The day before the Senate Intelligence Committee’s recent publication of a damning report on the CIA’s torture of terrorism suspects, former vice president Dick Cheney defended the agency’s methods as “absolutely, totally justified.”
“They deserve a lot of praise,” he told The New York Times. “As far as I’m concerned, they ought to be decorated, not criticised.”
But in March 1992, as the country’s secretary of defence, Cheney received an investigative report on “Improper Material in Spanish-Language Intelligence Training Manuals.” Cheney is one of the CIA interrogation program’s biggest public apologists, but his reaction to this earlier report connecting the US to torture was very different.
The report referred to passages in manuals distributed to military personnel and intelligence schools in five US-allied Latin American countries — Colombia, Ecuador, Salvador, Guatemala, and Peru — that were ideological battlegrounds in the Cold War struggle between the US and the Soviet Union. The manuals included instruction on violent interrogation techniques, including the beating of detainees.
The School of the Americas, the Georgia-based institution founded by the US Department of Defence to train Latin American government officials in anti-communist measures, also received some of these manuals. “As many as a thousand copies” were distributed through Latin American countries and the school between 1987 and 1991.
Apparently sympathetic to the report’s worry that “the offensive and objectionable material in the manuals … undermines US credibility, and could result in significant embarrassment,” Cheney supported the removal of the manuals from circulation.
In effect, he acknowledged that the promotion and export of torture techniques in US-allied governments could harm American interests.
The report presented the offending material as having slipped through the administrative cracks, finding it “incredible” that the manual’s torture methods had “evaded the established system of doctrinal controls.”
It found no evidence of “a deliberate and orchestrated attempt to violate DoD or Army policies” by promoting torture-like techniques.
Others active in government at the time now disagree with this general assessment.
“During the long years of the Cold War, the CIA propagated the offensive techniques among our allies worldwide,” former Sen. Mark Gravel of Alaska said in an appearance on “Democracy Now” this week.
Gravel said the US reversed course only at a very late stage in its protracted showdown with the Soviet Union.
“As the Cold War wound up in the 1980s, the CIA did a review, repudiated the doctrine, developed a policy of not using coercive techniques” he said. “The Defence Department recalled the training manuals from Latin American militaries, under Defence Secretary Dick Cheney. These manuals were destroyed, and it was all over.”
Cheney apparently helped facilitate this change.
“Cheney approved these correction actions,” British jurist Philippe Sands wrote in “Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values.” “Under his signature was a handwritten note from his General Counsel. ‘I concur,’ he wrote, adding that the Senate’s intelligence and armed services committees would be briefed ‘to let them know we are correcting it.'”
But the use of torture by the US wasn’t over for good, as the scandal over the mistreatment of prisoners by US service members at Abu Ghraib in 2004 and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s recent torture report demonstrate.
With the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991, leftist movements and governments in Latin America were much less of a strategic threat to the US. And the torture referred to in the manuals wasn’t actually being carried out by the US government nor used on individuals potentially guilty of having plotted attacks against the US.
But after Sept. 11, 2001, Cheney — who contextualized the Senate’s torture report on Fox News by saying that the CIA had been expected (and succeeded in) catching “the bastards who killed three thousand of us on 9/11” — most likely felt greater justification than ever to dip into a toolkit that he appears to have rejected less than a decade earlier.
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