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CIA Director John Brennan being sworn into office on March 8, 2013. (Photo: White House/David Lienemann)

CIA Torture and the Imperialist Toolbox

Gary Olson

Last August, our Nobel Peace Laureate, President Barack Obama, admitted that “we tortured some folks,” but then added, this is “not who we are.” At best, his statement was a half-truth.

First, it’s not “some” folks but massive numbers over a long and sordid history. State-sponsored torture has been an implement in the imperialist toolbox at least since the early twentieth century when U.S. troops employed the “water cure” during the U.S. conquest of the Philippines. Alfred McCoy’s Torture and Impunity (2012) is only one book in a voluminous scholarly literature confirming that from the early 1950s to the present, the U.S. government has been the principal purveyor of direct and indirect torture around the globe. This background of torture in service to empire is the critical missing piece in the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s revelations of Oval Office-sanctioned CIA depravity.

A few examples include the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia which trained Latin American soldiers in torture. SOA graduates returned to Central America and conducted wholesale barbarism; the CIA’s widespread torture program under Operation Phoenix in Vietnam; and the infamous Operation Condor in the 1970s where as many as 60,000 Latin Americans were kidnapped, tortured and murdered. The CIA provided the technical, financial and coordination to the governments carrying out the program.

Recall that the Nuremberg Laws under which high level Nazi officials were prosecuted in 1945-46, heads of state and other responsible government officials who committed acts considered a crime under international “does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.” (Principle III) The Torture Statute of the Federal War Crimes Act defines torture as an “act intended to inflict pain or suffering upon another person within his custody or physical control.” Under international law, the torturer is defined as hosts human generis, the enemy of mankind.

And J. Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights reminds us that “Torture is a crime of universal jurisdiction.”

The 1949 Geneva Convention and Article 7 of the Convention Against Torture, approved by the U.S. Senate in 1994, obligate the United States to conduct a “prompt and impartial investigation” of any citizen suspected of engaging in torture. Further, it states “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture.” CAT Art. 2(2) No exemptions are listed for nations claiming to be “exceptional” and therefore not subject to the laws and moral standards applicable to everyone else. Parenthetically, for his heinous crimes against humanity, Osama bin Laden should have been captured and tried before an ad hoc international tribunal in The Hague. Extra-judicial execution is not who we are.

Second, ordinary American citizens neither authorized nor carried these heinous acts. However, we live in a society of us and them. For them, national security means doing whatever is necessary – at times, including torture – to further the interests of the one-tenth of the one percent who own and run our country. In their endless pursuit of wealth they seek to control the global economy, its natural resources, markets and sources of cheap labor. And “defense” spending also functions as gigantic public subsidy for the corporate sector. Understood in this larger context, torture is exactly who they are.

For these reasons it’s safe to assume that the political and military power of the United States will prevent the application of any universal jurisdiction for its own actions. No one in the upper chain of command will be prosecuted or held accountable by U.S. courts.

Must this be the case? Our rulers employ a tremendous amount of deception to keep us in the dark about the economic and geopolitical motives behind U.S. foreign policy. They fear that if the American people know even a fraction of the crimes done to other human beings – and on behalf of whose interests – it would awaken their nascent sense of empathy. Whether our rulers’ fears are warranted remains to be seen. Torture and other crimes against humanity won’t end until the American people demand that the global empire be dismantled and we reclaim our democracy. The whole world is watching.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Gary Olson

Gary Olson

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. His most recent book is "Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain" (NY: Springer, 2013.) Contact:

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