The most recent and most prominent instance of the use of torture in interrogation is that of the American CIA. After the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II, the CIA became both student and teacher of torture, propagating torture techniques worldwide to support anti-Communist regimes during the Cold War. The CIA adopted methods used by the Gestapo, KGB and North Koreans from their involvement in the Korean War such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and the use of electric shock, and researched new ideas: so-called ‘no-touch’ torture involving sensory deprivation, self-inflicted pain, and psychological stress. The CIA taught its refined techniques of torture through police and military training to American-supported regimes in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia during the bloody Phoenix program, and throughout Latin America during Operation Condor. Torture also became widespread in some Asian nations and South Pacific nations, in Malaysia, the Philippines and elsewhere, both for interrogation and to terrorize opponents of the regime. “In its pursuit of torturers across the globe for the past forty years,” writer Alfred McCoy notes, “Amnesty International has been, in a certain sense, following the trail of CIA programs.”

This brief collection shows that Abu Ghraib is not only consistent with U.S. policy in Iraq, but also with U.S. policy in much of the world.

Since the publication of Torture, American Style, numerous reports have revealed that the United States has extended its use of torture in various, innovative ways: from the practice of “extraordinary rendition” (whereby terrorism suspects are shipped by the U.S. to countries such as Egypt, Uzbekistan, and Yemen where they can be tortured with impunity) to a network of CIA prisons in various European and Asian countries, uncovered in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the Washington Post. But the U.S. government has not “outsourced” all its illicit practices. In flagrant disregard for international law and opinion the United States maintains a prison camp in Guantánamo, Cuba, as well as lesser-known camps in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which prisoners – who in some cases have been held for years without charges – are abused and tortured.

Rather than being embarrassed by persistent condemnations from various quarters, the U.S. administration has forcefully proclaimed its right to torture in the pursuit of its open-ended “War on Terror.”

Much of the public debate has revolved around the notion that the use of torture represents a departure from the past. This is not the case. On behalf of Historians Against the War, we hope that this article will provide historical context to move people to action.


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