by Valtin | 6/16/2008 07:38:00 PM
The Senate Armed Services Committee will be holding hearings into the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. Tomorrow is part one, as Senator Levin's committee looks into the origins of U.S. aggressive interrogation techniques. A new article by AP makes clear that these techniques were approved at the highest levels, and that the resulting torture revelations were not due to the actions of a few "bad apples."

Also, on Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing entitled "From the Department of Justice to Guantanamo Bay", which is the second part of its inquiry into administration lawyers, like John Yoo, and their role in writing and approving torture and guidelines for abusive interrogation.

Meanwhile, Human Rights First has a petition up, demanding that Congress ask William Haynes, former General Counsel to the Department of Defense - who "once advised the Bush Administration that waterboarding and death threats were 'legally available' options" - tough questions, bearing upon his culpability for implementing a U.S. torture program.

Before going into the nitty-gritty details of what's going to be revealed at the hearings, I want to ask the indulgence of my readers. The news as presented even by the supposed best of our newspapers and other news sources often lack the context with which we can understand the often mind-boggling revelations that rain down upon us in 21st century America. It is with that thought that I turn momentarily aside to review an important U.S. military interrogation program from the Vietnam War. Considering this history will give perspective for the revelations to come.

The Phoenix Program: Blueprint for Bush's "War on Terror"

In Jane Meyer's August 2007 article, The Black Sites: A rare look inside the C.I.A.’s secret interrogation program, she wrote of the scramble by the military and intelligence agencies after 9/11 to cohere an intelligence program in Afghanistan. Ultimately, the U.S. would arrest tens of thousands of supposed "terrorists", many of them turned in by greedy bounty hunters; establish a network of CIA-run secret prisons; expand a rendition program, which outsourced the interrogation of torture and prisoners to third-party nations; and establish the practice of torture against so-called enemy combatants, holding them incommunicado, without hope of appeal or release (until recently, that is).

In seeking to establish their military preeminence thousands of miles from the "homeland," the U.S. government turned to history - U.S. history - for inspiration. What they re-discovered was one of the darkest episodes in that history, one which is barely known or understood in this country, and whose consequences -- not least that the perpetrators of mass torture and assassination remain at large and in positions of power -- hang like the sword of Damocles over the head of uninformed citizenry. What they "discovered" was the Phoenix Program, a counterinsurgency operation by the U.S. government and its South Vietnamese allies that specialized in torture, terror, and assassination of individuals and families suspected of giving support to the Viet Cong. In the end, tens of thousands were murdered, often in their beds or homes, their ears cut off to prove that "kill teams" had made their quota for the night.

As Mayer wrote:
On September 17, 2001, President Bush signed a secret Presidential finding authorizing the C.I.A. to create paramilitary teams to hunt, capture, detain, or kill designated terrorists almost anywhere in the world. Yet the C.I.A. had virtually no trained interrogators. A former C.I.A. officer involved in fighting terrorism said that, at first, the agency was crippled by its lack of expertise. “It began right away, in Afghanistan, on the fly,” he recalled. “They invented the program of interrogation with people who had no understanding of Al Qaeda or the Arab world.” The former officer said that the pressure from the White House, in particular from Vice-President Dick Cheney, was intense: “They were pushing us: ‘Get information! Do not let us get hit again!’” In the scramble, he said, he searched the C.I.A.’s archives, to see what interrogation techniques had worked in the past. He was particularly impressed with the Phoenix Program, from the Vietnam War. Critics, including military historians, have described it as a program of state-sanctioned torture and murder. A Pentagon-contract study found that, between 1970 and 1971, ninety-seven per cent of the Vietcong targeted by the Phoenix Program were of negligible importance. But, after September 11th, some C.I.A. officials viewed the program as a useful model.
The brief documentary, embedded above as a YouTube video, represents an excellent introduction to the history of the Phoenix Program. Warning: some of the images are quite graphic.

Those interested in pursuing the subject in more depth should turn to Douglas Valentine's epic work, The Phoenix Program, or to Michael Otterman's excellent summary, linking Phoenix to the later torture policies of the current administration as part of its misnamed "war on terror", American Torture.

Military Psychologists Braintrust Pentagon Torture Program

The historical context offered by the documentary frames the current situation, where the Senate Armed Services Committee is holding hearings on detainee interrogation abuse and torture. Tomorrow, former Pentagon general counsel, William “Jim” Haynes, is due to testify. According to a new article by AP:
The investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee also has confirmed that senior administration officials, including the Pentagon's then-general counsel William “Jim” Haynes, sought the help of military psychologists early on to devise the more aggressive methods – which included the use of dogs, making a detainee stand for long periods of time and forced nudity, according to officials familiar with the findings....

Rumsfeld's December 2002 approval of the aggressive interrogation techniques and later objections by military lawyers have been widely reported. But the November protests by service lawyers had not, and the interest by Pentagon civilians in military psychologists has surfaced only piecemeal....

According to the Senate committee's findings, Haynes became interested in using harsher interrogation methods as early as July 2002 when he sent a memo inquiring about a military program that trained Army soldiers how to survive enemy interrogations and deny foes valuable intelligence.

Officials who taught the methods – known as “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape,” or SERE techniques – were well schooled in the art of abusive interrogations....
According to the AP article, Haynes went to Guantanamo with Alberto Gonzales (then with the Office of Legal Counsel) and David Addington, Vice President Cheney's own chief counsel. Ultimately, Donald Rumsfeld approved a number of abusive interrogation techniques, over protests by the services's own military attorneys. (The abuse continued even after Rumsfeld's torture program was officially discontinued, as unredacted portions of Admiral Church's investigation into detainee abuse revealed a few months ago.)

The use of SERE techniques may have leaked out "piecemeal", but there have been plenty of stories about the misuse of this military program, from Katherine Eban's expose article in Vanity Fair last summer, to the Pentagon Office of the Inspector report released late last year, to a recent ACLU release of documents describing the "first on-the-ground reports of torture in Gardez, Afghanistan" by Special Operations forces utilizing SERE techniques.

If anything, the Congressional hearings are the proverbial hour late and a mile short. The revelations about abuse of U.S. torture in Afghanistan and Iraq go back to the initial arrest of John Walker Lindh in 2001. As the Phoenix Program documentary makes clear, even earlier and if anything more egregious examples of U.S. war crimes were known and vetted and then ignored, the perpetrators allowed to filter successfully through the sinews of government until the current day, and the phenomena of a Phoenix reborn, metamorphosed into a "war on terror", a campaign to save the "homeland" masking a policy of aggressive invasion, war, occupation, and torture by the leaders of this country.

While late, I welcome whatever exposure will come from these Congressional hearings. I support Human Rights First's petition drive. Only when we bring these crimes into the light of day and educate all Americans about what has been done in their name will we have half a chance of ending the barbarous policy of war, torture, and oppression, and winning over that part of the world that has, in desperation, turned to their own demagogues who preach despair and (occasional) terror in the name of a desperate hope. Such a campaign will mean we have to confront the anti-democratic elements in our own society. This fight will be hard and long, maybe as long as Bush sees his own "war on terror". This will be a war on exploitation, violence, and the manipulation of human beings. Its banner will be freedom from fear, from want, from exploitation.

Also posted at Invictus

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