America's all-star torture team: John Negroponte takes the floor

The president of the United States has nominated John Negroponte, current "ambassador" to Iraq and former accessory to widespread torture and political repression in Latin America, to head the most powerful intelligence operation in the history of the world.

The history of this cretin has been covered elsewhere (e.g., here is a short synopsis). Suffice it to say here that anyone who gets in the way is fair game for him: guerillas, suspected guerillas, peasants, nuns, passers-by, it doesn't matter.

Negroponte joins with Alberto Gonzales, the US's first "torture attorney general", on what will surely be recognized in the future as the greatest assemblage of torture advocates and practitioners since the Nazi period in Germany. They, and probably many other lower-level functionaries, are in turn backed up by academics and other apologists who are working tirelessly to promote the general societal acceptability of torture - for example, Harvard's "Torture Professor" Alan Dershowitz.

People like Dershowitz have the function of providing legal and "moral" rationales for the policies implemented at the political level. They do not, strictly speaking, make torture possible - it would and does happen without them. However, they enable it by making it seem less severe than it is and, in fact, "a necessary evil". The widespread and consistent application of torture, therefore, does depend on these "peaceful" and "democratic" advocates.

We are at a point where officials do not even bother to try and hide the general application of torture by the US; it is well into the public domain by now. The Guardian today has a long and excellent article on official US torture abroad and Britain's role in providing a precedent for it. The details are all there: beatings, sodomy, threats of death. The article, notably, also touches upon the ineffectiveness of torture in getting useful information, perhaps the main argument employed by people who like seeing others suffer:

Violence towards the prisoner, or humiliation of the kind practised in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, was ruled out. "Never strike a man," wrote Robin "Tin-Eye" Stephens, the monocled commander of Camp 020, in his secret advice to interrogators [during WWII]. "For one thing it is the act of a coward. For another, it is unintelligent, for the spy will give an answer to please, an answer to escape punishment. And having given a false answer, all else depends upon the false premise."


In late 2001 and early 2002, when the pro-torture lobby in the US was in full cry, the case of Abdul Hakim Murad, arrested in Manila in 1995, was often cited as justification. According to the story popularised in the US, torture by the Philippines police drew confessions from Murad which revealed a plot to blow up 11 US aircraft over the Pacific and led the FBI to captured Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, Murad's co-conspirator and the man behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York. Both men are now serving life sentences in US prisons.

In fact, while the plot and the torture were real enough, the notion that the torture helped save lives is bogus. In an investigation the Philippines journalists Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria found that Yousef was actually caught after he visited his dentist in Pakistan. He had left his dentist's address in the conspiratorial flat. As for the aircraft plot, the information came from a computer found in the same flat.

Murad's torture may have cast its bane beyond tortured and torturers. The recent report of the 9/11 commission drew heavily on still-classified transcripts of interrogations with the three dozen or so most senior suspected Bin Laden associates captured and held by the US at secret locations around the world, particularly Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Yousef's uncle, thought to be the chief architect of the 9/11 attacks. Under interrogation, he seems to have talked freely about Murad - and contradicted almost everything Murad told the Philippines police.

Orwell said it best 60 years ago: the point of torture is torture.

Returning to Negroponte and how he fits in to our budding torture establishment, we find that there are other enablers at work besides the academics: journalists, who provide the link between the officials responsible for torture and their academic allies, on the one hand, and the public on the other.

This dynamic is apparent in this gushing WaPo "analysis" of Negroponte and the "challenges" he faces in his role as intelligence czar. In the entire article, there is not a single quote from anyone critical of Negroponte. Indeed, the character witnesses are former colleagues, friends, and others with only nice things to say about this man (the authors, Dana Priest and Robin Wright, must think that the two small paragraphs in this Walter Pincus article are sufficient background for Negroponte's criminal activities - no need to muss their article up with tales of the "wet stuff").

In addition to the hagiographic nature of this article, the character witnesses are a poor choice. One of these sources is a former CIA official by the name of "Dewey" Clarridge. Priest and Wright quote Clarridge as saying that "He probably has pretty good insights into covert action, what it can and can't do... Covert action is not an end in itself, but part of your total toolbox." Fine words - but what else is in Clarridge's "toolbox"?

In an exhaustive 5 minute search on the internet, I turned up a few interesting tidbits (i.e., reasons to doubt Clarridge's morals and ethics), as well as indications of his "toolset". This article by Robert Parry contains a few:

The CIA official who engineered the covert war in Nicaragua has disclosed that an original goal of the operation was to "start killing Cubans" who were aiding the leftist Sandinista government.

In his new book, A Spy for All Seasons, former CIA official Duane Clarridge acknowledges that "my plan, stated so bluntly, undoubtedly sounds harsh." But Clarridge defends the bloody objective as necessary to protect inhabitants of neighboring El Salvador from supposed Sandinista-sponsored massacres.

"Ask the Salvadoran civilians who watched their villages burn and their children die what harsh is," argues Clarridge in justifying the contra war. "The Sandinistas were literally getting away with murder because no one could find a politically acceptable way to stop them."

Despite a few frank admissions, Clarridge's autobiography continues a pattern of former Reagan administration officials rationalizing their actions in Central America in self-serving memoirs.

Typical of the distortions is Clarridge's argument that the contra war was justified because the Sandinistas were responsible for burning down Salvadoran villages and killing Salvadoran children. In fact, it was the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military that carried out those scorched-earth campaigns and the slaughter of thousands of Salvadoran civilians with suspected leftist sympathies.

In December 1981, for example, the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion swept through northeast El Salvador. Around the town of El Mozote, the troops rounded up about 800 unarmed peasants of all ages. The Atlacatl soldiers first massacred the men, then the women and finally the children, some of whom were bludgeoned and then burned alive.

So we see that a) supporting large-scale murder, and b) re-writing history are necessary parts of Clarridge's "toolbox". There's more:

But Casey and Reagan wanted more results, and a harried Clarridge was wracking his brains in January 1984. "I arrived home from the Agency early enough for once to do something other than fall into bed," Clarridge writes. "I remember sitting with a glass of gin on the rocks, smoking a cigar (of course), and pondering my dilemma, when it hit me. Sea mines were the solution. ...To this day I wonder why I didn't think of it sooner."

When Clarridge shared his brainstorm about mining Nicaragua's harbors with other Reagan insiders, he recalled that the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Soon, the CIA's UCLAs were salting the international sea lanes through Nicaragua's harbors with explosive mines. When Sandinista defense forces fired on one CIA boat, the CIA's attack helicopters swooped into action, firing rockets at Nicaraguan coastal batteries.

As with the earlier raids, the contras were assigned only a public relations role. The CIA ordered FDN spokesmen to take credit for the mining operations and to warn foreign ships away from delivering supplies to the ports.

But the mining didn't succeed in frightening off all commercial shipping, as Clarridge had hoped. Many freighters simply ignored the warnings and plowed ahead into the harbors. The CIA's mines began exploding and damaging ships from around the world. In an undeclared war, the United States had taken to endangering crewmen and cargo in international commerce. A political furor erupted and an angry Congress stopped all CIA assistance to the contras.

Still, Clarridge and his comrades saw nothing wrong with what they had done. "We were proud of the mining," Clarridge writes.

We can add c) destruction of private property from around the world and endangering the lives of ordinary, civilian seamen to this "toolbox". But there's still more:

After Congress passed the 1984 Boland amendment prohibiting the use of federal funds to wage war in Nicaragua, Clarridge became chief of the CIA's European Division. As a result, he writes, he was only peripherally involved in the subsequent project of Colonel Oliver North and others to sell armaments to Iran and to use the profits to support the Contras in Nicaragua. Whatever the extent of Clarridge's involvement, it was sufficient to get him indicted for lying to Congress about his alleged knowledge of the activities.

Damn... we're going to have to add still another tool to the box: d) lying to the American people about it all.

But none of this seems to matter to Priest and Wright - Clarridge is blandly described as "chief of the CIA's Central American Task Force from 1981 to 1984, who worked with Negroponte when he was ambassador to Honduras", and all of this history might as well never happened. What exactly makes this shithead a good character witness? Indeed, an endorsement from Clarridge would seem to be more of a comment on why Negroponte should not be confirmed rather than why he should be. But to say that Priest and Wright are not taking their jobs seriously is not correct. On the contrary, when we realize that they do not function here as journalists, but rather as enablers of power (Orwell again: power is the power to make another human being suffer), then it is clear that they take their jobs very seriously. I don't even want to think about the backgrounds of the other "character witnesses" cited by Priest and Wright.

So, barring a major moral and ethical turnaround by Congress, Negroponte will become one of the most powerful people in the world, with assistance from academics and journalists who alternately endorse, minimize, or erase from the historical record such unpleasantries as torture. Don't say you weren't warned.

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