military intelligence, military contractor and--most likely CIA--torturers didn't just suddenly pick up electrodes and cattle prods left behind in Abu Ghraib when Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed. In fact, the U.S. national security apparatus has been in the torture business for centuries--going back at least to the conquest of the Indians in North America.

In 1946, the U.S. launched the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation), which for almost six decades has trained Latin America's dictators and death squads in torture.

One fact among the millions of others buried under the avalanche of propaganda following Ronald Reagan's death was one key reason why the U.S. Congress cut off aid to the contras fighting the Nicaraguan government. It was the revelation in 1984 of the existence of a CIA "torture manual" that instructed the contras about how to apply "physical pressure" to detainees to get them to talk. The recommendations sound remarkably similar to what went on (or still goes on) at Abu Ghraib.

Another illusion is that the torture at Abu Ghraib is the responsibility of "untrained" or substance-abusing prison guards. But, as each day passes, a new document emerges showing just how far up the chain of command the decisions to torture went.

The U.S. claim to be the chief upholder and defender of "international law" rests on the legal apparatus it set up following the Nuremburg Trials of Nazi war criminals after the Second World War. The Nuremburg Trials didn't allow high Nazi officials to absolve themselves for the Holocaust by blaming lower ranking functionaries.

But that is precisely what the top leaders of the U.S. government--from President Bush to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--are trying to do today. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post have gotten a hold of (and posted to their Web sites) an extraordinary 2002 Justice Department memo that exempts Bush from any responsibility for adhering to laws of war, the Geneva Conventions or international treaties outlawing torture—all in the name of "fighting terrorism."

The prostitution of legal reasoning in the memo stands only a few steps away from the grotesque justifications for court-issued "torture warrants" that so-called liberal Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz has advocated.

All of this is coming to light today because forces inside the U.S. establishment--from the State Department to the CIA--want to discredit the architects of the Iraq disaster. It's not because these pillars of the national security establishment have decided that the U.S. must bow to international law. It's that they fear the collapse of legitimacy to U.S. foreign policy goals the scandal threatens. And they fear what will befall future U.S. prisoners of war.

The torture revelations have also punctured the neoconservative nonsense that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had anything to do with democracy. A military occupation is a brutal and authoritarian undertaking. Inevitably, the occupier subjects the conquered people to abuse, torture and repression--especially if the occupied resist the occupation.

To think the U.S. occupation of Iraq would be enlightened and completely different from, say, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, is to engage in fantasy. But in shattering this fantasy, the torture revelations have helped to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. government's claims in the eyes of millions of Americans. And that's another reason the U.S. establishment is worried.

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