Time for a U.S. Truth Commission

by Robert Parry

from The Consortium magazine, February 17, 1997


There is a cynical old saying that the victors write the history. For those of us brought up on Westerns which made the Indians the aggressors and the U.S. cavalry the peacekeepers, we know there's something to that. But it is perhaps one of the cruelest ironies of the long Cold War that it is the American people -- the supposed victors -- who are seeing their own history sanitized and miswritten.

Even as the archives of ex-Communist nations are opened, even as truth commissions wring the painful reality out of ex-rightist regimes, the American people are the ones most thoroughly kept in the dark about the unsavory secrets of the past half century. When bits and pieces of that history do leak out or are forced out by diligent journalists, the stories often are constructed narrowly, denied by the government or attacked by major media outlets. The larger picture is never brought into focus.

It is as if the final price for winning the Cold War is our confinement to a permanent childhood where reassuring fantasies and endless diversions protect us from the hard truth of our own recent history.

This American historical juvenility is in marked contrast to other countries which are coming to grips with horrible historical events. In January, for instance, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission announced that ex-policemen had confessed to the torture-murder of black activist Steve Biko in 1977 and a wide range of other brutal apartheid-related crimes.

In Argentina, human rights activists continue to press for the identification of hundreds of children who were stolen from women "disappeared" by the military's Dirty War in the mid-to-late 1970s. Sometimes, the babies were literally ripped from the women's wombs by Cesarean sections before the mothers were sent to their deaths, along with as many as 30,000 other victims.

But the U.S. government continues to conceal its complicity in these crimes, as well as its role in the decades long orgy of murder, torture and rape against hundreds of thousands of civilians who perished in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration even supported the Argentine military as it trained the Nicaraguan contra rebels in Honduras.

Over the past year, however, evidence has dribbled out that the CIA and the Pentagon contributed directly to these and other human rights violations. In January, The Baltimore Sun discovered a 1983 CIA manual that taught psychological torture techniques to five Latin American security forces. "While we do not stress the use of coercive techniques, we want to make you aware of them and the proper way to use them," the manual coyly advised.

Yet, in the major U.S. media, the CIA's torture manual did not rate as front-page news. The Washington Post stuck its pick-up of the story on A9 and the New York Times ran its version on Al l. Both newspapers played up the fact, too, that the CIA had revised the manual in 1985 to discourage use of these "coercive techniques," although the methods were still described, including how to induce "physical weakness" by subjecting the victim to extremes of heat and cold and deprivation of food and sleep.

But the manual was only watered down in 1985 be cause of a controversy that erupted in October 1984 around stories that I wrote for The Associated Press on the CIA's so-called "assassination" manual for the contras. That "psychological operations" manual advocated "selective use of violence" to "neutralize" civilian opponents and arranging other deaths for political advantage.

The Baltimore Sun's new torture disclosures also follow the Pentagon's admission last year that the U.S. Army's School of the Americas used manuals that advocated torture, murder and coercion. Those Pentagon manuals were prepared in 1982 for training of Latin American officers at the school which has graduated some of the Hemisphere's worst human rights abusers, including El Salvador's "death squad" commander Roberto D'Aubuisson and Panama's Manuel Noriega. Clearly, these manuals were not isolated incidents, or simple "mistakes."

Indeed, the evidence points to conscious U.S. complicity in widespread human rights violations. Yet not a single U.S. official has been held to account for involving the United States in these serious offenses against humanity.

Ronald Reagan remains a Republican political icon, whose name will be affixed to a major new trade building in Washington. Yet, even before his election, Reagan was defending the Argentine military and minimizing its bloody reign. He declared in one radio commentary that President Carter's human rights coordinator, Patricia Derian, "should walk a mile in the moccasins" of Argentina's generals before criticizing them.

Once in office, Reagan dispatched senior advisers to coordinate strategies with the Argentine dictators and South Africa's apartheid regime. He sent millions of dollars in weapons to the armies of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras despite their wanton slaughter of civilians.

When the CIA-contra "assassination" manual surfaced in 1984, he dismissed it as "much ado about nothing."

Still, while the Reagan administration might have been particularly grievous, many of its predecessors share in the blame, too.

Currently, the African-American community is pressing for a thorough investigation into cocaine trafficking by the CIA-backed contras. Without doubt, U.S. officials implicated in the drug trade deserve punishment.

But in our view, the problem is even worse than that. What we see is a long-term pattern of collaboration with -- and cover-up of -- crimes that stagger the human imagination and shame the nation. Perhaps, the time has come for the United States to have its own truth commission, a body of citizens who will piece together the real historical record of the past half century.

Then, maybe, the Cold War's victors will finally get to write the history.

The Consortium is an independent investigative magazine published biweekly.

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