August 25, 2005
Jennifer K. Harbury Knows American Torture Starts at the Top, and It Has for Decades
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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When it comes to torture, Jennifer Harbury knows of what she speaks. The man she loved, known as Everard by his admirers and his adversaries, was its victim at the hands of U.S-trained interrogators in Guatemala. In her latest book, Truth, Torture and the American Way, Harbury takes the reader on a journey as to how we arrived at Abu Ghraib. The book documents our path from Vietnam to Latin America to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo -- a chilling chronicle that gives the lie to the "few bad apples" assesment. We can only hope that the facts she presents will help bring this nightmare of abuses to an end.
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BuzzFlash: You came to this topic through the torture of your husband and his murder. Could you summarize for our readers what happened to your husband, the circumstances, and the U.S. involvement?
Jennifer K. Harbury: I'm an attorney, and I had been doing human rights work in South Texas with a number of different groups for a number of years and became familiar with the refugee community, especially the Guatemalans. After doing human rights work in Guatemala from 1985 on, I ended up marrying Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, a Mayan resistance leader. As I'm sure you know, the socioeconomic situation in Guatemala is very similar to the old South Africa, in that the indigenous people there, the Mayans, are the majority – they're 80%. But they are completely disenfranchised, suffer from an extremely high malnutrition level, 80% illiteracy, and the second-highest rate of infant mortality in the hemisphere, second only to Haiti, by way of background.
My husband was picked up by the Guatemalan military. He was captured alive in 1992. Then they falsely stated that he had been killed in combat. I found out six months later that he was, in fact, still alive, that they had faked his death in order to torture him long term, with medical assistance to avoid accidentally killing him, so that he would break psychologically and reveal all of his information to them. I then went on a series of hunger strikes to try to obtain his release to the courts of law for a fair trial, as opposed to his torture and extra-judicial execution. I was going back to the United Nations, the State Department, the OAS, and, of course, Capitol Hill. Congress was trying very hard to assist me. The Ambassador and high-level State Department officials kept responding to me and to Congress that they had no information whatsoever about him.
After two and a half years, after my longest hunger strike, which lasted 32 days in Guatemala and then another 14-day hunger strike in front of the White House in '95, it was revealed by U.S. Rep. Robert Torricelli, who was then on the Intelligence Committee in the House, that my husband had indeed been captured alive, had been held for two and a half years and severely tortured, then extra-judiciously executed or assassinated by military intelligence officials in Guatemala, who were also on the CIA payroll as paid informants.
In other words, the CIA had been paying the very people that were torturing and who eventually killed my husband without trial. The documents from the U.S. government also showed that both the CIA and the United States Embassy had known where my husband was, and the fact that he was being tortured in the hands of U.S.-paid informants, from the first week of his capture. We could have saved him.
The documents also revealed that there were 350 other prisoners in similar circumstances. That was announced to the CIA and the U.S. Embassy during the first year. We not only could have saved my husband's life, we could have saved 350 other lives. But we were not allowed to do so because we were given false information by the CIA and the U.S. – the United States Embassy.
BuzzFlash: Your husband was tortured and kept in a body cast so he couldn't escape, while interrogators tortured him nearly to death. They had a doctor there to make sure he wouldn't die, they revived him, and then tortured him some more. In your book, you point out that the interrogator in the Guatemalan military – a high-ranking officer– that this man was trained at the infamous School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Jennifer K. Harbury: Between eight and twelve of them were trained at the School of the Americas.
BuzzFlash: As you said, this was not a passive CIA involvement, because many of the people involved were "CIA assets" in Guatemala.
Jennifer K. Harbury: Several of the people involved in my husband's torture and murder were CIA assets, according to the Intelligence Oversight Board. And in fact, a number of them throughout Latin America, many, many, many of the worst human rights violators have, in fact, ended up on CIA payrolls. That also came out in the Intelligence Oversight Board and in surrounding press releases.
BuzzFlash: We know that some officials currently in the Bush Administration – Negroponte, for instance - and others who have come and gone – Elliott Abrams – these people were deeply involved in Iran Contra and in condoning the torture and murder in the Eighties that went on. Your husband's torture and death occurred in the early Nineties. This has been long-standing policy of the United States to condone torture, although they deny it. And the School of the Americas has recently been renamed "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation," or WHISC – to make it sound as though things have changed.
Jennifer K. Harbury: Well, what I've been trying to do in the new book is document exactly this. The new book is out now, published by Beacon Press, Truth, Torture and the American Way. In the book, I document the use of torture by the U.S. government - especially the CIA and other intelligence forces - the development of these extraordinary torture techniques, like stress and duress, the water pit, the water boarding, et cetera, et cetera, and how those were brought together with death squad techniques, starting in Vietnam and the Phoenix Operation. A number of those torture techniques were developed in Vietnam, then brought to Central America and Latin America by our own intelligence forces. Not only did we train the worst human rights violators at the School of the Americas, and very often use them as CIA assets and liaisons, putting them actually on our payroll -- but very often, our own intelligence officials are actually present in the torture cells in Latin America.
I documented more than twenty of those cases in the book. We weren't just "professionalizing" military dictatorships in Guatemala and Latin America as they carried out massive repression, waves of terror, counter-insurgency programs and even genocides. We weren't just "professionalizing" them - funding them and equipping them – we were working hand in glove with them, as was confirmed by the U.N. Truth Commission report in Guatemala, for example. Again, Americans were preparing the list of questions. We knew who was being held, and where they were being held and tortured. We knew that they would be executed. We did not inform the police, the courts or their families, and we even went in and out with lists of questions of our own, sometimes even talking to the victim. And then we just left them in there to die, and we continued payments to the people who were torturing and killing them.
Some of the worst of those techniques, and some of the people who developed all of those programs, are now in the Middle East. And you can see exactly the same torture techniques being used over there. For example, the iconic photograph of the prisoner standing on the box at Abu Ghraib – the man in the hood with the wires – that position is known in intelligence circles as the Vietnam position.
BuzzFlash: You are colleagues with Sister Diana - who is in Hidden in Plain Sight – is that right?
Jennifer K. Harbury: Yes.
BuzzFlash: Her story makes it clear that, merely to be associated with the poor, is to be considered a rebel. What could be called the resistance in Latin America ranges from armed rebels, who might have been inspired by Che Guevara, to Jesuit priests who've worked with the poor and tried to help the poor not be poor. That was a crime worthy of torture, which was what happened to Sister Diana.
Bush constantly divides the world into "good guys" and "bad guys." But those not deemed bad guys have been tortured. Some Americans just say, well, we're up against a tough enemy. Sometimes you need to do dirty work like this. This is sort of what we saw under the Reagan Administration, and some of the people who were responsible then, as far as U.S. oversight, like Negroponte and Abrams, seem to condone this. From the Latin American experience, even if one is among those Americans who somehow in their own minds rationalize torture for the "bad guys," it's not just the bad guys who are tortured.
Jennifer K. Harbury: That's correct. It's a slippery slope. If you say it's all right to torture someone because a bomb may be about to go off under Grand Central Station, then it starts to seem all right. But does it have to be in an hour from now, or could it be a month from now or a year from now? Does it have to be definite, or could it be a possible? Does it have to be killing civilians or could it be, for example, that there might be a bomb down the road for our soldiers? Do we only have the right to torture a person we think might pull the trigger or the detonator? How about his wife? How about his children? How about the neighbors?
And of course, other countries have had this experience, and have tried to control the use of torture. It spirals out of control hugely. And because someone under torture will say anything to stop the pain, very often completely innocent bystanders are picked up because they're incorrectly named by persons who are in excruciating pain. Also, you cannot stop a government force or army force. Once it starts torturing, that also spirals out of control in the sense that if it's all right to pick up someone who might be doing an explosion, it's all right to pick up anybody doing something that you don't want, as we saw in Latin America. It ranged from church people teaching reading and writing or community health care. It went to innocent indigenous peasants who were trying to form co-ops. There were people who were doing health promotion in the rural areas. It was anybody trying to end the cycle of poverty in Latin America – unionists, professors, et cetera. Anybody could be picked up and tortured if the army didn't like them, and the army could substitute itself for the courts of law under those circumstances.
BuzzFlash: So here was Sister Diana, a sincere, young woman who devoted her life as a sister to the cause of God and the Catholic religion. She was picked up, apparently, merely for teaching poor children how to read.
Jennifer K. Harbury: That's right. That is exactly the problem with allowing anyone to commit torture under any circumstances. If you don't hold the line, the line collapses very quickly and it becomes the decision of madmen as to who should be tortured and who should not be.
BuzzFlash: And the tortures she describes are unspeakable. I can't even repeat them, they're so horrific.
Jennifer K. Harbury: Many of those things are now being used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. For example, dogs and cameras were used with Sister Diana. They're now being used again.
BuzzFlash: Another film, The Agronomist, is about a Haitian pro-democracy man who was trained as an agronomist but owned a radio station and was ultimately killed. He was trained in Haiti, and then he went to France to learn more about agronomy. He came back and started teaching the poor in the Haitian countryside how to get a greater yield for their crops. He was put in prison for six months for teaching them how to grow more crops, because the oligarchy among the agricultural community there were threatened by that.
Jennifer K. Harbury: Yes.
BuzzFlash: So what we seemed to see in Guatemala is that, if you merely try to empower in any way, or improve the lives of those who are poor, you are a threat to the government and therefore you potentially can be tortured.
Jennifer K. Harbury: That's what happened in Latin America, yes.
BuzzFlash: In Truth Torture and the American Way, you've documented the connections between the torture in Vietnam and Latin America, and now moving to not just Abu Ghraib, but to Guantanamo and including the practice of rendition – that is, taking people who are "suspects" under the Bush Administration, and turning them over to countries where torture is officially tolerated. Not only that – there have been stories in the mainstream press that there are people who have been secretly detained in places like Diego Garcia, where they are being tortured, although that's not officially been confirmed. And Attorney General Gonzales, as White House Counsel, wrote the infamous memo where he basically said we don't have to abide by the Geneva Conventions, and listed what sort of torture would be tolerable. Clearly in Abu Ghraib, what was tolerable went beyond what was tolerable, since several – not just several – it may be as high as a hundred people – died there in detention from torture. Why is no one accountable for this?
Jennifer K. Harbury: What's happened is what has happened in the past. Very low level people, such as, in this case, the MPs who were ordered to carry out those tortures, are held up to the public as scapegoats, put on trial, and sent to jail. Whereas, Rumsfeld, Gonzales and Tenet, who are in clear violation of two felony statutes within the United States which prohibit torture abroad by any U.S. official, or conspiracy to do so, or ordering or condoning such actions – these people have remained completely free. Why are they free with no charges brought against them? Because the person who would decide to indict them would be the Attorney General – formerly Mr. Ashcroft, now Mr. Gonzales. We have a clear breakdown of the checks and balances system here. They should be under indictment, but they're not, so their crimes are continuing. And that, in fact, is going to greatly increase the risks of more attacks against our country.
BuzzFlash: You make the argument that, even if one is hypothetically a proponent of torture, it is counterproductive. It doesn't work.
Jennifer K. Harbury: Not only does it not work, it works in the opposite direction. It's human nature, when frightened by something or horrified by something, as we all were by September 11th, to want to react with a show of force. Psychologically, that makes us feel safer. But the use of torture, number one, doesn't work. You don't get good information. You get Niagara Falls. Someone being tortured will say anything.
There's a case, for example, of an Iraqi prisoner who admitted he was Osama bin Laden in disguise. You get all kinds of inaccurate information. They'll name every neighbor on the block just to make you stop hurting them. Or, in the alternative, they're extremely well trained and they will give you false information for about 48 hours, during which time period everything will be moved and changed by their co-conspirators.
So number one, it doesn't work and everybody in the military and intelligence circles knows that.
Number two, it enrages the community, as we can see in all of the historical examples. The backlash is huge, such as the French in Algeria, for example. They certainly frightened the Algerians for many years, and the bombings went down, but in the end, all the Algerians banded together in outrage against the French and threw them out.
So the first people who are going to suffer as a result of our throwing away the Geneva Conventions are, of course, our own troops. When we talk about supporting the troops, the most terrible thing we could do to them is (1) disgrace them, and (2) throw away their own Geneva Conventions, because it's a two-way street. If those practices are legal for us to do to others, then they're legal to be done to our own troops, should they ever fall captive.
And number three, we've created a huge level of outrage against these soldiers, so that there will be many more attacks, as indeed there already are. Well, actually we endanger our own society by outraging people against American society and suggesting or insinuating that we're morally depraved and outrageously aggressive, as these actions certainly suggest. There are now going to be more attacks as a result. We've become endangered as a result of the acts of our Administration, not made more secure.
BuzzFlash: Why do you think, then, the Bush Administration is pursuing a counterproductive strategy? Just to show it's tough?
Jennifer K. Harbury: I think, number one, is as a show of force – correct. Number two, you know within intelligence and military circles that the use of torture doesn't work. If you're doing it, it's because you've already failed. I think there was the feeling that the slower methods might not be workable, so they weren't really sure what to do. They were angry. They were embarrassed by what had happened, because it certainly was an enormous failure of U.S. intelligence services. I think all of those things came together, and also just human nature wanting to punish and to terrorize the local communities. You know, "don't join the insurgency or this is what could happen to you or someone in your family," without thinking about the long-term consequences. What the community is going to learn locally is that we must drive the Americans out at all costs.
BuzzFlash: Let me ask you what is a basic conundrum here. The Bush Administration has been caught using torture in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere through photographs. There are more photographs which haven't been let out, which are supposed to be even more horrifying. There are stories which the mainstream press has already forgotten, that that some of these tortures, particularly at Abu Ghraib, ended in murders. There were photographs of dead bodies.
Jennifer K. Harbury: Correct.
BuzzFlash: Yet that seems to be forgotten now. The Islamic world looks at this and says, this is what the United States is doing to our people. Some of them may be Al Qaeda. Some of them may have planned terror attacks. Others of them are definitely innocent, and yet they've been tortured. As a result, we see some Islamists committing acts of retaliation against the torturers. And then Bush says, well, this is just horrifying. They're barbaric. I mean, have we become what we've beheld, in a way?
Jennifer K. Harbury: Yes. That's up to the American people to decide, but it certainly looks like it, doesn't it?
BuzzFlash: Yes, unfortunately, that's how we feel. Let's close with this moral issue, which is the trickiest thing because the Bush Administration excuses all this by saying, you know, you've got to be a mean son of a bitch, in essence, to deal with these people so, you know, with a wink-wink, nod-nod, we're going to do what we have to do, including torture. At what point does that make us a nation no different than others that commit barbaric acts?
Jennifer K. Harbury: If we are allowing torture, then, number one, we, as citizens of the United States, are every bit as responsible for what happens as the citizens of Germany were during the Third Reich. We are responsible for what our government does if we don't take action. We have to take action. It's our government. It's our responsibility.
Number two, if our government does not indict or carry out the correct remedial steps, then they are violating the Geneva Conventions just in that manner alone. Then it becomes incumbent upon other nations – Italy, Sweden, Germany, or wherever – that if we have not indicted our own people who have ordered those torture practices and taken care of the problem in an adequate manner - not just by putting the twenty-year-old MPs in prison – if we don't take the appropriate action, then those other countries must indict us and carry out international trials under the Conventions themselves.
BuzzFlash: Getting back to Latin America, let's go back quite some time to the overthrow of Allende, which was sponsored by the U.S. and condoned by Kissinger, which certainly, at that time, the U.S. was working to achieve. Allende was elected by the Chilean people. Whatever one thinks of his policies, he was democratically elected. The U.S. decided it wasn't in their interest to have a "socialist" government in Chile, even though it was democratically elected.
To what extent has the United States historically acted to simply suppress democracy - and now we see it with Hugo Chavez - unless it supports the ruling oligarchy? If there's any attempt to upset the interests of the oil companies, whether they be in Venezuela or Bolivia, by a democratic change in rule, the U.S. then says that Castro has his toe hold, and we have to support the graduates of the School of the Americas in suppressing anyone who is trying to implement "socialism," which is going to end up as communism.
Jennifer K. Harbury: We have, in fact, been working against democracy. In Latin America, the answer is absolutely. In Guatemala, for example, as early as '54, we overthrew the legally and very popularly elected President Arbenz, who was carrying out very moderate reforms which were bringing the country out of the feudal ages. If you look at all of Latin America, in fact, most countries have had the CIA intervene in legally elected governments to either destabilize them or overthrow them if they were carrying out any kind of economic reforms which would have greatly benefited their own people, but might have reduced profits for American interests. That's been true from the beginning, so I think we can hardly call ourselves the figures of democracy.
BuzzFlash: If democracy means the empowerment of those who are not currently empowered – i.e., the poor – then that's against the U.S. interest.
Jennifer K. Harbury: We have, again and again and again, acted against democratic interests in Latin America where that has not been consistent with our own economic interests for large corporations.
BuzzFlash: Hidden in Plain Sight is a two-hour documentary about the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. Sixty thousand members of the Latin and South American military community have graduated from there, many of them to go on to be among the most infamous leaders in Latin America and South America. Many of them, as in the case of your husband, engaged in torture and the brutal suppression of any effort by the poor or the pro-democracy movements if they endanger the ruling oligarchy. The School of the Americas' spokespersons deny that they teach torture or have any involvement in torture or suppressing pro-democracy movements. What is your perspective on the School of the Americas?
Jennifer K. Harbury: Very simply, the School of the Americas is a U.S. military institution that has given training and education to high-level military officials from across Latin America for forty years now. The students that they have trained and educated, in huge numbers, turned out to have been the worst human rights violators in the Western Hemisphere, bar none. We're talking about high-level people under Pinochet. We're talking about eight to twelve – my husband's torturers. We're talking about people involved in massacre upon massacre within El Salvador, including people that were highly implicated in the murder of Monsignor Romero and the Maryknoll church women, et cetera, et cetera.
Other schools also train Latin American military people, and they turned out a far smaller number. So when the School of the Americas says it's just a few bad apples – any school has a few bad apples – and you look at the other schools and find out that they have maybe less than half a percent of that number of bad apples coming out of their institutions, then as a matter of mathematics, it is statistically impossible that this is just coincidence. Their own manual showed that they did teach torture. That is a training ground for the use of terror techniques and torture techniques that have plagued Latin America and that are now being used in the Middle East. And I believe a number of those people who trained at the School of the Americas are also recruited by the CIA.
BuzzFlash: Jennifer, thank you very much for all your wonderful work.
Jennifer K. Harbury: And thanks for talking with me.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Truth Torture and the American Way: The History and Consequences of U.S. Involvement in Torture, by Jennifer K. Harbury.
Iran-Contra Affair (Wikipedia)
Backyard terrorism (George Monbiot, The Guardian)