The International Committee of the Red Cross’s torture report should be required reading for all Americans not just because its contents are shocking – which they are – but because it reveals that the United States is not the special nation that it often pretends to be, and won’t be as long as it chooses to look away from such crimes.

A sad lesson from 9/11 is that the United States, which has long lectured the rest of the world about human rights, is no different than any other place after some shocking attack on its national security.

Washington will sink to levels of paranoia and barbarism just as fast as others will, especially if its leadership already has those inclinations as it did under President George W. Bush.

Arguably, the only real differences between the United States and some other government that debases itself with torture and vengeance are that the U.S. can inflict far more damage due to its unprecedented military power and that it is more prone to self-delusion from its sophisticated national PR.

The 41-page ICRC report, dated Feb.14, 2007, depicts scenes that could have come from the Middle Ages: naked prisoners forced to stand for long periods with their hands shackled over their heads or strapped to a bench while subjected to the drowning sensation of waterboarding or locked in tiny boxes as they scream and soil themselves.

The scenes reek of sadism, as if President Bush took some perverse pleasure in inflicting pain and humiliation on these people, much like an ancient king getting satisfaction in a grotesque punishment against someone who dared to challenge his authority. There was a similar sense of sick joy in the way Bush reacted to the hanging of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein on Dec. 30, 2006.

But what is perhaps most significant about Official Washington’s blasé attitude toward the disclosures about Bush’s hearty embrace of the dark side is that it is part of a pattern: the nation’s elites have long reacted to evidence of American complicity in torture and war crimes with a convenient blindness and a huge supply of double standards.

Though Bush and his inner circle may have crossed lines by directly involving the U.S. government in gross violations of international law, presidents of both parties have aided and abetted similar brutality when committed by American allies during the Cold War.

Nazi-Like Practices

Indeed, that record of extraordinary cruelty is the largely unwritten history of the Cold War, the U.S. government letting its fear of international communism lead to both tolerance and encouragement of Nazi-like practices: torture, assassination, mass slaughters and political repression.

Even after the Cold War ended, the United States refused to examine this ugly history in any systematic way. Though Democrat Bill Clinton was the first President elected after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he ignored calls for serious examinations of that historical era – until late in his presidency when he did declassify some documents relating to U.S. policy in Guatemala.

Then, after a Guatemalan truth commission based its investigation partly on the declassified U.S. record, Clinton issued an apology to the people of Guatemala for Washington's role in decades of atrocities that killed an estimated 200,000 people, including what was deemed genocide against Mayan Indians in the country’s highlands during the Reagan administration.

While the Guatemalan records are starkly illustrative of how successive U.S. administrations enabled torture and mass murder, it represents only a sliver of the sordid Cold War history, with similar policies replicated in countries around the world for nearly half a century.

This wasn’t just coincidence, either. Other information that surfaced during the Clinton administration revealed that the U.S. military pulled together the lessons from brutal counterinsurgency warfare in the 1950s and early 1960s into a series of training manuals for Third World militaries.

The U.S. intelligence community began compiling those lessons in 1965 by commissioning what became known as “Project X.”

Based at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School at Fort Holabird, Maryland, the project was tasked with the development of lesson plans which would "provide intelligence training to friendly foreign countries," according to a brief history, which was prepared in 1991.

Called "a guide for the conduct of clandestine operations," Project X "was first used by the U.S. Intelligence School on Okinawa to train Vietnamese and, presumably, other foreign nationals," the history stated.

Linda Matthews of the Pentagon's Counterintelligence Division recalled that in 1967-68, some of the Project X training material was prepared by officers connected to the so-called Phoenix program in Vietnam, an operation that involved targeting, interrogating and assassinating suspected Viet Cong.

"She suggested the possibility that some offending material from the Phoenix program may have found its way into the Project X materials at that time," according to the Pentagon report.

In the 1970s, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School moved to Fort Huachuca in Arizona and began exporting Project X material to U.S. military assistance groups working with "friendly foreign countries." By the mid-1970s, the Project X material was going to military forces all over the world.

‘School of Assassins’

In 1982, the Pentagon's Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence ordered the Fort Huachuca center to supply lesson plans to the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which human rights activists denounced as the School of the Assassins because it trained some of Latin America’s most notorious military officers.

"The working group decided to use Project X material because it had previously been cleared for foreign disclosure," the Pentagon history stated.

According to surviving documents released under a Freedom of Information Act request, the Project X lessons contained a full range of intelligence activities. A 1972 listing of Project X lesson plans covered aerial surveillance, electronic eavesdropping, interrogation, counter-sabotage measures, counter-intelligence, handling of informants, break-ins and censorship.

One manual warned that insurgents might even "resort to subversion of the government by means of elections [in which] insurgent leaders participate in political contests as candidates for government office."

Citizens were put on "'black, gray or white lists' for the purpose of identifying and prioritizing adversary targets." The lessons suggested creation of inventories of families and their assets to keep tabs on the population.

The internal U.S. government review of Project X began in 1991 when the Pentagon discovered that the Spanish-language manuals were advising Latin American trainees on assassinations, torture and other "objectionable" counter-insurgency techniques.

The manuals suggested coercive methods for recruiting counter-intelligence operatives, including arresting the target's parents or beating him until he agreed to infiltrate a guerrilla organization. To undermine guerrilla forces, the training manuals countenanced "executions" and operations "to eliminate a potential rival among the guerrillas."

By summer 1991, the investigation of Project X was raising concerns about an adverse public reaction to evidence that the U.S. government had long sanctioned – and even encouraged – brutal methods of repression.

But the PR problem was contained when the office of then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney ordered that all relevant Project X material be collected and brought to the Pentagon under a recommendation that most of it be destroyed.

The recommendation received approval from senior Pentagon officials, presumably with Cheney’s blessings. Some of the more innocuous Project X lesson plans – and the historical summary – were spared, but the Project X manuals that dealt with the sensitive human rights violations were destroyed in 1992, the Pentagon reported.  [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

Glorifying Reagan

Even more historically significant than eliminating most Project X records was the successful Republican campaign in the mid-1990s to glorify the presidency of Ronald Reagan, which included putting his name on Washington National Airport and transforming him into an iconic figure beyond normal criticism.

In reality, Reagan was the pleasant face put on a long record of U.S. tolerance for the most grotesque actions by pro-U.S. dictators and right-wing terrorists around the world.

In 1980, Reagan’s election was greeted with unalloyed joy by Third World oligarchs and tyrants, tired of Jimmy Carter’s nagging about human rights. Their optimism was not misplaced. For years, Reagan had been a staunch defender of right-wing regimes engaged in bloody counterinsurgency campaigns against leftist enemies.

In the late 1970s, when Carter's human rights coordinator, Pat Derian, criticized the Argentine military for its "dirty war" -- tens of thousands of "disappearances," tortures and murders -- then-political commentator Reagan joshed that Derian should "walk a mile in the moccasins” of the Argentine generals before criticizing them. [See Martin Edwin Andersen's Dossier Secreto.]

Despite his aw shucks style, Reagan found virtually every anticommunist action justified, no matter how brutal.

From his eight years in the White House, there is no historical indication that he was troubled by the bloodbath, torture and even genocide that occurred in Central America during his presidency, while he was shipping hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to the implicated forces.

The death toll was staggering – an estimated 70,000 or more political killings in El Salvador, possibly 20,000 slain from the Reagan-organized contra war in Nicaragua, about 200 political "disappearances" in Honduras and some 100,000 people eliminated during a resurgence of political violence in Guatemala. Many victims suffered rape and torture before their deaths.

Yet, even as the world community has sought to punish war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and now Sudan, no substantive discussion has occurred in the United States about facing up to Reagan’s horrendous record of the 1980s – or holding accountable implicated U.S. officials or the pro-U.S. killers and torturers in Central America and elsewhere.

Some of those U.S. officials, such as former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and former Ambassador to Honduras John Negroponte, returned to key national security jobs under George W. Bush. Dick Cheney was back, too, as Vice President.

A Troubling Record

So, given that history of U.S. officials sanctioning torture and murder by allies and encountering no accountability, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that – post 9/11 – the Bush administration would take the next step and authorize the barbarism directly.

Still, that troubling reality had to be kept under wraps to maintain the fiction that “the United States doesn’t torture.” Which explains why President Bush flew into such a rage – and expressed such personal disgust – when the photographs of the Abu Ghraib abuses in Iraq were leaked.

But Bush couldn’t have been outraged by the forced nudity and the humiliation inflicted on the Abu Ghraib prisoners, since he had been authorizing similar tactics at secret CIA prisons and at Guantanamo Bay. Still, he made a lesson out of the low-ranking prison guards by court-martialing those foolish enough to let photographs of the abuses reach the public.

There is also evidence that President Bush authorized “death squad” tactics in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the globe. Linking those sanctioned executions to the atrocities of the 1980s in Central America was the description from some Bush administration officials that they were planning a “Salvador option” in Iraq. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Death Squads.”]

In 2007, military criminal cases surfaced in which elite American snipers and Special Forces units defended themselves against murder charges by citing loose rules of engagement, which let them execute unarmed suspects who were on an authorized death list. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Global Dirty War.”]

Despite all this old and new evidence of Bush’s war crimes, the smart money in Washington is still betting that the Obama administration – like the Clinton administration 16 years ago – will take the easy route and opt to look forward, not backward.

Only an outraged populace – Americans who believe that their country should live up to the high standards that it demands of others – could force the politicians to finally take seriously the need for accountability in the face of war crimes and to prosecute those responsible for the worst offenses, however high their rank.

That wouldn’t make the United States all that special – other countries have faced up to dark chapters of their own history, most recently Peru in convicting ex-President Alberto Fujimori on April 7 for his role in a political death squad.

But the prosecution of George W. Bush’s war crimes would show that America is a land of integrity that means what it says about human rights, not just a place for self-congratulatory hypocrisy.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.

Back to Home Page