The sordid history of U.S. torture in the Middle East laid bare by the release of the Senate report is explained by some (including President Barack Obama, in his statement on the report) as “9-11 changed everything.” The truth, however, is that U.S. support for torture long pre-dates 2001 (and continues into the present despite claims to the contrary).
The Vietnam War lasted more than 10 years and involved more than a half-million U.S. troops, and torture (and other atrocities) was a routine part of U.S. actions. Vietcong prisoners were thrown from helicopters to get others to talk, they were tortured with electric shocks, six-inch pegs were driven into their ears, and female prisoners were threatened with the death of their children.
In the Middle East, the most notorious torture regime was that of the Shah of Iran, installed by a CIA-coup in 1953. Operatives of his secret police, the SAVAK, were trained by the hundreds by the CIA at its headquarters in Langley, Va. In the 1970s, Jimmy Carter, now seen by many as a champion of human rights, personally approved continued CIA-SAVAK cooperation, on the grounds that the “intelligence” gained outweighed the “human rights abuses” that were occurring, an explanation that should sound familiar today.
The SAVAK is gone, but systematic torture continues in at least one more country in the region that receives massive U.S. support—Israel, which routinely tortures Palestinian political prisoners.
CIA support for torture in Latin America was equally extensive. In Chile, the CIA-supported coup which brought Augusto Pinochet to power brought with it the torture and murder of thousands of left-wing activists. The head of Chile’s secret police, the DINA, was a CIA asset. In 1975, DINA agents assassinated the former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and his 25-year-old American associate, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, in Washington, D.C., itself, but even that didn’t put a damper on U.S. support for the regime.
Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. provided training and support for the government in El Salvador, whose death squads routinely used torture as a means of suppressing opposition. The opposite happened in Nicaragua, where the U.S.-supported Contras routinely tortured Nicaraguans who resisted its attempts to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government.
In Venezuela, the secret police was called DISIP, and its head and chief torturer in the 1970s was CIA agent and notorious terrorist Luis Posada Carriles. Here the story of U.S. involvement with torture takes a different turn—the U.S. supported torture while it was happening but later used the false claim of potential torture to shield Posada from prosecution.
Posada and Orlando Bosch were the masterminds of the 1976 mid-air bombing of Cubana Flight 455, killing all on board. Both escaped justice in Venezuela, and in 2005 Posada entered the U.S. illegally. Venezuela, where Posada is still wanted on 73 counts of murder for the airplane bombing, filed an extradition request.
Nine years later, that request has neither been honored or even answered, but eventually, since Posada was a known terrorist and had entered the U.S. illegally, the U.S. government was forced to move to deport him. During those hearings, a man named Joaquin Chaffardet testified in Posada’s defense that if he were extradited to Venezuela, led at the time by Hugo Chávez, he would be tortured. Chaffardet offered no proof for this baseless allegation, and the U.S. government offered no witnesses to rebut him. Of course, Venezuela WAS known to torture prisoners—when Posada ran the DISIP and it was supported by the U.S.!
And who was Chaffardet? He was Posada’s associate at DISIP, a fellow torturer! Later, both left DISIP to form a private investigation firm, a firm that worked hand-in-glove with the CIA, and the same firm that employed the two people who actually put the bomb on the plane in 1976. Chaffardet was also indicted (but not convicted) of having organized the prison break that sprung Posada from jail in Venezuela after the bombing. And on the basis of his testimony alone, the U.S. refused to extradite Posada to Venezuela, and allows him to live freely in Miami to this day.
The U.S. government’s attitude toward torture hasn’t changed in decades, nor has its (un)willingness to see torturers pay for their crimes. In President Obama’s statement on the torture report, he asserted (falsely) that torture is “against our values,” but pointedly failed to point out that it is also against the law (both national and international). Just like police brutality serves a role internally at keeping people under control, so too torture serves a role internationally. Neither will end until the brutal systems that employ them, capitalism and imperialism, are ended.