Alexander Cockburn | The American Way of Torture

Just over the edge of 2011 and this fresh new decade, torture is now solidly installed in America’s repressive arsenal. Not in the shadows where it has always lurked, but up front and central, vigorously applauded by prominent politicians. Rituals of coercion and humiliation seep through the culture, to the extent that before Christmas, American travelers began to rebel at the invasive pat-down searches conducted by the TSA’s airport security teams groping around bosoms and crotches.

Covertly, there was always plenty of torture, just as there were assassinations. After World War II, the CIA’s predecessor, OSS, imported Nazi experts in interrogation techniques. But this was the era of Cold War competition: Uncle Sam the Good against the dirty Russians and Chinese. The U.S. government would go to desperate lengths to counter accusations that its agents in the CIA or USAID practiced torture.

One famous case was that of Dan Mitrione, working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, teaching refinements in torture techniques to Brazilian and Uruguayan interrogators. Mitrione was ultimately kidnapped by the Tupamaro guerillas and executed, becoming the subject of Costa-Gavras’ movie “State of Siege.” The CIA mounted major coverup operations to try to discredit the accusations against Mitrione, quoted as having said to his students: “The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect.”

The American liberal conscience began to make its accommodation with torture in June 1977, which was the month the London Sunday Times published a major expose of torture of Palestinians by the Israeli armed forces and the security agency Shin Bet. Suddenly, American supporters of Israel were arguing that certain techniques — sensory deprivation, prolonged stress positions while hooded, incarceration in “cells” the size of packing crates, etc. — somehow weren’t really torture or were morally justifiable torture under “ticking time bomb” theory.

Ahead lay the spectacle of Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School, and a supposed liberal defender of civil rights, recommending to Israel the notion of “torture warrants,” with the targets of the warrants being “subjected to judicially monitored physical measures designed to cause excruciating pain without leaving any lasting damage.” One form of torture recommended by the Harvard professor was “the sterilized needle being shoved under the fingernails.”

With the Great War on Terror, launched after the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11, torture made its march into the full light of day.

The hands-on executive in this itinerary was George Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. At Guantanamo, it was Rumsfeld who gave verbal and subsequently written approval to torture suspects, using the notorious techniques of isolation, sleep deprivation and psychic degradation, with Rumsfeld micromanaging the humiliations.

In the case of Abu Ghraib in Iraq, there is again a trail of evidence showing it was Rumsfeld who personally decreed and monitored stress positions, individual phobias — such as fear of dogs — sleep deprivation and waterboarding. One U.S. Army officer, Janis Karpinski, has described finding in Abu Ghraib a piece of paper stuck on a pole outside a little office used by the interrogators.

It was a memorandum signed by Rumsfeld, authorizing techniques such as use of dogs, stress positions, starvation … On the paper, in Rumsfeld’s handwriting, was the terse instruction, “Make sure this happens!!”

In a June 2010 speech in Grand Rapids, Mich., Bush declared, “Yeah, we waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I’d do it again to save lives.” There is no independent evidence that Bush-era torture saved any American lives. As James Bovard wrote this week on our CounterPunch site, the fact that a former president can stand up in public and admit that he ordered torture is a sea change for the American republic.

On the home front, torture as a drastic mode of social control flowered luxuriantly in the America’s prison system, whose population began to rocket up in the 1970s to its present 2.5 million total. Informally licensed male rape went hand in hand with increasingly sadistic solitary confinement with prolonged sensory deprivation — a condition in which some 25,000 prisoners are currently being driven mad.

As the Bush years drew to a close, liberals dared hope that the rule of law would return and with it respect for internationally agreed prohibitions on torture and treatment of combatants. Anticipation grew that the torturers, with the Bush high command at the apex, would face formal charges. Candidate Obama fanned that hope.

In his first State of the Union address, Obama declared to the joint session of Congress that “I can stand here tonight and say without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture. We can make that commitment here tonight.” Within days of this guarantee, Obama’s Justice Department lawyers were telling U.S. judges in explicit terms that the new administration would not be moving on from Bush’s policies on the legal status of renditions and of supposed enemy combatants.

The torture system is flourishing, and the boundaries of the American empire marked by overseas torture centers such as Bagram. There are still detainees in Guantanamo — as of November last year, 174 of them. They are supposedly destined for a Supermax in Illinois.

For the past seven months 23-year-old U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, first in an Army prison in Kuwait; now in Quantico, Va., has been held 23 hours out of 24 in solitary confinement in his cell, under constant harassment. He faces months, if not years, of the same. Will he end up like accused Chicagoan Jose Padilla, four years in total isolation and silence before his trial in 2007 (convicted as a terrorist and given 17 years), with his lawyer informed by prison staff that Padilla had become docile and inactive to the point that he resembled “a piece of furniture.”

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through Copyright 2011,