When Torture Wasn’t A Crime

All of us can agree — I hope — that torture is morally abhorrent. But that does not mean that it has always been understood to be a crime.

Today, it is hard to see beyond the idea that torture is a criminal act and that those responsible for it deserve to be punished. This vision has become so ingrained in international law and political discourse that it can seem both obvious and inevitable.

Yet a half century ago, the criminality of torture was far from self evident. Indeed, many on both the left and the right understood torture not as a criminal violation but as a tactic of war, one to be counteracted through violent confrontation. This framing of torture surfaces again and again in my research, but rarely with the clarity of the 1980 interview with guerrilha fighter Reinaldo Guarani that I encountered yesterday in the archives of Rio de Janeiro’s political police.

Like many of his peers in the leadership of Brazil’s student movement, Reinaldo Guarani grew convinced in the late 1960s that the dictatorship that had seized political power in 1964 could be defeated only through force. So Guarani joined the insurgent group Ação Libertadora Nacional and took up arms against the regime. In 1970, he was captured and interrogated by agents of the country’s joint military-police force, DOI-CODI, who repeatedly tortured him. Guarani was eventually released and expelled from the country. The amnesty law passed in 1979 allowed him to return, and occasioned a striking in-depth interview published in Rio’s Tribuna da Imprensa in June 1980.

The former headquarters of DOI-CODI in Rio [From the Ministério Público Federal]

Asked about his experience with torture, Guarani responded:

The torture phase [of my detention] was nothing new, nothing original. From a sociological point of view, it’s understood: they [DOI-CODI] believed we were at war, and we did too. So, when they captured someone from a clandestine organization, they knew they had little time to extract something new about the group. That’s why they hit us so hard in the face, to uncover a meeting point or a safe house. Then came the torture, pau-de-arara [suspension in a stress position], blows, electric shocks, suffocation, palmatória [beatings to the hand with a metal instrument].

These tortures served a function clear to Guarani: to extract from suspected “subversives” as much information as possible. Knowledge of this purpose, he explains, offered seasoned guerrilheiros limited but still meaningful room for counteraction:

[…T]he guy with a little more experience, instead of revealing a meeting point that was still in use, he’d reveal a cold one. That’d give him a three, four hour break. And because the repressors had to go one way or the other to all the places you mentioned, he could even give another cold one that the police would have to investigate. Back then the activity in the jails was immense, incessant; the torturers had to beat everyone as quickly as they could, so they couldn’t get lost in the details.

In just a few sentences, Guarani brings the reader into a terrifying and violent world, one built not on sadism but on the drive to extract the maximal quantity of information from the largest number of people in the least possible time. The frenetic pace of this world is corroborated by many repressors themselves, who in period documents and subsequent interviews repeatedly emphasized the urgency of the first hours of interrogation and the need for “efficiency” above all else. While Guarani does not play down the horror or the power of the torturers’ violence — even the “experienced” militant has to tell her captors something — his emphasis is on the ability of more skillful guerrilheiros to manipulate their interrogators even under conditions of extreme adversity. Sending agents to disused meeting points didn’t just earn a few hours of rest for the victim, it also bought her comrades critical hours to discover that she had been captured and move to safer ground. Indeed, the security practices of insurgent groups were centered on detained militants’ ability to hold out for a specified period of time — often two days — before revealing any “hot” information that could compromise the group.

Nowhere does Guarani indicate that he was not disgusted by DOI-CODI’s deployment of torture — only that he was not surprised. “They believed we were at war,” he explains, “and we did too.” Torture may have been immoral; it may have been a violation of the law of war. But these questions mattered less to Guarani than torture’s use to those employing it — its specific value, in other words, as a tactic of war. Understanding the counterinsurgent information-gathering ends to which torture was employed could give Guarani and his comrades a bit of space to maneuver, granting them a degree of power they could then turn against the regime.

Guarani’s words make the case at the heart of my dissertation more compellingly than I possibly could. The history of torture cannot simply be the history of our abhorrence of it — or we will miss what repressive violence meant to those who lived it, and to the political struggles within which it was deployed.

ABBYY FineScanner for Free!

A brief follow-up to last week’s post on my love affair with ABBYY FineScanner: I’ve just received 10 promo codes good for unlimited access to ABBYY FineScanner Pro, the app on which I’ve come to rely for document capture and recognition. Five are for iOS and five for Android. They’re each worth about $60 and must be redeemed in the next 28 days. I’d hate for them to go to waste, so if you’d like one, leave a comment below or on Facebook or drop a note via this contact form. Please include your email address and specify iOS or Android. I’ll pass along a code to the first five users of each platform who get in touch.

ABBYY FineScanner for Archival Research

Since starting grad school, I’ve tried out — and cast aside — quite a few tools for reproducing and organizing archival documents. Digital cameras, portable scanners, FileMaker, EverNote, RefWorks — these are just some of the detritus lining the long and winding research road I’ve traveled these past four (!!) years. Now, at the halfway point of my time in Brazil, I can finally say that I have found my logistical footing. Three pieces of software have emerged as the pillars of my archival process: ABBYY FineScanner for document capture, DevonThink Pro Office for organization and note-taking, and Zotero for secondary bibliography.

While Zotero is both widely used and straightforward, the other two programs may be less familiar. With the Northern-summer research season fast upon us, I’d like to share my experience with these pieces of software, in the hopes of saving researchers at earlier stages of their projects from the hassles of constant platform-shifting that have plagued mine. In this post, I’ll talk a bit about document capture; in a later installment, I’ll describe my approach to organization and note-taking.

For my first three years of grad school, archival document capture meant taking digital photos of individual pages. I’d also photograph the boxes and folders that contained these documents, in the order that I reviewed them, all the while taking notes in an archive-specific word document. The result would be two interlinked narratives of my research, one textual and the other photographic, which I could then draw upon to assemble the individual photos into whole-document pdfs.

This approach carried a single distinct advantage: it enabled me to copy large quantities of documents quickly. But the downsides were massive. For one, no matter how hard I tried, I’d consistently wind up with about one unreadably blurry picture in 50. Even in the best photo-quality case, the process of turning images of individual pages into pdfs was painstaking and extraordinarily time-consuming. Indeed, I still have a large backlog of archival photos awaiting such processing, months or even years after they were taken. Finally, the resulting pdfs were quite large, even when I reduced the component photos — and sending them through a time-consuming OCR converter made them bigger still. Even as I’d find ways to tweak this process, my fundamental dissatisfaction remained.

All the while, I knew from historian friends that there was another way: I could turn my phone into a handheld scanner using one of the many apps on the market. Even with this knowledge, however, for years I found reasons to resist making the switch. I valued the flexibility and speed of digital photos, I though. Wouldn’t scanning on the spot slow me down? Plus, I’d invested a bunch of money in a nice digital camera; was I really going to abandon it in favor of my phone’s lower-quality one?

In January, though, my first smartphone went caput. When its replacement impressed me with its higher photo quality, I realized that it was finally time to give scanning apps a chance. I dug up this PC Mag breakdown of the major options, and ABBYY FineScanner immediately caught my eye. The full-featured version is pricey — on the order of $20 for a year or $60 for a lifetime of OCR-equipped scanning — but I’d used ABBYY products extensively in Columbia’s Digital Humanities Center and had always been satisfied. So I decided to take the plunge.

By the end of my first day using the app in the archive, I knew that my research life would never be the same. There could be no doubt, of course, that FineScanner makes for a much slower capture process than simple photo-taking. The basic trick is this: you take a photo of a page, and no matter the angle of the photo, the app will identify and crop the document into a flat, undistorted image. This is what an original photo looks like at the cropping stage:

While this “autocrop” functionality works pretty well, I still need to double-check every page, and in the end I have to manually crop quite a lot of them (depending on the document, the proportion ranges from 10 to 100% of the pages I scan). Then, in order to turn the photos into searchable pdfs, I upload them to the ABBYY server — something doable either between document scans at the archive or once I get home, depending on the size of the documents and the pace of the day.

These slight hassles, though, are vastly outweighed by the utility of the final product. FineScanner is able to recognize nearly all of the documents I send it, meaning that the individual photos I take come back to me as completely searchable, centered and undistorted pdfs, which I can then upload directly to the cloud or send via email or text. Here’s the page from above, post-processing:

The app can recognize nearly 200 languages, and while I can’t vouch for most of them, my experiences with English, Portuguese, Spanish, and French have been excellent. And miraculously, the recognized pdfs that emerge are tiny — generally about 10% of the size of the smallest unrecognized pdfs I used to make. (Fifty-page pdfs, for instance, usually weigh in around 2.5 MB.)

The advantage of the OCR phone-scanning approach is clearest in comparison. Whereas before, I would end a day at the archive with several hundred individual photographs and the dreadful knowledge that hours of processing awaited at some sure-to-be-later time, now my days end with tiny, fully-searchable pdfs ready to be organized and consulted on demand.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, there’s a good chance that you belong to the tiny minority of people whose lives can be changed by a well-crafted OCR-optimized portable-scanning smartphone app. And if indeed you do, I’d recommend giving ABBYY FineScanner a spin.

The Armed Left Confronts Torture: São Paulo, 1970

Planning has its limits, in historical research as in life. This has never been clearer to me than at the archive where I’ve been spending most of my time these past three months, the Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo (APESP), where receiving the wrong box late one Friday afternoon opened a path to understanding a critical but seemingly inaccessible dimension of the past.

APESP, I’ve mentioned before, houses the voluminous files of the state’s political police, the Departamento Estadual de Ordem Política e Social, or DEOPS. Extant from 1924 to 1983, this police force produced hundreds of thousands of pages on groups and individuals linked — according to DEOPS, at least — to communism or other forms of subversion. Miraculously, the documents are open to researchers with virtually no restrictions — beyond, that is, the difficulty of navigating them. Unlike the fully text-searchable Paraguayan police archives to which I dedicated last October, the DEOPS files can be accessed only through the name-based index built by their creators, making it easy to reconstruct, but hard to escape, the repressive logic of DEOPS itself.

Understanding these constraints, I’d arrived with a list of names to follow through the archive. I kept to this plan for the first week, and it yielded some insights. Thanks to the kind suggestions of those who know the files well, I was able to hone in on documents sent to DEOPS from the São Paulo unit of the joint military-police intelligence operations system know as DOI-CODI, responsible for a disproportionate share of the dictatorship’s worst violence. These DOI-CODI files illuminate the counter-revolutionary constructs and operational patterns that guided the repression, but they do little to clarify the meanings of torture for those who lived it most acutely.

At the end of my first week at APESP, however, my archival fortunes took a sharp turn for the better. That Friday, about two hours before closing time, I received a folder one code away from the document I’d requested. As it was already sitting in front of me, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give the folder a quick glance before I took it back.

The contents of the folder didn’t look anything like the documents I had been requesting. Instead of standardized third-person accounts of endless interrogation sessions, it was brimming with hard-to-read copies of notebooks, letters, and pamphlets — papers that DOI-CODI had seized, I soon learned, from the Vanguarda Popular Revolucionária, or VPR. One of the armed revolutionary groups to emerge from the post-coup shakeup of the Brazilian Communist Party, the VRP set out in 1969 to build an insurgent training camp in the south of São Paulo state, led by former Army captain and famed insurgent Carlos Lamarca. The facility, located in the fertile Vale do Ribeira, was operational for ten months. But in May 1970, following leads provided under torture by captured VPR militants, security forces learned of the camp’s location and quickly encircled it with a force of thousands. A small band of militants, including Lamarca, managed to escape, enabling the group to carry on until, battered by ongoing repression, the VPR dissolved itself in 1971.

Lamarca training a VPR militant in the Vale do Ribeira. [From the Comissão da Verdade do Estado de São Paulo.]
One of the escapees was Yoshitane Fujimori, who returned to São Paulo to continue organizing. In December 1970, he and fellow guerrilheiro Edson Quaresma were spotted by DOI-CODI operatives and gunned down as they tried to escape in Fujimori’s car. The documents I was looking at, it turned out, had been in the vehicle at the time of the killing. Among them were letters, records of internal debates, self-critical evaluations, and notes from strategy sessions; taken together, they offered an unvarnished look at a persecuted insurgent group’s attempts to counteract and overcome the devastating effects of widespread interrogatory torture.

Given this context, it is hardly surprising that the documents seized from Fujimori’s car paint torture, above all, as a threat — it was, a letter from April 1970 states, the regime’s “most efficient weapon to combat us.” The Vale do Ribeira camp fell, the group understood, because of comrades who had talked under extreme physical duress. These militants had been unable to resist weeks of torture, the VPR concluded, because they had not managed to commit themselves sufficiently to the cause, to fully extinguish the internalized liberalism that led them to treason. Only “daily combat” against the individualistic enemy lurking within could constrain the torturers’ power.

Yet while torture was the dictatorship’s most effective weapon, it was also one that the VPR hoped to turn against the very regime employing it. The group’s most powerful tools for consciousness-building and recruitment, one leader wrote in November 1970, were agitation and propaganda, and nothing made for agitprop like direct accounts of torture. “For example,” the leader wrote, “an agitator could demonstrate at the entrance to a factory, speaking to hundreds of workers, denouncing the brutal repression in the [regime’s] treatment of political prisoners. This should be detailed, citing the most brutal concrete cases, such as the death under torture of a comrade they know.”

The reach of this anti-torture agitprop, the VPR believed, should not be limited to Brazil itself. Some “honest liberals” abroad had begun to investigate systematic torture by the regime, a practice that had deepened in the wake of the December 1968 “coup within a coup” that pushed the dictatorship far to the right. These liberal denunciations were a good sign, another writer posited in October 1970; the regime needed to be attacked on all fronts, and international denunciation of state repression was a promising one. Indeed, as early as June 1970, the VPR had written a report titled “Sequestro e Tortura” (Kidnapping and Torture), to lend further force to the growing wave of condemnation from abroad.

Two hours with these papers on a Friday afternoon were sufficient to convince me that if I wanted to understand what torture meant to the groups grappling with it most immediately, I would have to read more documents like the ones I had just seen. Fortunately, leads have a way of generating more leads, and painstaking work over subsequent months led me to dozens more documents addressing torture, from the VPR as well as several other insurgent groups. These documents include descriptions of organized campaigns to denounce torture at home and abroad, to prepare individual militants to resist it in detention, and to come to grips with its effects once released. They offer, in sum, a window onto understandings of torture that overlapped in certain ways, but differed in many other crucial ones, from those of the “honest liberals” who would soon come to dominate discussions of state violence in Latin America and beyond. All but absent from the academic literature until now, this is a perspective that only period documents can reconstruct — an operation now possible thanks to one of the most fortuitous mistakes to which I’ve ever been party.

The World According to DEOPS

I’ve spent the bulk of the past month in the archives of São Paulo’s political police, the Departamento Estadual de Ordem Política e Social (DEOPS, or the State Department of Political and Social Order), in operation from 1924 to 1983. The DEOPS files, transferred to the Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo in 1991, look quite like they did when DEOPS ceased to exist. The interrogation reports, confessions, memoranda, and other records are grouped by person/organization of interest and cross-indexed meticulously, though in ways that better suit the repression of “subversion” than, say, the documentation of torture by actors linked to the state.

The DEOPS record room [Photo from APESP]
In a future post, I’ll talk more about a particularly exciting subset of the documents I’ve come across — specifically, those produced internally by left-wing insurgent groups and apprehended in military-police raids. For now, however, I’ll just mention one special find from today: a 37-page classified “Dictionary of Terms, Expressions, Names, and Abbreviations Used by Terrorist Subversives,” prepared by DEOPS’ Specialized Delegation of Social Order in December 1973. (By this point in time, nine years into Brazil’s dictatorships and four years past its sharp repressive turn, most revolutionary groups had been thoroughly crushed.) Many of these dictionary entries stand out, often in ways that don’t require much elaboration. I’ll leave a few of them below, so that we can all jump briefly through the looking glass and into the world according to DEOPS.

“DICTATORSHIP – Communist slogan, used to attack a government that does not tolerate subversion” (p. 10)

“HUMAN RIGHTS – Slogan adopted in a campaign undertaken by elements of the subversive left, exclusively in favor of imprisoned comrades, with the aim of attracting, through compassion, the sympathy of the public” (p. 10)

“POLITICAL OPENING – Slogan of the left, with the aim of facilitating the subversive movement” (p. 2)

“TORTURERS – Expression utilized by subversives and by communists in general, to designate those who directly and indirectly effect or contribute to the imprisonment of terrorist subversives” (p. 33)

Fulbright-Hays Season

Instead of writing about history, today I’d like to share a few thoughts about those terrible, wonderful things that enable the writing of history: fellowships and grants. Or one of them, at least: the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad program, for which applications are due March 14 (or earlier on some campuses — do check!). The DDRA, which funds six to twelve months of area-studies research abroad, is one of the stranger grants out there. It relies on year-to-year approval from Congress, wreaking havoc on the standard application timeline (and making it particularly vulnerable to Trump and the Congressional GOP). The process is demanding and byzantine, with a seemingly interminable list of requirements and an online interface that is cumbersome at best. But at the same time, the evaluation procedure is unusually transparent, and it works differently from many other grants, in ways that may prove particularly advantageous to some. So in this spirit of transparency, I’d like to share a few thoughts derived from my own DDRA experience, in the hope that they can be of use to other applicants.

The Fulbright-Hays DDRA, I should say off the bat, is the grant that is currently supporting me here in Brazil (where I arrived two weeks ago), and which will be taking me to Argentina in August. This fortunate turn of events very nearly wasn’t to be, however; I almost didn’t apply at all. Indeed, last year’s early May deadline found me at the lowest point of my doctoral experience. The infinite time-sump of grant season had, to that point, yielded only stress and disappointment. The DDRA seemed an even less likely prospect than the various funders who had already rejected my proposals. The application guidelines, after all, state that “awards are not made to applicants planning to conduct research on topics that are determined to be politically sensitive… by the U.S. Embassy or Fulbright Commission in the host country.” A history of systematic state torture in which neither the U.S. nor the host countries end up looking very good, struck me as the essence of political sensitivity — a suspicion that only seemed to be confirmed through communication with the program’s director. With life-eating Orals just weeks away, late April seemed a particularly improvident time to be chasing waterfalls.

Fortunately, though, my advisors urged me to apply anyway. Armed with advice from past DDRA fellows Rachel Grace Newman and Jennifer Adair, I decided to take the plunge — and wow am I glad that I did. Not only was my project not disqualified, but in the end it benefitted tremendously from the DDRA’s uncommon evaluation system.

How so, you ask? Most other funders make awards by committee; in other words, a group of scholars meets to decide collectively who among the finalists will receive a grant. But the Fulbright-Hays works differently. According to the DDRA system, independent evaluators award a total of up to 100 points across ten predetermined categories, six of which concern the project proposal itself, and four, the qualifications of the applicant. Projects that utilize one of 78 “priority languages” (Portuguese is one) are given three bonus points; those in certain preferred academic fields (history, unsurprisingly, not among them) get two more. The scores are summed, and awards are made.

Why might this system benefit some projects more than others? Allow me to extrapolate from my own experience. Last year I noticed a pattern in the reviewer feedback I received from unsuccessful grant applications: it tended to be quite polarized. Generally, one reviewer in particular would express serious reservations about my project (perhaps a grant-world variation of the dreaded Reviewer 2?) This was true for my DDRA evaluations as well; one reader awarded me all possible points, while another gave me a score that I suspect was at the far lower end of those earned by grant recipients. I am only speculating here, but it’s my hunch that committees are less likely to award grants to proposals with fervent detractors, even if they also have strong support. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine, then, that the DDRA’s distinctive evaluation structure worked to my advantage — and could similarly favor others pursuing research on divisive topics. If you’re with me in this boat, then, I’d super-duper encourage you to apply.

The DDRA’s unusual point system also carries another advantage: it allows you to structure your application explicitly around the rubric that evaluators will use. (This document, called the “Technical Review Form,” is available to applicants through the G5 portal; I’ve embedded last year’s at the bottom of this post.) It’s always a good idea to tailor grant applications to funders’ interests, of course; but having such a clear readers’ view enables an unusually snug fit. At past fellows’ urging, I built my narrative statement in direct response to the enumerated criteria, going in sequential order to ensure that reviewers would never have to search for the information relevant to each point. This may seem obvious, but it’s something I would not have done quite so explicitly had past fellows not insisted. So to all potential DDRA applicants out there, let me add my voice to the chorus: may your narrative, and the technical review form, be as one.

Applying for grants is one of the least pleasant aspects of graduate school. Indeed, for me at least, the quest for research funds has been by far the single greatest source of stress in my nascent academic career. And this is to say nothing of the socioeconomic exclusions that the system only serves to reinforce. Let’s do what we can to ameliorate this situation by speaking openly about our challenges and by sharing as broadly as possible the insights that our fortuities afford.



One of the main reasons I am excited to think transnationally about torture and intelligence acquisition in southern South America from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, is the opportunity it affords to move beyond the common (if commonly unstated) assumption that coups and democratic transitions are the most important drivers of political change in the region. The gap between dictatorship and democracy matters, of course, but I believe that it is not wide enough, on its own, to accommodate the new counterinsurgent ideologies and repressive techniques that so deeply marked the late twentieth-century Southern Cone.

This may seem like a strange way to introduce a blog post titled “1976.” It was in March of that year, after all, that the Argentine military seized political power in a long-anticipated coup, vastly accelerating a campaign of quasi-secret kidnapping, torture, and disappearance that was to claim more lives than any other in the region. What could a focus on this already-seminal year contribute to a transnational reevaluation of typical dictatorship-bounded periodizations?

Quite a bit, I believe. I have spent the past week examining the records of Uruguay’s 1985-86 parliamentary investigation into the killings of two prominent former legislators, Zelmar Michelini and Hector Gutiérrez Ruiz, in Buenos Aires in May 1976. The two lawmakers had fled Uruguay after the country’s 1973 coup, following a well-beaten path of exile to the Argentine capital. Amid a rising wave of political violence in Argentina, the two worked to denounce the increasingly open repression of their home country. Michelini in particular established close ties to international human rights groups while also becoming a fixture of the “Tortoni circle” that turned an iconic Buenos Aires café into the de facto capitol of free Uruguay.

Michelini (left) and Gutiérrez Ruiz

On May 18, 1976, however, the two were kidnapped by an Uruguayan commando team with extensive Argentine support. Three days later, their bodies were discovered, along with those of Tupamaro militants Rosario del Carmen Barredo and William Whitelaw, abandoned in the trunk of a car in an industrial stretch of Buenos Aires. All four had been shot in the head.

Michelini and Gutiérrez Ruiz represent a tiny subset of those killed by repressive Southern Cone states in 1976. Yet two documents from among the thousands of pages compiled by the 1985-86 parliamentary inquiry help us understand the implications of their murders. The first is a transcription of the testimony that Wilson Ferreira Aldunate gave before the investigative commission in June 1985. A member of Uruguay’s traditionally conservative National Party, Ferreira fled in 1973 to Buenos Aires, where he established himself as one of the harshest critics of Uruguayan military rule. While Michelini had been a senator of the opposing Colorado Party, he and Ferreira grew close through their shared criticisms of the dictatorship.

Michelini’s killing, Ferreira explained to the commission in 1985, came as a terrifying shock. It had long been clear that Michelini was in significant danger; since 1972 Michelini’s daughter Elisa had been in the custody of the Uruguayan authorities, and his own passport had been cancelled in late 1975.1 Michelini himself had even begun to speak publicly about what he feared the Uruguayan military might do to silence his criticisms.

Nonetheless, when they first learned that Michelini and Gutiérrez Ruiz had been kidnapped, the reaction of Ferreira and fellow members of the Tortoni circle was one of

“…protest at the discourtesy, because we supposed that they would be liberated that night. So it seemed outrageous, this lack of respect for two illustrious citizens to whom Argentina had granted refuge. Nobody imagined that they could be killed. It was so monstrous that it didn’t cross anybody’s mind…. When Zelmar said that if he turned up in Montevideo we should know it wasn’t his choice, it was because he – unlike the rest of us – understood that he could be so monstrously killed.”

Ferreira’s testimony reveals something that Michelini, alone among the Tortoni circle, had come to understand: the rules of engagement were changing in the Southern Cone. Before May 1976, Ferreira had presumed that only those linked to armed insurgency were at risk of death, and that exile in one country of the region meant a degree of protection from repression by another. But Michelini, though his collaboration with the region’s emerging human rights network, understood that these rules no longer applied. Just a few months before, in late November 1975, representatives of the region’s security services had gathered in Santiago, Chile to constitute the transnational Condor system, which used shared intelligence and joint death-squad operations to take out regime opponents across and beyond South America. The architects of Condor made clear that their targets included not only armed insurgents but also the critics who used emerging transnational human rights networks to draw attention to regime crimes. Nonviolent opponents of the national security state were learning to use the growing international prominence of individual human rights to their advantage, for instance by making South American abuses a key focus of a young Amnesty International’s first issue-specific campaign, which targeted torture worldwide. Indeed, as the Condor founders were meeting in late 1975, Amnesty was drawing on information provided by Michelini and other dissidents to launch a year-long attack on torture in Uruguay, the first country-specific effort of such focused intensity in the group’s history.

These international denunciations were clearly on the minds of the Uruguayan operatives who took out Gutiérrez Ruiz and Michelini. How do we know this? Because in addition to the four victims whose bodies were discovered in Buenos Aires on May 21, 1976, two others were kidnapped in linked operations the day before: banker José Luis Azarola Saint and his brother Juan Ignacio. José Luis, who lived in Montevideo, was a friend of Michelini’s; Juan Ignacio was not, but he, like Michelini, was living in Buenos Aires. The two brothers had the misfortune of appearing in Michelini’s address book – enough to mark them for simultaneous kidnapping, on opposite sides of the River Plate.

In testimony before the parliamentary commission of 1985, José Luis Azarola Saint explained that when a heavily armed commando unit burst into his Montevideo home, tearing it apart in a frantic search for incriminating items, they sought two things above all others: guns and “Amnesty International documents.” As his subsequent interrogation unfolded, it became clear that Azarola’s supposed ties to human rights groups were his tormentors’ central preoccupation. “They asked me if I knew anything about torture, about the submarine [asphyxiation, often in wastewater] or picanas [electric cattle prods], if I knew they were applied in Libertad [a famous Uruguayan prison] or anywhere else.” Both he and his brother managed to convince their captors that they did not. After 48 hours of beatings, stress positions, and long interrogations, the two were threatened with death should they tell anyone what had happened to them, and released.

Azarola’s testimony suggests that the crime for which Michelini and Gutiérrez Ruiz were responsible was not a manufactured link to armed “subversion”; it was a willingness to denounce the systematic tortures that the Uruguayan dictatorship was employing against its adversaries of all sorts. By 1976, the repressive regimes of Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay had achieved near total military success against their guerrilla opponents; now it was the nonviolent critics of their tactics who would come into the crosshairs. Born at this moment of counterinsurgent advance and mounting anti-torture criticism, the Argentine regime would take its violence even further than its neighbors. With testimonio in global ascendance, Argentina’s generals forewent execution and imprisonment in favor of a strategy that would leave no witnesses at all, one of a piece with Condor’s transnational death squads: extermination.

* * *

The CIA Channels its Inner Authoritarian

On Monday, the US Director of National Intelligence delivered the second of at least three tranches of newly declassified government documents concerning Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship. This latest batch seemed to hold greater promise than the first, as its contents are drawn largely from the briefings, memos, and reports prepared for three presidents (and one unusually powerful vice president) by the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence organs. Despite scattered sensationalistic claims in the press, the documents do not appear to include any true bombshells. Indeed, the closest that they come to shocking is their confirmation, reported by the National Security Archive yesterday, that the CIA knew of attempts by agents of the six-country Operation Condor network to assassinate targets in Europe, possibly including human rights activists. (Scholars and journalists have already documented these efforts, though we have never seen such clear proof that the CIA itself knew about them.)

What these documents lack in explosive power, however, they make up for in granularity, illuminating in remarkable detail one aspect of the “intelligence community” (IC) that has received far too little attention: its relationship to the presidency. Then as now, the briefing materials that the CIA and other agencies prepare for the president are key shapers of (sadly still just) his worldview. This dynamic is particularly salient at present, with the incoming president refusing to receive Presidential Daily Briefs and the CIA using charges of Russian election interference to all but openly declare its opposition to Trump. So let’s dig in and take a close look at one particularly interesting document from the tranche: a November 1978 CIA assessment of Southern Cone perceptions of Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy in the region, which in this case includes Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay — five countries led at the time by extraordinarily repressive right-wing authoritarian regimes.

First, though, some background. When it comes to relationships with the IC, Carter is to my mind the most interesting of recent presidents. He came into office having decided, at the tail end of his presidential campaign, to overhaul the United States’ relationship to the world — and its own Vietnam War-bruised self-image — by making human rights the center of US foreign policy. This proved to be a tremendous challenge. While a slice of the State Department, led by Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Patricia Derian, worked to execute Carter’s promised turn, they met fierce resistance from a foreign relations and security establishment willing to brook little deviance from the “pragmatic” Kissingerian approach of the past. And future, of course — the establishment largely won in the end. Nonetheless, for a few years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Derian and a band of sympathetic Congressional Democrats did manage to make human rights an issue central to the US’ relationship with the Southern Cone — and, in turn, to the president’s relationship with the IC.

It was within this context that the CIA presented Carter with its November 1978 analysis of Southern Cone reactions to the US emphasis on human rights. Readable in its entirety at the bottom of this post, the memo reveals the subtlety of CIA manipulation at work. Take, for example, the summary that opens the document:

The Southern Cone governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay have a somewhat cynical view of US policies toward Latin America. The perspective is shaped by the conviction that Washington’s preoccupation since the mid 1960s with other parts of the world has left the US out of touch with Latin American realities. They view US policy toward their region as inconsistent, incoherent, and unreasonably punitive. There is a strong feeling that in the broader arena the US has been outmaneuvered by the Soviets and is losing its ability to lead the West.

By tying US economic and especially military aid to improvements in civil liberties and detainee treatment, Carter and his allies have fallen “out of touch” with the “realities” of the region — in other words, with the view, long championed by the CIA and by the security establishment at large, that Latin America was at risk of falling into Soviet hands, a risk that only strong (and bloody) leadership could mitigate. The risks are so great that in the next two sentences the report’s authors go right for the jugular, labeling Carter’s policies not only “inconsistent” and “incoherent,” but indicative of a broader failure of the US to keep the USSR in line and effectively “lead the West.”

But wait, you might object, isn’t the CIA simply relaying the perceptions of others? Indeed — and therein lies the very brilliance of the report. By channeling the voices of their stated subjects (the title promises an approximation of “Southern Cone perceptions,” after all), the memo’s authors can deliver a damning critique of U.S. foreign policy without appearing insubordinate, and thereby maximize their chances of countering opponents like Derian.

Nonetheless, the authors’ voice slips through at times – though they can be hard to spot, given how little they depart from the regimes’ own perspectives. For instance, in discussing an upcoming UN vote concerning Chile, the memo’s authors explain that “the Chileans will be interested in the US vote on the UN Human Rights Committee’s attempt to provide funds to ‘victims’ of Chilean human rights violations.” The word “victims” surrounded by quotation marks stands out as an inadvertent revelation, suggesting the authors’ skepticism as to the status of these individuals, then denounced as terrorists by regime sympathizers.

The authors then turn to broader Chilean frustrations with the US, noting that Chile’s leaders

…believe that there is a small coterie in Washington that is actively working to undermine the Pinochet regime. They find it incomprehensible that the US does not realize that the stringent government controls in Chile were a necessary course of action after the overthrow of the Marxist Allende regime.

By “stringent government controls,” the authors mean, of course, the extrajudicial execution of some 3,000 and the torture of many thousands more.

Such abuses, however, are never enumerated in the report. Instead, the authors include list after eulogistic list of the many human rights improvements made by these regimes in recent years. These improvements are the only exception to the otherwise unfailingly negative tone of the memo. Indeed, while Southern Cone states are clearly upset about Carter’s approach to diplomacy,

This does not mean that US human rights policy has had a completely negative impact on the area. On the contrary, police and military officials in these countries are now sensitized to human rights considerations. Every chief of state in the area claims to have made clear to his subordinates that torture and arbitrary arrest will no longer be tolerated. All of these countries have shown general improvement during the past year in their treatment of prisoners.

The CIA has eyes and ears across the continent; while it can report honesty that every regional leader now “claims” to have told police and military officials to stop torturing, it cannot possibly have believed that these statements carried the weight of truth. Yet rather than question these purported advances, the authors find an altogether distinct concern to raise. Southern Cone governments feel, they explain, that “these improvements go unacknowledged by Washington, and moreover, the torrent of criticism, adversary treatment, and antagonistic US legislation has continued.” The implication is clear; Congressional Democrats and the White House need to reward “these improvements” by loosening human rights-based restrictions and drawing valuable allies closer to the US.

The worldview undergirding this implication comes most clearly into focus in the report’s most fascinating section, “Public Views of US Policies.” While conceding the difficulty of getting an accurate view of public sentiment in the Southern Cone, the authors nonetheless claim that “most citizens seem to support the military governments; the rest are either unconcerned with politics or belong to a declared opposition.”“Judging from newspaper commentary and personal conversations,” moreover, “US human rights policy has had little impact on the general populace.”

This characterization of public sentiments may indeed by correct; what little research has been done on the question suggests that the region’s dictatorships did indeed enjoy substantial popular backing, especially from the middle and upper classes. Yet the CIA memo includes no discussion of the factors that could have contributed to such sentiments, questions of great relevance to US policymaking. Southern Cone dictatorships worked hard to exaggerate the threat posed by armed insurgents already decimated by repression, limit access to information concerning abuses, and terrify those who might think to step out of line and publicly criticize the regime. Those who dared to do so nonetheless receive no credit in the CIA’s discussion of “public views”; instead, they are cast uniformly — and suspiciously — as members of the “declared opposition.” Indeed, the authors continue, “some political groups that have long opposed the various governments and other groups representing civil and human rights causes have used the policy to air their own specific grievances. Liberal clergy have also cited the policy as being similar to their own programs.” If you’re familiar with the CIA of the 1970s, you’ll know that dissent is only celebrated east of the Iron Curtain, and “liberal clergy” is a phrase never uttered admiringly. The implicit criticism of these characterizations is echoed later in the report, in the authors’ contention that Chile’s longstanding opposition political parties “view US human rights policy as made to order for their own campaign against the government.”

“Their own campaign,” “declared opposition” — these are phrases designed to emphasize that by failing to appreciate the complex political realities of the Southern Cone, Carter is playing the stooge, allowing the US to serve the interests of those who aren’t likely to put Washington’s needs front and center. Reading this sustained but ingeniously packages assault on the coherence and effectiveness of Carter’s human rights policy, I can’t help but wonder: when its authors note, toward the middle of the report, a “growing opinion in Brazil that the US has lost or is losing its resolve and even some of its capacity as a world power,” might they really have meant to say, in the CIA?

Southern Cone Perceptions

Medical Complicity in US State Torture

Last week, M. Gregg Bloche, a doctor and professor of law at Georgetown, published a compelling op-ed in the Times. Drawing on recently declassified government documents, Bloche shows that US doctors employed by the CIA played an active role in the design and implementation of state torture after September 11, 2001. With the president-elect still unsure about his preferred approach to interrogation — the leading possibilities range from “bring[ing] back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” to giving detainees “a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers” — the piece could hardly be more timely.

Sadly, the CIA’s torture doctors do not stand alone among medical professionals. We’ve known for years that psychologists on government contracts designed the torture program, and that doctors were present to regulate torture. Moreover, an American Psychological Association report released last year showed that individuals at the highest level of the profession (and the APA) worked to shield “enhanced interrogation” from criticism.

What is new in Bloche’s op-ed is the confirmation of doctors’ willingness to go above and beyond the practices ruled “legal” by the Bush Justice Department’s infamous torture memos. The premise is, on its face, absurd; international legal instruments from the Geneva Conventions to the Convention Against Torture leave no room for practices like simulated drowning and sleep deprivation. Yet the Justice Department did claim that these practices were allowed. Nonetheless, Bloche’s CIA doctors refused even this cellophane cover, pursuing waterboarding in such a way as to make it “more terrifying and dangerous than what government lawyers permitted.” (Indeed, these doctors turned the practice from a simulation of drowning into the real thing.)

Reading all of this left me frustrated and surprised, though not for the reasons one might expect. Yes, the Hippocratic Oath demands that doctors do no harm, but in each of the instances of systematic torture that I have studied, psychologists were critical to the development of “scientific” torture, and doctors helped to calibrate and respond to the deliberate infliction of pain in order to ensure maximal distress while keeping their victims alive. Likewise, US doctors may have exceeded the bounds of the officially approved torture program, but this too is a constitutive aspect of systematic torture. Indeed, any centrally planned apparatus of state repression presumes to operate within limits, yet in practice such “controls” never last long. Even the CIA has recognized as much. Its 1983 Human Resources Exploitation Training Manual, used across Latin America, included, along with instruction in “coercive interrogation,” this warning: “The routine use of torture lowers the moral caliber of the organization that uses it and corrupts those that rely on it.”

No, the real surprises in Bloche’s op-ed were altogether more depressing. The first isn’t news, but still worth underscoring: it is shocking that the Bush administration opted to bring so many outside experts, namely lawyers and psychologists, into its torture program. If the Justice Department and the APA hadn’t gotten involved, and CIA interrogators and doctors had been left to run it alone, I suspect we’d know as much about this latest round of “coercive interrogation” as we do about the prior half-century of US state torture. Whatever approach Trump ultimately alights on, I’m confident he won’t make this particular mistake.

The same cannot be said for the CIA’s doctors and other operatives, however. Since the first revelations, in the early 2000s, of US detainee treatment in Iraq, there has been no legal accountability for those implicated in the design and execution of torture. Indeed, few have even called for them to be tried. Violators of international law and the most elemental norms of decency, then, have suffered few adverse consequences beyond those imposed by their own consciences. This abandonment of accountability extends to Bloche’s op-ed as well, and in the process it demands a logical leap so large that it sails clear beyond the page. After spending sixteen paragraphs carefully outlining the horrific and (even under the loosest, torture-memo-iest interpretation of US law) illegal behavior of these doctors, Bloche concludes his piece with this call:

“An independent inquiry into what those physicians did and how they lost their ethical moorings is vital. So are clear lines between acceptable and improper use of medical expertise for national security purposes. The law of armed conflict sets standards for access to medical care for detainees, and clinical assessment is a potent tool for detecting abuse.

“Meanwhile, it’s urgent that American medicine sends a powerful, public message to President-elect Trump that there can be no place for medical participation in the engineering of cruelty, even in clandestine service to the nation. And it’s critical that C.I.A. and military doctors heed this message, even if they must defy orders to the contrary.”

Independent inquiries are all well and good, but how will we draw “clear lines” without acknowledging a cut-and-dry violation of the law? And how can we argue with a straight face that there “can be no place for medical participation in the engineering of cruelty,” when Bloche has just devoted 800 words to demonstrating the opposite?

In a remarkable twist of fate, the very day after reading Bloche’s piece in the Times, I came across this news clipping at Chile’s Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos:

Version 2

It’s a special October 1986 issue of the Chilean newspaper La Hora, about torture in Uruguay. The headline reads, “The Complicity of Military Doctors in Torture was Systematic and Extensive.” It’s a translation of an article published earlier that year in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association by — wait for it — M. Gregg Bloche! After reviewing the evidence for medical participation in widespread state torture under Uruguay’s 1973-1985 dictatorship, Bloche 1986 concludes by reflecting on the individual responsibilities of physicians to denounce torture, and by endorsing efforts by Uruguay’s then-president and its medical community to cast those responsible out of the profession. It’s a far cry from full legal accountability, but it’s much more than Bloche 2016 is calling for here in the US, today.

Reading Bloche 1986 tempts me to invert one of Bloche 2016’s more striking phrases. If history teaches us anything hopeful about the relationship of medicine to torture, it is not that there can be no medical participation in the engineering of cruelty. Instead, it’s that there can be no engineering of cruelty without medical participation. So let’s revoke some medical licenses — or better still, let’s put some doctors in jail.

December 1978: Uruguayan Torturers Commemorate Human Rights Month

Researching torture and counterinsurgency produces plenty of through-the-looking-glass moments, but this morning has yielded one striking enough to warrant a quick report. In the 1970s, during Uruguay’s civil-military dictatorship, the country’s authorities found themselves inundated with requests for information concerning the thousands of detainees being held by the executive under the arbitrary authority granted by the country’s ongoing “state of internal war.” To streamline its responses to these requests, the state created a pair of offices named in Newspeak: the Oficina de Información de Personas (haven’t yet figured out how to render reasonably in English, but you get the idea), and the Comisión de Respeto de los Derechos Individuales, or Commission for the Respect of Individual Rights.  The latter of these two released periodic reports containing information about particular detainees, in a demonstration of the regime’s commitment to the vigorous protection of their “individual rights.” “How remarkably discordant,” you might be saying to yourself — but wait! Check out the header on this report, issued in December 1978*:


That’s right — it’s December 1978, time for the propaganda arm of a regime responsible for the torture of thousands to commemorate the Month of the 30th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights! If 1968 was the International Year for Human Rights, it seems, then 1978 was the International Year for the Appropriation of Human Rights in Defense of Violent Dictatorship. (C.f. Argentina’s “Los argentinos somos derechos y humanos” campaign of that same year.)

While efforts like these may seem absurd to the point of parody, to my mind they offer two striking reminders of the ambiguity of “human rights” as the concept moved forcefully onto the global stage. First, international human rights advocacy was undoubtedly changing the rules of the game for state repression, prompting behavioral modifications by violent dictatorships like those of Uruguay and Argentina. But these changes were not always for the better, as illustrated by ramped-up information control in both countries, and by Argentina’s newfound preference for extermination over detention. Second, in the late 1970s, it was still far from clear what the emergent global human rights regime would look like. Anti-communist dictatorships like Uruguay’s genuinely believed themselves to be the true defenders of fundamental individual rights against the murderous totalitarianism of the left, and they made every effort to wrest the human rights mantle from their enemies.

The rise of international human rights, at least in South America’s Southern Cone, doesn’t reflect a new alternative to political struggle. Instead, it demands a nuanced look at the retrospectively strange, even mind-boggling, forms that political violence, and its justification, came to assume in the era of counterinsurgency and human rights.

[*The report is taken from the Universidad de la República’s remarkable 2008 Investigación histórica sobre la dictadura y el terrorismo de estado en el Uruguay, available here.]