I have been working my way through a 47,000 document tranche of declassified US government communications related to Argentina and the “Dirty War” of 1976-83. I grew up in Argentina in the period leading up to the March 24, 1976 coup d’Ã©tat that ushered in the so-called “Process of National Reorganisation,” the euphemism that the military junta used to justify its actions. That was the period when I was politically socialised and which has marked my approach to politics ever since.
I also do so because I did human rights work in Argentina in the early 1980s and wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the Argentine state that required repeated primary source field research in the country throughout that decade. Those trips afforded me the opportunity to complement my human rights work with documentary and interview data that, while tangental to the dissertation, were central to my interest in what happened to people I knew who were caught up in the “Process.” I continued this interest as a sidebar to my academic work and official obligations while serving in and with US government agencies in the late 80s and early to mid 1990s. Even so, I did not have the time or authority to access what has emerged in this tranche of documents.
The documents (known as “cables” in diplomatic parlance) come from the CIA, FBI, State Department, Department of Defense and other agencies such as the Commerce Department that had involvement in Argentine issues during that period. The quality of the reporting and analysis is surprisingly good and the tone often brutally frank. Even so, thousands of pages in the declassified tranche are redacted or completely blank, attesting to ongoing sensitivity of some of the subjects being discussed. On a more personal level, the documents reveal the names of people that I knew while growing up, both embassy officials as well as private businessmen, school officials and missionaries (they were all men) who were fathers of kids that I went to school with and who either wrote the cables in question or served as informants to the embassy.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the reporting is the constant references to the Argentine security forces use of murder and torture. Time and time again the cables detail how torture was used to extract information and confessions, often followed by the murder of prisoners. The cables report things such as corpse disposal techniques improving after scores of bodies were discovered in public places with clear signs of torture and execution-style bullet wounds (among others, the “disposal-via-plane” method–where prisoners were sedated, loaded onto Air Force planes and dumped over the South Atlantic away from shore–was perfected after weighed-down bodies surfaced in the River Plate and many others were identified on land even though efforts had been made to destroy any possibility of identification). They note that many of the dead were said to have been killed in armed confrontations with security forces that never happened, and that many of those killed were students, unionists, academics, journalists, politicians and others unconnected to the various guerrilla groups (Montoneros and Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo or ERP, primarily) that were operating at the time.
The more I read the more I began to question a long held belief of mine: that torture does not work as an interrogation method, but instead is simply a cruel form of punishment. Readers may remember that, following on earlier academic and policy writing on the subject, I blogged here at KP about how torture does not work. But as I read the horrific descriptions of the methods used by the Argentine inquisitors and what happened as a result, and even though I had interviewed a few torture survivors during my human rights work, it dawned on me that I was wrong. Torture does, in fact, work as a means of extracting time sensitive tactical as well as strategic information from victims. Allow me to explain.
Torture only works in specific circumstances. Where it does not work is in democracies with strong institutions and the rule of law. Take, for example, the US torture program known as “enhanced interrogation.” This was an extension of coercive interrogation techniques that US military counter-intelligence officers developed by adapting a blueprint provided by the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) programs operated by the US military for personnel at high risk of capture in hostile territory. Those programs emulated the unpleasantness of foreign interrogations (say, by North Vietnamese) so that those going through the SERE programs would have the mental and physical ability to cope without breaking.
After 9/11 the CIA decided to turn SERE on its head and use it as a basis for enhanced interrogation of suspected jihadists. That in turn led to its use by the US military against jihadists and insurgents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Supervised by psychologists and medical doctors, techniques like water-boarding, exposure to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, painful binding by ropes, simulated executions and threatened electric shocks (where captives were hooked up by wires to car batteries or wall power outlets), simulated attacks by military working dogs (reportedly suggested by Israeli intelligence because of Arabs’ aversion to dogs) and sexual degradation were used by interrogators to try and extract both real-time and broad picture information from prisoners. The pictures that emerged from the Iraqi prison at Abu Ghraib–where US Army military police went rogue because of the environment created by their commanders–alerted the world to the fact that the US was routinely employing torture as an interrogation method, something that also occurred at detention facilities at Baghram Military Air Base in Kabul and in at the detention centre (Camp X Ray) operated by US Marines at the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This stopped when the Obama administration took office.
There were limits to what the US torturers would do. Deaths, rapes and other atrocities did occur but the overall thrust of US torture programs was to avoid such “excesses” and to remain within the broadly defined limits of US military codes of justice and the laws of war. It can be argued whether that in fact happened, but the point is that the US military, the CIA and the US government all wanted to give at least the appearance of norm adherence and legal cover. This forced the interrogators to engage in self-limiting strategies when it came to the treatment of prisoners, even if the boundaries of that self-limitation were broad. They were constrained by both the institutional and legal apparatus under which they operated and perhaps by their internalisation of cultural mores and norms regarding acceptability and limits to what can be done in defence of the State’s interests.
Whatever the reason for the relative self-limitation of the US torturers, the end result is that, rightwing apologist’s bluster to the contrary, limited “actionable” intelligence was obtained via the enhanced interrogation program (this was detailed in the Congressional Report on the matter).
Bottom line? Torture does not work when practiced by agents of modern democratic states with strong institutions and laws and a concern for human rights and civil liberties even when dealing with foreign enemies.
No such thing happened during the “Dirty War.” There were no limits set on what interrogators could do to prisoners other than what their consciences dictated. Moreover, the torturers were required to observe each other’s work, to include murdering people, so as to cement the bonds of group complicity (presumably in the hope of securing group silence in future years). The barbarity unleashed on suspects was medieval, modern and mind-bending in its depravity. The interrogators used flame, electricity, water, blunt, bladed and teethed tools, surgical instruments, pneumatic machines, vices and industrial presses. They removed body parts without anaesthesia for no medical purpose. They made captives perform grossly degrading acts and penetrated them with an assortment objects. They raped and sodomized both men and women alike and used animals to do so as well. They mutilated, tortured and murdered children, spouses, siblings, parents and grandparents in front of prisoners. There was simply nothing they would or could not do in pursuit of a confession and/or information about others. Worse yet, many of these evil beings still walk amongst us, either in exile or still in Argentina in spite of the various trials of officials implicated in the atrocities of the Dirty War.
Beyond the personal tragedies of those victimised, this is the saddest part: The torturer’s methods worked. Time and time again the US cables document Argentine security officials stating that prisoners identified other members of political resistance groups after “hard” interrogations. Time and time again the cables detailed how one by one “terrorist” cells were dismantled thanks to information gleaned from such interrogations. From the time the military took power on March 24, 1976 to the time of the Soccer World Cup held in Argentina in June-July 1978, tens of thousands of people vanished (some into exile) and levels of political violence declined from an average of half a dozen murders a day to near zero. Both urban and rural guerrilla groups were decimated and thousands of people disappeared. By the time the World Cup started under the watchful eyes of the junta and celebrity guests like Henry Kissinger, Argentina was once again at peace, even if it was the peace of the dead.
Two things stand out for me. First, why did the victims give up the names of comrades, friends, acquaintances and family rather than just accept the fact that they were going to die? Surely they must have known that they and the people tortured in front of them would not make it out alive, so why give the torturers what they wanted? All I can think is that while many people broke because of the physical horrors inflicted on them and hoped to escape death in their moment of agony, an equal number broke because they wanted to save the lives of their loved ones even if they knew that they would die and their loved ones or others would likely die anyway. Between desperation and pain, it seems that the captive’s minds searched for futile hope in the midst of darkness.
The second standout point is what made the torturers do what they did? There certainly was both individual and collective psychopathic behaviour involved (such as in the case of the infamous “Angel of Death” Lt. Carlos Astiz, later captured by the British in the first confrontation of the Falklands/Malvinas War), but it also appears that to reach the state of mind that they operated in they had to believe that a) democracy and human rights were useless concepts; b) the rule of law was no longer viable as a social construct; c) ideological enemies were sub-human; d) they were part of a greater good; e) morality was relative and the ends justified the means; f) they were inured to violence given the ongoing and escalating social conflict of the previous decade; g) they had impunity, both present and future; h) their cause was existential (in this case defence of the Catholic, capitalist, heterosexual, patriarchal and white-dominant parameters of Argentine society).
Which is to say, when unconstrained by democratic norms and (at least concern about) the rule of law, torture works. It works because once there is no limit to what torturers can do, their victims have only one–even if futile– hope to save themselves or others, and that is to talk. The democratic “variant” of torture simply cannot enter this realm unless the very values that underpin democratic socialisation are absent in the interrogator.
That explains why I was wrong about the utility of torture. I used to think that torture persisted because it was useful as a punishment that reminded potential victims of the costs of engaging in specific courses of action and thereby deterred them from doing so. I also thought that it involved sadistic pleasure on the part of desensitized socio- or pyschopathic perpetrators.
Now I believe that, along with both of these motives, torture persists throughout history because it is a useful interrogation method under specific conditions where democratic norms, values, institutions and legal codes do not apply. Since democracies have historically been a minority among world governance structures, this can explain the wide-spread use of torture to this day.
I am belabouring the obvious.
I will not go into how the Catholic Church and several democracies were active supporters of the Argentine dictatorship (including the US until Jimmy Carter was elected, and then after he was replaced by Ronald Reagan). Nor will I delve into how civil wars often see more atrocities committed than in foreign wars. What I will note is that when democracies begin to be corroded from within and respect for institutions and laws and basic norms about civility begin to be supplanted by partisanship, opportunism and treachery, then the slide into darkness has begun.
Perhaps that is what happened to the Bush 43 administration, and which may be happening now under Trump. Perhaps it is what led the French to go feral when trying to cling on to their colonial possessions in the 1950s and 1960s.
Whatever the case there is one more thing to ponder. If a liberal democracy like New Zealand had anything to do with the extraordinary rendition and black site programs that the US ran as conduits into and locations for its “enhanced interrogation” efforts, then merely having strong institutions and respect for the rule of law is not enough to guard against complicity in torture when fear of “the other,” bureaucratic opportunism and security partner pressure is involved. That is a major reason why I am interested in reading the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security’s (still delayed) report on whether New Zealand had anything to do with that part of the US “war on terrorism.”