Sunday, August 5, 2007

Operation Phoenix Reborn: New Yorker Expose on CIA "Black Sites"

Jane Mayer at the New Yorker has written a riveting piece on the recent history of the CIA recent torture program, The Black Sites: A rare look inside the C.I.A.’s secret interrogation program. The article helps us better piece together the history of CIA and military interrogation post 9/11, even if some of the information is fragmentary and contradictory.

One of the most startling revelations is that the CIA turned to its own history, resurrecting the techniques and model of its Operation Phoenix terror-torture program in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. While a program of "state-sanctioned torture and murder", where over 97% of the Vietnamese victimized were "of negligible importance", "C.I.A. officials viewed the program as a useful model".

A Wikipedia article on "psychological warfare" notes:

The Phoenix Program had the dual aim of assassinating Viet Cong personnel and terrorizing any potential sympathizers or passive supporters. When members of the VCI were assassinated, CIA and Special Forces operatives placed playing cards in the mouth of the deceased as a calling card. During the Phoenix Program, over 19,000 Viet Cong supporters were killed.

Researcher Michael Otterman in his superlative examination of CIA/Pentagon torture over the years, American Torture, wrote of the Phoenix Program:

Phoenix was a CIA operation aimed at eliminating the Vietcong civilian infrastructure (VCI).... Unlike standard military operations, Phoenix targeted civilians, not soldiers. Phoenix was launched in 1965 -- the same year the USA announced it would abide by the Geneva Conventions in Vietnam....

There were two main components to the Phoenix Program: Provisional Reconnaissance Units (PRUs) and regional interrogation centers. The PrUs would kill VCI members, terrorise civilians and capture those deemed to have knowledge about VCI structures. At the interrogation centres, CIA interrogators, alongside their Vietnamese counterparts, would torture VCI prisoners in an effort to learn the identity of VCI members in each province....

PRUs were financed by the CIA, composed of Vietnamese fighters, and led on missions by members of the Navy SEALs. (pp. 60-62)

The CIA publishes on its own website the tale of one of Phoenix's prisoners, Nguyen Tai: The Man in the Snow White Cell.

As Tai must have anticipated, his confession did not end his ordeal. After giving him a short rest as a reward, his South Vietnamese interrogators came back with a request that he provide details about his personal background and history. Tai refused, and the torture resumed. He was kept sitting on a chair for weeks at a time with no rest; he was beaten; he was starved; he was given no water for days; and he was hung from the rafters for hours by his arms, almost ripping them from their sockets. After more than six months of interrogation and torture, Tai felt his physical and psychological strength ebbing away; he knew his resistance was beginning to crack. During a short respite between torture sessions, to avoid giving away the secrets he held in his head during the physical and psycho-logical breakdown he could feel coming, Tai tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists.

Hung by his arms from the rafters? Bashing his head against the wall? This is exactly what we read in Jane Mayer's article Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Al Queda "mastermind" kept in isolation and tortured by the CIA endured, along with other "high-profile" detainees, endured.

According to sources, Mohammed said that, while in C.I.A. custody, he was placed in his own cell, where he remained naked for several days. He was questioned by an unusual number of female handlers, perhaps as an additional humiliation. He has alleged that he was attached to a dog leash, and yanked in such a way that he was propelled into the walls of his cell. Sources say that he also claimed to have been suspended from the ceiling by his arms, his toes barely touching the ground....

Professor Kassem said his Yemeni client, Kazimi, had told him that, during his incarceration in the Dark Prison, he attempted suicide three times, by ramming his head into the walls. “He did it until he lost consciousness,” Kassem said. “Then they stitched him back up. So he did it again. The next time, he woke up, he was chained, and they’d given him tranquillizers. He asked to go to the bathroom, and then he did it again.”

The Mayer piece also describes a confidential International Red Cross report on the secret detentions that according to sources makes it clear that torture took place:

One of the sources said that the Red Cross described the agency’s detention and interrogation methods as tantamount to torture, and declared that American officials responsible for the abusive treatment could have committed serious crimes. The source said the report warned that these officials may have committed “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions, and may have violated the U.S. Torture Act, which Congress passed in 1994. The conclusions of the Red Cross, which is known for its credibility and caution, could have potentially devastating legal ramifications.
You can see in Mayer's New Yorker article the tension between two competing narratives. On one hand, like the recent Katherine Eban piece in Vanity Fair, some of Mayer's seek to make SERE psychologists responsible for the CIA's fall into torture, believing the CIA not to have any experienced torturers, oops, I mean interrogators on hand in October 2001. Elsewhere in the New Yorker article, someone tries to tell her the CIA has no experience in running prisons, something which the Phoenix history itself contradicts. On the other hand, Mayer alludes to the previous history of the Agency (the Phoenix material, the decades of sensory deprivation research, the quick transformation of the CIA program into strict professionalism, etc.), which is steeped in torture experience.

As the Red Cross report points to some serious legal and political repercussions -- someone seems to feel that congressional scandal and prosecutions are inevitable -- a scramble is taking place to selectively leak and to mold the narrative of what happened and who's responsible.

The history of American torture is a veritable lost continent of criminal activity with links to the highest levels of the U.S. government and civilian establishment. The time has come to expose the entire substance of this awful truth, and bring those responsible for crimes against humanity, ostensibly done in our names, to justice -- fair, swift, humane, and inevitable.

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