On the morning of September 11, I was having the first slow day after weeks of intense work in my job as a senior researcher for the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. In Washington, I had been meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell’s staff, who were planning his upcoming visits to Peru and Colombia, the countries I worked on. On September 10, he was in Lima, due to arrive in Bogotá the next day. In his briefing book were memos I had helped craft on the links between the Colombian paramilitaries responsible for massive human rights violations, including massacres and horrific acts of mutilation and torture. These paramilitaries worked in coordination with Colombia’s military, who justified their support by claiming that they were fighting a “new kind of war” against an entrenched and brutal guerrilla insurgency.
We had worked hard to convince Secretary Powell that the US should make a priority out of extradiging the paramilitary leaders responsible for so many massacres, albeit on drug charges. Human rights, we hoped, would “bump” them to the top of the list of extraditables.
But Powell never reached Bogotá that day, instead hurrying back to Washington in the wake of the attacks. At that point, as my boss, Ken Roth, later wrote, The US went from being “the leading governmental defender of human rights around the world” to the country leading new, despicable and ultimately destructive ways of abusing human rights, inspiring violators around the globe.
Given the US history in Vietnam, of supporting regimes like Pinochet’s in Chile, the Shah in Iran and Mobutu in (Zaire), indeed our own long history of slavery, racism and violence, it may seem strange to read this from a human rights activist, especially one specializing in the Americas. But it is true that in the in the 1990s, in most cases, there was no better way to further a human rights agenda than to get the US government on board – not Sweden, not Norway or the UK, not France, not even the EU.
The attack on September 11 was heinous – there is no other word for it. All acts of terror are by definition heinous; that is what makes them so abhorrent and yet, tragically, so useful. In the worst of cases, terrorism goads the larger, more powerful force, often the democratic force, into overreaction, into vengeance, which results in further atrocity, not effective policy. This amplifies the effect of the terrorist attack, causing additional, unnecessary suffering and benefitting those willing to apply ever more extreme tactics.
On September 8, I listened to an invited speaker, Juan Zarate, talk about his work as a former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush and as deputy national security adviser. Zarate claimed that the attacks on 9/11 constituted “a new kind of war.” This is not only incorrect — societies from Sri Lanka, to Colombia, the UK and Spain have all dealt with serious terrorist acts that have caused thousands if not tens of thousands of casualties — but dangerous. This line of reasoning is used to justify the extraordinary measures, like torture, “disappearance,” and illegal detention, as necessary “for the greater good.”
As heinous and evil as it was, 9/11 was a tactical innovation by terrorists, not a new form of aggression. Let me be clear: the attacks were outrageous, but not unique. They were criminal and reprehensible, horrific, and disgusting — but well within the frame of what terrible things humans have been and are capable of doing to each other. Zarate’s argument, that extreme measures are necessary for the “greater good,” is the all too familiar justification abusers use across the globe.
At a panel on September 9, I focused on one of the methods adopted by the Bush Administration: torture. Although Zarate used the phrase “alleged,” there is nothing unproven or unclear about the use of torture by US forces, either directly or by proxy. He tried to minimize the damage, claiming that only 3 cases of waterboarding were documented. But waterboarding is only one of dozens of torture techniques; there is abundant and detailed information about detainees being beated, raped, shocked, forced into stress positions, and subjected to extremes of cold or heat.
The kind of torture used by the US also included psychological torture, by far the most effective. This was practiced routinely in places like Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and Guantánamo in Cuba. Indeed in December 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explicitly approved stress positions, hooding, deprivation of light and sound, and the use of dogs and other “phobias” on detainees – all prohibited in the Army Field manual in effect at the time.
Psychological torture destroys the mind and leaves the victim undone, often unable to overcome the trauma even after years of rehabilitation and care. One case among the many I could cite: Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent. While travelling in Macedonia in 2003, he was detaned by Macedonian authorities, who contacted the local CIA station. El Masri was released by the Macedonians in a way that allowed members of a CIA “black snatch team” to grab him. They beat him, stripped him naked, drugged him, gave him an enema, dressed him in a diaper and and flew him to the salt pit, a covert CIA interrogation center in Afghanistan. For six months, Americans beat and sodomized him with sticks, according to his account. Eventually, CIA Director George Tenet learned that El-Masri was being wrongfully detained. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice ordered his release. The CIA flew him to Albania, without apology, shoes, or funds to return home.
Torture isn’t just a moral evil and illegal; it is also ineffective and, worse, makes us less safe. Zarate suggested that torture was a necessary “phase of adaptation” eventually left behind by design.
With all of the scandals around torture that have taken place over the past years, have you ever heard of many implicating the FBI? There is one reason for that – they do not torture even though they are intimately involved in the war on terror. Why? They know that they do not need this tool. Much more effective is what is called empathetic interrogation – where the interrogator, fully informed about his subject’s past and family, asks intelligent questions and offers help to the suspect. They assure the detainees that they will not be harmed; and they honor that promise. And their interrogations have opened a treasure of information about terrorist activities in the world.
Does torture produce that kind of information? Here’s one example of the kind of information that the US has extracted under torture. One of the key terrorists captured and interrogated under torture was Ibn al Shaykh al-Libi. Under torture, he said that Saddam Hussein trained Al Qaeda members in the use of weapons of mass destruction. This later became part of a speech by President Bush that was a lead up to the Iraq war and was a centerpiece of Secretary Powell’s now discredited case presented before the United Nations. And it was completely, utterly false. People give all sorts of information under torture, true, false, partial – anything to get the torture to stop. It’s also illegal to use information gained through torture in trial, something that has complicated the trials of known Al Qaeda members like AQ members like Khaled Sheikh Muhammed.
Another defense of torture that is often used is the “ticking bomb” theory. The idea is that a suspect is caught who knows about an attack that is imminent. The supporters of torture claim that it is justified in this instance, since it is the lesser evil. But this is a fantasy that is practically unknown in the real world, outside of our flat screen reruns of “24.” There has never been a documented case of this scenario playing out.
We know a lot about what was done in the name of protecting the United States. But we still don’t know enough. Our leaders, including President Obama, have prevented us from gaining justice for the victims and telling the full and detailed story of what was done to whom and by whom – and under whose orders. Many internal documents about the decisions made to authorize torture remain classified. Others are heavily redacted. There is substantial evidence that Department of Justice lawyers were told by civilian leaders to create legal justifications for torture, against the often energetic advice of military lawyers. In his report on Abu Ghraib – and it’s worth nothing that the only officer held accountable was Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, reprimanded for dereliction of duty and then demoted to the rank of Colonel. Yet she claimed that the interrogations were authorized by her superiors and performed by subcontractors, and that she was not even allowed entry into the interrogation rooms.
General Antonio Taguba wrote “there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”
Impartial, thorough and independent investigations remain on our to do list. We need this at the federal level and at the state level. In North Carolina, I’m a part of the group organizing a North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture, to look into how state agencies supported torture through the use of state facilities for the torture flights that brought hundreds of men to secret detention facilities, including Khaled al-Masri.
There is another 9/11 – in 1973 – when the Chilean military, led by General Augusto Pinochet, toppled the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende. Tens of thousands of people were detained, tortured and killed before democracy was restored. Although General Pinochet tried to legislate impunity for these crimes, he failed. According to human rights groups, 95 percent of the cases involving alleged perpetrators have either been heard by the courts or are in process. Well-known killers, like Manuel Contreras, are serving multiple life sentences.
Chile has many “memory sites,” where the story of these atrocities is told. I visited several of them this summer, including the spectacular Memory Museum, in Santiago.
Although there is still much to be done and told in Chile, most Chileans are bravely and determinedly facing up to their past — something Americans still need to do.
As Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman wrote recently, “The fear generated by a small band of terrorists led to a series of devastating actions that far exceeded the damage occasioned by the original ordeal. Two unnecessary wars that have not yet ended, a colossal waste of resources that could have been used to save our environment and educate our children, hundreds of thousands dead and mutilated, millions displaced, a disgraceful erosion of civil rights in America and the use of torture and rendition abroad that ended up giving carte blanche to other regimes to flout human rights.”
For the 9/11 anniversary, a number of leaders who work in the “sites of conscience” movement have been writing essays on why remembering the past is important in helping to shape the future. Today, Nubia Becker Eguiluz, of Chile’s Villa Grimaldi Peace Park, circulated her thoughts:
Experience has taught us that one of the most important ways to stop the scourge of violence born out of state-sponsored terrorism is for citizens to spur themselves into action. Efforts must be made to rescue the memory of what happened, to seek out the reasons for such a horrendous game of violence and counter-violence. This is done towards an important end: so that prevailing interpretations of the past can be questioned, and those sectors that have been defeated or silenced can begin to gradually piece together their fragmented stories. Their testimony can help wider society realize the truths of history that have been silenced by time or other forces.
At some point, Americans will need to face up to our own dark legacy if we are to prevent it from happening again.