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Torture and Impunity

Italy Sentences 23 CIA Agents in Rendition Case
Obama Refuses to Prosecute Anyone for Torture

By Democracy Now!

Alfred McCoy, professor of history at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation.

As a candidate four years ago, Obama unequivocally denounced torture and extraordinary rendition.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: We have to be clear and unequivocal: we do not torture, period. We don’t torture. Our government does not torture. That should be our position. That should be our position. That will be my position as president. That includes, by the way, renditions. We don’t farm out torture. We don’t subcontract torture.

Video Posted September 22, 2012


Part 2



AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Madison, Wisconsin. We’ll be in Eau Claire at noon, and tonight we’ll be in Hayward, Wisonsin, tomorrow in Minneapolis. I’ll talk about the details later in the broadcast.

But right now, to the news out of Italy’s high court, which has upheld the sentences of 23 CIA operatives convicted of kidnapping a Muslim cleric under the U.S. program called "extraordinary rendition." The cleric, Abu Omar, was seized from the streets of Milan in 2003 and taken to U.S. bases in Italy and Germany before being sent to Egypt, where he was tortured during a four-year imprisonment. The Americans were all convicted in absentia after the United States refused to hand them over. The ruling marks the final appeal in the first trial anywhere in the world involving the CIA’s practice of rendering terror suspects to countries that allow torture. The Italian government will now be obliged to make a formal request for the extradition of the Americans; however, it’s all but assured the Obama administration will continue its rejection.

Human Rights Watch praised the Italian court move. Andrea Prasow said, quote, "Since the U.S. Justice Department appears entirely unwilling to investigate and prosecute these very serious crimes, other countries should move forward with their own cases against U.S. officials," unquote.

So far, the Obama administration has refused to prosecute individuals involved in the U.S. torture and rendition program. But as a candidate four years ago, Obama unequivocally denounced torture and extraordinary rendition.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: We have to be clear and unequivocal: we do not torture, period. We don’t torture. Our government does not torture. That should be our position. That should be our position. That will be my position as president. That includes, by the way, renditions. We don’t farm out torture. We don’t subcontract torture.

AMY GOODMAN: That was then-presidential candidate Obama in 2008 speaking at CNN’s Compassion Forum.

Well, according to our next guest, four years after Obama made those comments, impunity for torture has now become a bipartisan policy of the U.S. government. We’re now joined by Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s the author of several books, including, most recently, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation. His past books include A Question of Torture and Policing America’s Empire.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

ALFRED McCOY: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to be in your neighborhood here in Madison.


AMY GOODMAN: Professor McCoy, the title of your book, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation, what is it?

ALFRED McCOY: The U.S. doctrine of coercive interrogation was developed during the Cold War. The CIA led the U.S. security establishment in a wide-ranging period of research that lasted about a decade, and they developed a new form of psychological torture—really the first revolution in the cruel science of pain in centuries, if not millennia. And it was essentially no-touch torture.

What they discovered through this research, a brilliant psychologist in Canada named Donald O. Hebb found that by putting student volunteers in cubicles with goggles, gloves and ear muffs through this process of sensory deprivation, they would suffer something akin to a psychotic breakdown. And that would also mean that deprived of sensory deprivation when interrogated, they would bond more readily with the interrogator.

The second discovery came through more CIA research into basically KGB Soviet techniques, which found that the—one of the most effective of KGB techniques was not beating the subject but simply making the subject stand immobile for days on an end, something we now call "stress positions."

And these two techniques—sensory deprivation and stress positions—were articulated in a CIA manual, the "KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation" manual, in 1963 and disseminated throughout U.S. allies and U.S. security agencies. And that became a distinctive form of American psychological torture. That’s been the basic form we’ve used for the last 60 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Has it mattered whether there’s a Democratic or Republican president?

ALFRED McCOY: Yes, it has, actually, because that’s the sort of default position. This also created a contradiction between the U.S. public commitment to human rights at the U.N. and other international fora and this private doctrine of psychological torture, which seemed to contradict that commitment to human rights.

Under President George W. Bush, the United States resolved this contradiction. President Bush announced to his aides that—right after the 9/11 attacks, he said, "I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass." He then authorized the CIA to create a fleet of two dozen chartered jets for rendition. And, more importantly, during the Cold War, the CIA trained allies in the use of torture, but we never did it ourselves: we outsourced it. We funded prisons. We harvested the intelligence. President Bush resolved this contradiction by authorizing the CIA to open eight black sites from Thailand to Poland, and therefore, American CIA agents actually engaged in waterboarding, wall slamming and forms of psychological torture under President Bush. We did it ourselves.

What’s happened under President Obama is we’ve gone back to that Cold War policy of outsourcing the abuse to our allies, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, by, first of all, turning a blind eye to the abuse of our allies, as we did in Iraq until the time we were there, and we’re doing now in Afghanistan. And then, simultaneously, President Obama authorized the CIA very quietly to conduct extraordinary rendition.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what extraordinary rendition is.

ALFRED McCOY: Under the U.N. Convention Against Torture, you’re not allowed to send somebody to a country where they will be subject to human rights abuse as defined by the Convention Against Torture. And rendition is the process of sending somebody to a country where they are likely to be tortured, in effect.

The contradiction between that segment you played and what Obama did is striking. In April of 2008, President Obama—unprompted—said, you know, "I will ban torture, and that includes rendition." OK. But then, during his first days in office, when he signed that very dramatic order closing those same CIA black sites that we were just discussing, President Obama got—was under pressure from the CIA. The CIA counsel looked at that draft order and said, "If you issue this as drafted, you’ll put us out of the rendition business." So, President Obama, being a skillful lawyer, added a footnote, and he defined a CIA prison in a way that exempted a prison for short-term transitory provisions. In other words, the CIA could have holding facilities to effect the rendition of subjects from one country to another on their fleet of executive aircraft. And that’s in the footnote of that dramatic, highly publicized order closing CIA black sites—except allowing rendition. It’s right there in the footnote. It was in black and white, but nobody noticed it, until the New York Times brought it out a few months ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor McCoy, I wanted to go to the first prime-time press conference that President Obama held after taking office. He was asked his opinion about a proposal put forward by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont to start a comprehensive truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the conduct of the Bush administration over that past eight years. This is how President Obama responded.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My administration is going to operate in a way that leaves no doubt that we do not torture, that we abide by the Geneva Conventions, and that we observe our traditions of rule of law and due process as we are vigorously going after terrorists that can do us harm. And I don’t think those are contradictory. I think they are potentially complementary. My view is also that nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama, first prime-time news conference. Professor Alfred McCoy?

ALFRED McCOY: That’s the third stage of impunity. The first stage—and it’s a universal process. It happens in countries emerging from authoritarianism that have had problems with torture. Step one is blame the bad apples. Donald Rumsfeld did that right after the Abu Ghraib scandal was exposed in 2004.

Step two is saying that it was necessary for our national security—unfortunate, perhaps, but necessary to keep us all safe. That was done very articulately by former Vice President Cheney at the time, and he continues to make that argument. He claims that these "enhanced techniques," as he calls them, i.e. CIA torture, saved thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of lives. OK?

The third step is the step we just witnessed in President Obama, saying that, well, whatever might have happened in the past, we need unity as a nation, we need to move forward together into the future. So, the past isn’t germane. We need to put it behind us, not investigate, not prosecute. And that was the position he was taking there.

The fourth stage is one that we’ve been going through for the past year. That’s been political attack by those implicated, under the Bush administration, in either conducting the torture or authorizing the torture. And that’s a political tack seeking not just exoneration, getting away with it, but seeking vindication, saying that not only, you know, was this legal, but it was necessary, it was imperative for our national security. And that’s an argument that the Bush administration made very forcefully when Osama bin Laden was killed in May of 2011. They argued that the enhanced interrogation under the Bush administration led the Navy SEALs to Osama bin Laden. There’s no evidence for that, but they made that argument. And that put pressure on Attorney General Eric Holder to drop the—most of the investigations of CIA abuse. And then, very recently, the two investigations of detainees who were killed in CIA custody have been dropped, as well.

The fifth and final stage is one that’s ongoing right to the present, and that’s rewriting the history, rewriting the past, ripping it apart, without respect to the truth of the matter, and reconstructing it in a way that justifies the torture. And that happened on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 when Dick Cheney brought out his memoirs saying that the use of enhanced techniques on Abu Zubaydah turned this hardened terrorist into—he called him "a fountain of information" that gave information that saved thousands of lives. OK? Well, you know, that was August 30th, 2011.

OK, on September 12th, 2011, former FBI interrogator, counterintelligence officer, Ali Soufan, came out with his memoirs. It turned out he was the American operative that conducted that interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. He was there in that safe house in Thailand, and there were two teams operating. And it turned out, in retrospect, when you look at what happened, it was the closest you can get to a scientific experiment into the relative effectiveness of empathetic FBI interrogation techniques and CIA coercive interrogation, CIA torture. And through four successive rounds, what happened is, Ali Soufan went in—he’s an Arabic speaker—he established empathy with Abu Zubaydah, and he got the name of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. George Tenet, CIA director, grew angry that the FBI, his rival agency, was getting all this information. He dispatched a team of tough CIA interrogators. They used these coercive techniques. The subject clamped up. No more information. The FBI was brought back in. More information from Abu Zubaydah based on non-coercive techniques.

And by the time this was done through four successive rounds, we established clearly, beyond any reasonable shadow of a doubt, that empathetic FBI techniques, with a skilled interrogator speaking to a subject in his language, OK, gets accurate intelligence. And all these CIA techniques—the sensory deprivation, the temperature modification, the noise blasting, the stress positions—all of that is counterproductive, does not work. OK? And that, that fragile truth, has been kept from us, because if you look at Ali Soufan’s memoirs, there’s 181 pages of CIA excisions that turned those passages about that interrogation of Abu Zubaydah into a rat’s nest of black lines that no regular American reader can possibly understand.

AMY GOODMAN: You write that under President Obama, still we are getting intelligence extracted by surrogates in places like Somalia, in Afghanistan.


AMY GOODMAN: And what does that mean—through torture?

ALFRED McCOY: What it means is that’s part of the outsourcing of this, OK? We now know through the WikiLeaks that after the Abu Ghraib scandal we reduced the number of detainees being held by U.S. forces in Iraq, and we transferred the detainees to Iraqi authorities, where the detainees were tortured. There were orders by the U.S. command, OK, that American soldiers, if they came across our Iraqi allies engaged in human rights abuse, they were not to do anything. And we know that from 2004 to 2009 U.S. forces collected, I think, 1,365 reports of Iraqi human rights abuse about which they did nothing.

In Afghanistan, it’s the same policy. Right after 2004, we started turning over the detainees that needed to be interrogated to the National Directorate of Security. In 2011, the United Nations investigated the Afghan National Security Directorate and found a systematic pattern of absolutely extraordinary human rights abuse, brutal physical tortures. And the United States continues to turn over detainees to the Afghan authorities. Britain and Canada will no longer turn them over, because of their concerns about human rights abuse.

So, in other—and we’re doing the same thing in Somalia. Jeremy Scahill, investigative reporter, did a superb report and found that in Mogadishu, the Somali authorities operate, in their security directorate, a prison called "the Hole" in the basement of their building. And the CIA engages in—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we’re going to continue the conversation and post it online at democracynow.org. Thank you so much, Professor Alfred McCoy. His book is called Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation . Go online to see the rest at democracynow.org and to see our Election 2012 Silenced Majority Tour. Today we’ll be in Eau Claire at noon; tonight in Hayward, Wisconsin; tomorrow, Minneapolis.




AMY GOODMAN: We’re now joined by Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s the author of several books, including, most recently, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation. His past books include A Question of Torture and Policing America’s Empire.

Talk about what was found in Somalia. And what is the kind of information that’s being used now?

ALFRED McCOY: Sure. The Somalia incident, I think, represents a continuity of rendition policy from President Bush to President Obama. Under President Bush, the CIA began funding the establishment of this prison inside the basement of Somalia security in Mogadishu. And they began snatching terror suspects from cities and slums across East Africa, where, as you know, al-Qaeda has been very active bombing U.S. embassies and the rest. And these suspects are flown to this prison, where they are under the custody of Somali authorities, but we pay the guards. The CIA pays the guards. And they have unlimited access to the prisoners and to the intelligence being harvested by the Somali guards’ interrogation of the detainees. This started under President Bush. It is continued under President Obama. And it is an example of rendition to a country where we cannot be certain that human rights are being observed, therefore it’s a clear violation of Article 3 of the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

So, when you add this up, when you combine this with our policy of turning over suspects to Afghan National Directorate of Security, where we’re absolutely certain, after the U.N. investigation, they’re being tortured, and our policy in Iraq right up 'til 2009 of turning over detainees to Iraqi authorities where we knew they were being tortured and having over a thousand incidents of U.S. authorities finding human rights abuse and then ignoring it, it's a clear policy, OK, of outsourcing torture to our allies. And so, it represents, under the Obama administration, not a fulfillment of the international standard of human rights, but simply going back to that bipartisan Cold War policy with that contradiction of proclaiming our commitment to human rights publicly, but privately working with allies to outsource human rights abuse, to outsource torture, and to harvest the intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch revealed that U.S. officials, under President Bush, tortured a number of Libyan prisoners before being—sending them back to Libya for further abuse under the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The report’s author, Laura Pitter, said the Libyans suffered worse torture by U.S. officials than they did under Gaddafi.

LAURA PITTER: The U.S. and the U.K. had assisted and actually took part in their renditions. These were individuals who were head of an opposition group who had been opposed to Gaddafi for many years and had been trying to overthrow him from abroad, from various bases abroad. The treatment in Libya was very bad. They were subjected to more isolated incidents of abuse and beatings, and some received electric shocks and summary trials and solitary confinement. But it was, ironically, not as bad as what they received in U.S. custody.

AMY GOODMAN: Human Rights Watch also revealed that some of these prisoners were waterboarded.

ALFRED McCOY: Yes, indeed. I read the report and the press copies of the report. This is a consistent pattern. First of all, it adds to the number of people we knew that were waterboarded by the CIA. We thought it was only three of them. Now it apparently—there were more. And once you uncover more, that raises the possibility of many, many more. OK?

I’m not surprised that the treatment of these detainees under U.S. custody was worse than they might have confronted, let’s say, in Gaddafi’s prison. There were kind of two phases after 9/11 of CIA abuse. There was an initial phase in 2002 and 2003 when the CIA was opening up the black sites. The procedures were not well established. And we were rounding people up around the world, putting them in these facilities, without much in the way of effective oversight or established procedure. And according to the CIA inspector general report which came out in 2004, there was an extraordinary amount of abuse and treatment that was a clear violation even of U.S. law for the treatment of detainees and the conduct of interrogation. People were being threatened with the murder or sexual assault of female relatives. They were being slammed up against walls, guns put to the head, electrical drills put to the head—this sort of bizarre treatment. And the waterboarding got right out of control. We know that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded in excess of a hundred times, way beyond the regulations.

Then, in a second phase, once the CIA inspector general investigated in 2004 and found this pattern of abuse, then they kind of bureaucratized it and regularized it and went to a fixed set of procedures, which, I think any human rights investigator would agree, constitute a violation of the U.N. Convention Against Torture. But at least the extreme abuse, the kind of psychopathological abuse during the first phase, was controlled.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor McCoy, in your book, you explore how the U.S. mass media has glamorized, has normalized acts of torture in shows like, for example, the famous show 24. Kiefer Sutherland, the star and the executive producer, he plays a character named Jack Bauer, who became the embodiment of the infamous ticking time bomb argument for torture. However, Kiefer Sutherland himself said he does not advocate torture or even keeping Guantánamo, the prison there, open. He was speaking on Charlie Rose, on the PBS broadcast, and this is how he justified the show’s depiction of torture.

KIEFER SUTHERLAND: The torture is a dramatic device to show you how desperate a situation is—

CHARLIE ROSE: Right, right.

KIEFER SUTHERLAND: —and how urgent and desperate these characters are to solve this one specific thing, and time is running out. And so, it is a dramatic device. It is not to be confused with what we think is right or wrong. And it’s a television show.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Kiefer Sutherland. It’s a "dramatic device" in film.

ALFRED McCOY: It’s not just a dramatic device in film. What we went through in the five years after 9/11, from 2002 to about 2007, was that on screens large and small across America, we were awash in positive images of torture. Let’s just take television. Before 9/11, there were about 20 torture incidents a year shown on prime-time American television. These were all done by bad guys, Nazis, drug dealers, OK? After 9/11, American television shows, in sum, showed an average of 150 incidents of torture. And these were incidents done by the good guys, often American federal agents, defending the nation.

Not only was 24 showing torture, but there was also some very big box office films. Casino Royale has as its kind of dramatic center point a homoerotic torture scene of Daniel Craig, his body shaved of hair, stripped naked, being generously tortured by the evil Le Chiffre beating his genitalia with a knotted rope. The Passion of the Christ takes a dozen words in the gospels and transforms that into eight minutes of the most brutal, gruesome physical torture that turns the body of Christ into a suppurating mass of bleeding lesions. I mean, the World of Warcraft 2 came out, two million copies sold right out of the box, with a torture program built right into the game. You know, we were awash in it.

What was the point of this? It served, in some, to normalize torture for Americans. Torture was not—was transformed from a crime, an aberration, an abomination, into something that was necessary—and even arousing, in a dark way. I mean, Kiefer Sutherland’s body was displayed, Daniel Craig’s body was displayed, in the conventions virtually of homoerotic pornography. This was, you know, appealing to the darkest recesses of the human mind.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor McCoy, the significance of WikiLeaks and how it plays into all of this?

ALFRED McCOY: Well, WikiLeaks, first of all, has provided us with information, I think very importantly. In the release of the hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, if you go through them, as people have done—I’ve done it, as well—what you can find is the U.S. using its extraordinary diplomatic power, first under Bush and now under Obama, to stifle those investigations, particularly in Spain, by Judge [Bartasar] Garzón. We placed enormous diplomatic pressure to end Spain’s exercise of universal jurisdiction to investigate top Bush administration officials—Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney and others—for human rights abuse. You know, we leaned on the Spanish authorities very hard.

Germany is another area where progressive lawyers, the RAV, the Republic Lawyers Association, has tried on several occasions to file a case and get the German government to exercise its universal jurisdiction, under the European human rights convention and the U.N. Convention Against Torture, to investigate and possibly indict American officials for their crimes of torture. The German government has twice, in part in response to U.S. diplomatic pressure, failed to do this, refused to do it. And the WikiLeaks cables provide us with the diplomatic evidence of the U.S. doing this. And I use those cables in my book, Torture and Impunity, to describe this process.

AMY GOODMAN: Bradley Manning, the person who’s accused of getting those documents to WikiLeaks, who is held now for three years and has yet to be tried?

ALFRED McCOY: Well, more disturbingly, the initial part of his incarceration, when he was first arrested, before he was transferred to a conventional military prison, was done under ways that aroused concern by the U.N. rapporteur for human rights, the U.N. rapporteur for torture. And he actually expressed concern to the United States government.

Bradley Manning was stripped naked. He was held round the clock in isolation. The combination of nudity and isolation are techniques that are a part of the U.S. doctrine of coercive psychological interrogation. It’s a form of torture.

AMY GOODMAN: Two last questions, one about the CIA agents who have been convicted in absentia. What about what you feel President Obama should be doing about this?

ALFRED McCOY: Well, President Obama has to act, OK? Look, through that five-stage process I described, the United States has perfected impunity. We have closed down any investigation of the CIA agents. We’ve rewritten the past to convince the American public that this was absolutely necessary for our national security. We’re done, OK? We’ve wrapped it up, OK. Nothing more will be done. But in the globalizing age, in the age of the International Criminal Court, of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, even the most perfect impunity inside one nation’s borders cannot stand, because of universal jurisdiction.

Now, one of the key elements in universal jurisdiction is the courts abroad, in Spain, in Germany, will not take the petition if a sovereign state is doing due diligence. Either they haven’t had enough time, or they haven’t completed their investigations. And so, Spain and Germany have turned back the universal jurisdiction petitions by activist human rights lawyers on the grounds that the United States hasn’t had time yet. Well, now the United States has had time, and the United States has definitively decided not to proceed. That means that these cases, like the Italian case, and other investigations can proceed. It’s not over. It may be over here in America, but the world is wide, and it knocks at our doors.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the assassination of Osama bin Laden?

ALFRED McCOY: The claims made by that a cappella chorus of Republican neoconservatives that the enhanced interrogation, CIA torture, led the Navy SEALs to the door of Osama bin Laden is absolutely specious. Senator John McCain was shown the evidence, and he announced publicly that there was no basis for that claim. But—

AMY GOODMAN: But the actual assassination of him?

ALFRED McCOY: The actual assassination—oh, the actual assassination of Osama bin Laden is part of a larger pattern of—a very unfortunate pattern of using drones inside Pakistan to kill roughly 2,400 people. Let’s look at the eerie parallel. During the Battle of Algiers back in 1957, '58, French authorities used torture to break the National Liberation Front inside the Casbah, the old city of Algiers, and to avoid what one French general called clogging the machinery of justice. When they were done with these people, they couldn't be brought before the courts, because their testimony would not have had any validity. So 3,000 people were killed and dumped in the desert in shallow graves. Well, that 3,000 figure of the French in Algiers has an eerie resonance with the 2,400 suspects that we’ve killed with drones in the Pakistan borderlands, and the parallel, an eerie parallel. At the same time, the Obama administration has added nobody new to Guantánamo. So, in effect, what we’re doing is what the French did. We’re not clogging the machinery of justice with these suspects; we’re simply killing them.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you most surprised by, Professor McCoy, in your research for your book, Torture and Impunity?

ALFRED McCOY: What I was surprised by was the silence surrounding it. We’ve gone through this absolutely extraordinary decade in American political history, where the American state, in its majesty, adopted torture as one of the weapons in its awesome arsenal of power. And having debated that and argued about that and had that exposed, OK, we’ve reached this sort of ad hoc bipartisan compromise of impunity at home and rendition abroad. And the American people seem oblivious, seem absolutely unaware, that this is our bipartisan policy. And those two policies cannot stand in an era of universal jurisdiction and universal human rights. And so, we’ve reached a bipartisan compromise which satisfies the imperatives of American politics, but will not and cannot be sustained in the international community.

AMY GOODMAN: And how you write about psychological torture and public forgetting?

ALFRED McCOY: We’re now in an era where we are consigning this to the past, to our oblivion. But the world has not forgotten. And that’s one of the—I think, the signal lessons of that Italian Court of Cassation, the Italian sort of supreme court, ruling just this week, confirming the conviction of those 22 CIA operatives. The world is not going away, OK? This is not over.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor McCoy, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Professor McCoy, author of Torture and Impunity, professor of history here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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