Portions of this essay were adapted from several entries in Presidents' Body Counts at https://www.smashwords.com/.... The book is currently being given away for free.
Three Presidents That Ordered the Mass Torture of Prisoners (and Two That Failed to Stop It)
It is the tenth anniversary of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. Ten years have passed, with limited justice at best. Ten years with only a few of the low level guilty punished while those higher up not only went complete free. In some cases they prospered, and have even begun to regain respectability.
For most of US history, torture was something the enemy did, and their doing so was widely regarded as a sure sign of their evil. US troops might be ordered into unjust wars of aggression. They even carried out massacres. But torture of prisoners was something beheld as evil.
American Indians were often massacred, but not tortured, and the claim that some of them tortured was seen as evidence of their barbarism. Mexican civilians were also massacred, but not tortured. Union soldiers did not torture Confederate prisoners. In fact, the Civil War saw the first rules of war, formulated by Lincoln. Confederates did massacre Union troops if they were Black, but even these traitors never tortured. Germans, Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese were all killed in great numbers, but never tortured. In fact, the torture of US POWs by North Koreans was held up as a great evil.
There were several huge exceptions. Here are three presidents who ordered mass torture, not just GW Bush. Two more failed to stop torture.
McKinley in the US-Philippines War
In the crushing of the Filipino independence movement immediately after the Spanish-American War. US President McKinley ordered the conquest and betrayal of the Filipino people they were supposedly there to liberate in what is variously called the Filipino War, the Filipino Insurrection, or the US-Philippines War.
The body count was at least 200,000 to up to 1.4 million deaths, almost all civilians. Many Filipino rebels and civilians were also tortured, including the first time US troops used water boarding against an enemy. The biggest losses were due to deaths from disease, mostly dysentery, directly caused by American troops herding Filipinos into concentration camps named “zones of protection.” Famed Filipino historian E. San Juan Jr. argues this war constituted genocide. However, almost no other historians have agreed.
General Elwell Otis commanded US troops during the worst atrocities. Otis often acted on his own, without approval or consultation with Washington, and did his best to conceal atrocities under his command. He repeatedly ignored orders from his superiors to avoid fighting and actually turned down an early offer from Filipino President Emilio Aguinaldo to end the war. Otis had earlier commanded US troops during campaigns against the Lakota in the aftermath of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and more than a few historians see similarities in the tactics used against and the treatment of the enemy and civilian populations in both wars.
US troops, writing in their diaries, letters home, and interviews with journalists in fact often referred to Filipinos as “Indians” when describing the enemy's guerilla war tactics. But when justifying atrocities, many US troops described Filipinos as “niggers” and described going “nigger hunting.” Otis's tactics and the heavier US troop losses that resulted led to a great deal of opposition to the war within the US. Otis was relieved of command after two years and replaced by Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas MacArthur.
Pseudo scientific racism and Anglo-American attitudes of racial superiority are often blamed by scholars as the cause for US abuses of not just Filipinos but also invasions in Latin America and interventions in other parts of Asia at the time. The scientific professions were flooded at the time with poor science trying to justify European and Anglo-American conquest and exploitation of African, Asian, Latin American, and Middle Eastern peoples around the world and within their own countries as well. In its most extreme form, pseudo scientific racism would eventually mutate into eugenics, which sought to sterilize “inferior” races. Pseudo scientific racism led American authorities to set up a Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes to “civilize” certain Filipino tribes, modeled on the Bureau of Indian Affairs inside the US.
Otis's atrocities and other actions were never approved of by McKinley or virtually anyone else in Washington. But it was McKinley's decision to continue the war, blinded by his own paternalistic racism that he and other “civilized” whites knew what was best for the Philippines far better than any Filipino could. McKinley did send the Schurman Commission to investigate the war and make recommendations. Only one of the five members was a Philippines expert. Two were military commanders in the field, including Otis, and the commission's head, Jacob Schurman, was an English literature and philosophy professor. Schurman's group came to the same paternalistic racist conclusions as McKinley, insisting Filipinos were incapable of ruling themselves.
McKinley was killed by an anarchist assassin in 1901. His successor, Teddy Roosevelt, reversed course in several ways. Roosevelt offered an amnesty for Filipino fighters and declared the war over in 1902. Military rule of the island passed to US civilians. Yet the US held onto the islands for thirty more years. It was not until 1946 that the Philippines finally were allowed independence from the US,
What could McKinley have done differently? General Otis certainly played a central role in provoking and then worsening the war. McKinley should have relieved him almost immediately, and Otis should have faced criminal charges. McKinley's failure to punish Otis makes the president guilty of horrendous callousness with regards to Filipino lives.
Not only was Otis never punished for atrocities, virtually no other US soldiers were either. Only a few officers were reprimanded. In one of the best known cases, Major Edwin Glenn was convicted of torture for water boarding prisoners, and only received a fine. A US congressional investigation concluded that responsibility went all the way up to Secretary of War Elihu Root, and Root should have faced charges. But McKinley failed to hold anyone in his administration responsible, either civilian or military.
The US-Philippines War remains one of the least known wars to most Americans. Most public schools do not teach about it, and even university history courses often neglect it. Remembering the war and its atrocities could go a long way towards teaching Americans about the folly of so called benevolent invasions or assimilation.
Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, and the Phoenix Program
The Phoenix Program was designed to neutralize popular Vietnamese support for the National Liberation Front through recruitment, bribery, spying, blackmail, and torture. Though assassination was not the preferred outcome and far more Vietnamese were “turned,” the program killed, by the admissions of its defenders, between 20,000 and 26,369 Vietnamese, mostly civilians, many of them falsely accused of being Communists. The South Vietnamese government estimate was 40,000 deaths. Many of the accused were arrested based on faulty information, personal grudges, or the desire to fill quotas.
Local South Vietnamese soldiers and police actually did most of the killings and much of the torture. The program's purpose was to “turn” as many of the enemy as possible and gather intelligence. Assassination defeated these purposes. Robert Komer began and formulated the Phoenix Program under Johnson. William Colby directed it under Nixon. Both did so with presidential knowledge and approval.
Some defenders of the program blame the media and antiwar protesters for spreading false information about the program. While some information is inaccurate, clearly they have no blame for the many deaths under Phoenix. Defenders of the program also point to the many imposters claiming to have been part of Phoenix. A number of those prominently quoted by critics of the program in fact were not part of Phoenix and have been exposed as frauds.
The Phoenix Program was based on older counterinsurgency programs carried out by colonial powers, the British in Kenya and what was then Rhodesia, the Portuguese in Mozambique, and especially the French earlier in Vietnam itself. The intent was to undermine popular support for anti colonialism and independence efforts. Suspected enemies were brought to interrogation centers with the hope of “turning” them, getting them to switch sides and spy for the colonial power.
Contrary to some media claims, the program's main purpose was not assassination but gathering intelligence. Its main methods were, in order, revenge, bribery, blackmail, threats, and finally brutal torture that often led to death. Sometimes suspects were also raped. But most suspects were first approached with the carrot, not the stick. Suspects who lost family members to the uprisings were enticed with the chance to take revenge on their relative's killers. Others were bribed with money or goods.
If neither of those approaches worked, prisoners were often blackmailed, “Spy for us or you will be publicly identified as an informer.” In some cases, they were threatened with informing the local police the suspect was a Communist, which would have led to further imprisonment, perhaps execution. At times the prisoner was threatened with having a family member falsely identified, imprisoned, or killed.
If none of these approaches worked, a prisoner could be tortured. Torture methods included beatings, whippings, hangings, water torture, electrocution, attacks by trained dogs, rapes including gang rapes or repeated rapes by the interrogators. At times rapists used objects and even animals such as eels and snakes. Many suspects did not survive torture.
If torture did not work, or if torture did not result in death, then the last resort was execution, far more often done by South Vietnamese military or police than American forces. But since intelligence gathering was the intent far more than simply disrupting enemy popular support, this was discouraged if possible.
Most of those carrying out Phoenix were South Vietnamese. The program was US government created, approved, directed, and planned. Most interrogations had a US official, either a civilian CIA or Special Forces soldier, present and directing it. The program was approved at the highest levels, initiated by Lyndon Johnson and directed by his appointee, Robert Komer.
Komer had come to Vietnam to coordinate all counterinsurgency programs. He found a series of poorly planned programs and streamlined them into one far deadlier, and somewhat more efficient. By early 1968, Phoenix officially began, though elements of the program had been around since 1965. Nixon was fully informed of the program and approved of it. His administration even defended it once it was publicly exposed in 1971.
Phoenix's own estimates were that 81,740 Vietnamese were “neutralized.” Supporters of the program point out that often many people assumed neutralized meant assassinated. In fact, the roughly 65,000 Vietnamese who were not killed became informers for revenge, bribes, or fear of blackmail. It is true that estimates of the deaths caused by Phoenix are often too high. But it is not much of a defense to say “only” 26,000 were tortured to death.
William Colby, later head of the CIA, directed Phoenix after Komer. Colby said that Phoenix officers had orders to avoid killing civilians. The big exception was in combat. Colby also claimed that Phoenix officers were under orders to avoid killing prisoners. Some defenders of the program instead blame a culture of police and military brutality in Southeast Asia. Yet it is also clear that the great majority of torture deaths happened under CIA or Special Forces supervision, if not direct orders.
The final defense of the Phoenix Program is the claim that it did work. The National Liberation Front did say that Phoenix disrupted their uprising, even causing them to imprison many loyal members on suspicion of them having become Phoenix informers. Some dispute this claim, noting that most of the suspects caught were very low level, and not even 3% of the suspects were part of the NLF upper echelons.
Yet it is also undeniable that Phoenix hurt the US occupation of Vietnam. There were many cases of Phoenix being abused by corrupt officers. Local officials demanded bribes. The innocent were often falsely accused by those settling personal scores. The quota system encouraged such practices. Phoenix added to an already fearful atmosphere, making more Vietnamese wish US forces would go away. The exposure of Phoenix greatly damaged US credibility, made US government forces appear as brutal as the Communists they claimed to be trying to free Vietnamese from.
No American official was ever punished for Phoenix's tens of thousands of tortures and murders. Some South Vietnamese torturers were likely captured after the government fell. Other escaped to the US. The US government shut down Phoenix because of embarrassment, and no more. Johnson was still alive, though he would die of natural causes two years after Phoenix was exposed. Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment for the Watergate Scandal and was then pardoned. His crimes were covering up a burglary and bribery, but nothing as serious as many thousands dead from war crimes. There were no efforts to prosecute either president.
Komer lived over 30 more years. He went on to become Ambassador to Turkey, Undersecretary of Defense under Jimmy Carter, and then an analyst for the Rand Corporation. William Colby was also not punished but promoted. He shortly became the Director of the CIA. Colby went on to found a prominent DC law firm and write books defending his actions running Phoenix, Honorable Men and Lost Victory.
In both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, there were calls to bring back Phoenix and use it against insurgents. There were also a few reports of possible assassination programs underway, not including drone assassinations. (See Section Three.) This is moral bankruptcy of the highest order. In a just world, we would see prosecution of war criminals, not revival of their horrors.
GW Bush and Torture Deaths
The torture of prisoners, most of them falsely accused of terrorism, by US military, government agents, or private contractors in prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Naval Base, or in prisons in third party countries at US government request or supervision resulted in at least 108 deaths in custody. How many were deliberate murders, manslaughter, depraved indifference, or accidents is far from clear.
About 92% of prisoners at Guantanamo were falsely imprisoned. Only 8% were Al Qaeda or Taliban. Most were local residents or refugees. Some were aid workers or missionaries. Five were British citizens. Over 600 out of 779 prisoners have been released, but also refused entry to their home countries or the US. Instead, sixteen nations have taken them in as political refugees.
Vice President Dick Cheney amassed the most power and influence of any Vice President in US history, using his reach mostly in intelligence. Cheney defends torture or “enhanced interrogation” to this day and maintains that it led to saving lives and prevented terrorist attacks. This is a lie. In fact, torture led to lives lost. Suspects often gave inaccurate information, telling their abusers whatever they could think of to stop the torture, leading to resources diverted to stopping attacks that were never going to happen.
One major official after another bears responsibility for torture. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approved the torture policy, specifically signing off on practices such as water boarding. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez led the formulation of the legal defense of torture. Solicitor John Yoo specifically crafted the government memos legally defending torture. CIA interrogators carried out some interrogations, but more often supervised or directed the kidnapping of suspects to be tortured in third party countries, usually dictatorships with no laws against torture. US officers and enlisted at Baghram and Guantanamo guarded the prisoners and carried out the better known abuses such as sexual humiliation. Most of those punished were low ranking enlisted who clumsily took photographic evidence of their crimes. Unknown private contractors, likely former military intelligence or CIA, carried out most of the interrogations at US bases. One of the side effects of conservative control of these wars was that both torture and intelligence gathering were privatized. Some intelligence officers volunteered for Iraq or Afghanistan knowing that after a short period they could resign and then be hired by private firms to do the same work for several times the pay.
A US public with a large segment that supports torture made it easier to be carried out and more difficult for war criminals to be tried. Fox News, talk radio, and Hollywood productions such as the television show 24, endorsed torture, including films such as Iron Man that show torture as only done by the enemy, played a large role in the US public's acceptance of torture as necessary, even patriotic.
For most of US history, the military had a relatively good record of opposing torture as inhumane, unworthy of a soldier, and inefficient since it tends to produce false information. In most wars, even when the enemy was hated, US soldiers rarely tortured the other side. Atrocities against civilians and murders of POWs, yes, but torture was not common in wars against Natives. British, Confederates, Germans, North Koreans, or Iraqis.
The major exceptions were four. US soldiers often tortured Mexican civilians and Catholic priests in the US-Mexico War, Filipino guerillas and civilians in the US-Philippines War, and tortured or mutilated Japanese POWs in World War II. These first three practices of widespread torture were more often done for retaliation, racist hatred, or to terrorize the enemy than any intent to get information.
As brutal as the US wartime record often was, most US soldiers, officers, and civilian leaders often maintained that the US military should maintain moral superiority. Torture was what the enemy did, and not doing so made Americans better than them. Not only that, torture was considered a heinous war crime. Japanese military who ordered the torture of Allied servicemen were executed for their atrocities.
During the Korean War, some US servicemen were captured. North Korean torturers attempted to get soldiers to betray their country and switch sides. About 50 did, in widely reported cases of “brainwashing.” US intelligence obtained copies of North Korean interrogation, brainwashing, and torture manuals. Those same North Korean manuals were used as the model for US torture of terrorism suspects and falsely accused.
For the public, US government torture practices were exposed by the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. CBS News got hold of photos by US soldiers guarding Iraqi prisoners. The photos showed beatings, death threats, threats with guard dogs, sexual humiliation, prolonged stress positions, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, smearing prisoners with feces and urine, simulated drowning, and disorientation using loud sounds. Yet US officials, all the way up to Bush, maintained none of this was torture. The US Justice Department had redefined torture to not be torture unless it resulted in “organ failure or deaths.” One prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, was water boarded over 180 times, but still gave false information.
Yet even that torture was still not enough for some in the Bush administration. Some suspects were sent to other countries, dictatorships where there were no laws against torture. “Ghost detainees” could be tortured at will in even more extreme ways, usually with US officials present and often directing the torture. At least 54 governments carried out torture for the US including Iran and Syria. Governments that helped kidnap suspects and send them to other nations to be tortured were mostly in the Middle East or Eastern Europe.
Many suspects and falsely accused were sent to Guantanamo Bay. A US base on Cuban soil (held for over 50 years against the wishes of Cuba) Bush sent the prisoners there for two reasons. Since this was not US soil, torture there could not be prosecuted under US laws. And by sending the prisoners there, it maintained the fiction that these were all incredibly dangerous fanatics.
As of this writing, only six Guantanamo prisoners have ever been tried. Seven more still face charges over a decade after being imprisoned. The use of torture makes trials far more difficult. Instead of civilian courts, the suspects are tried by military tribunals, where many US military officers refuse to take part if possible.
Over 600 of the 779 prisoners were released, mostly when Obama became president. Barred from the US thanks to a campaign of hysteria and fear for political gain by Republicans, instead they became refugees in sixteen nations that accepted them. And much like prisons often produce more hardened criminals, the long abuse and torture in Guantanamo turned a few of the falsely imprisoned into recruits for terrorist groups.
Most of the actual torturers we do not know. As for the ones who ordered the torture, Bush, Cheney, et al, they remain at large, wanted for prosecution in other countries for their war crimes. One of the first acts of Obama was to proclaim he would not prosecute Bush and other war criminals. Indeed, the Obama administration never used the term war criminal, but did admit repeatedly that crimes were committed. Bush retired and makes huge speaking fees at events where security carefully screens out protesters.
Alberto Gonzalez resigned in 2007, not for his role in torture nor another controversy over illegal spying, but for revelations he forced US Attorneys out of the Justice Department to replace them with Republicans. Gonzalez had trouble finding work for two years before he became a diversity recruiter at Texas Tech University over the protests of much of the faculty and student body. In 2011 he became a law professor at Belmont University. He remains under indictment by courts in Europe. John Yoo also remains under indictment in Europe as well, was banned from Russia for his role in torture, and likely cannot travel in most of the world without facing charges. The torture memo he authored was immediately repudiated by the Obama administration. Yoo is still a professor at UC Berkeley.
Had the top Bush administration officials been punished the same as Japanese war criminals who committed the exact same war crimes, at least six Bush officials and Bush himself would have and should have faced the death penalty for torture. Only sovereign immunity protected Bush while in office, and he cannot travel in most of the world today. In both Canada and Switzerland he was forced to cancel planned speeches for fear he could be detained or tried.