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50 years ago, I stopped a torture event in Vietnam. Gina Haspel could've spoken up, too.  5 Days ago

Source:   USA Today  

I was a 26-year-old, brand-new foreign service officer on my first tour abroad when I had to make a decision about confronting torture. 

Following the congressional hearings last week about Gina Haspel's nomination to be the new director of CIA, which focused on the use of harsh interrogation techniques, like water boarding, took me back 50 years to when I was serving as a district senior advisor in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, as part of the U.S. military-civilian integrated advisory program known as MAC-V.

It was unusual for a civilian State Department officer like me to be heading a 10-man military advisory team comprised entirely of U.S. Army personnel, but Vietnam was an unusual war in many respects. The CIA-run Phoenix program in Vietnam had become controversial during the war for the extreme interrogation methods reportedly used. By the time I had arrived, it had been turned over completely to the South Vietnamese government. "Exploitation" of enemy insurgents was to be carried out by Vietnamese police or military intelligence personnel.

I had heard the stories about the use of electric shock on the genitals and also a perverse early form of water boarding, using filthy water from canals in Saigon or large cities, but such situations had not occurred in the remote rural area where my team was located. This all changed when the local South Vietnamese military unit that we advised captured a highly placed Viet Cong undercover agent — a woman.

She had been brought to the district intelligence center in a remote part of the military compound from which we operated. A young U.S. Army officer on my staff, who had the assignment of working with the Vietnamese intelligence officers, was present when she was brought in and the questioning began.

The South Vietnamese had told my officer that they were certain she had a great deal of information about Viet Cong military plans and operations, which could be of significant help in protecting their military units and preventing significant friendly losses. 

After the woman had been questioned at the center for several hours, the South Vietnamese officer in charge asked my advisor to leave. His interpreter had whispered to him that it was because they now intended to torture the woman, who had resisted answering questions. Perhaps following high-level directives, they did not want to do that with Americans present.

The officer had rushed back to our adjacent compound where he quickly filled me in on what had transpired. I was confronted with the need to make a decision about what to do.

In such a situation, an unexpected calculus can come into play, one born on the battlefield. As I learned while taking part in numerous military operations, the bond that develops in combat between you and your comrades was the most important relationship you had. If torturing an adversary could produce information that would keep your brother combatants safe, would you not be justified in using that method? Didn't that end justify those means?

That was the calculation that raced through my mind in that remote enclave as I faced the decision about whether I would intervene to stop the torture. 

Even though it was on a huge scale, I believe that this was likely the same reasoning that went through the minds of senior U.S. government officials, White House lawyers and CIA officers in 2001. Still struggling with the shock of the 9/11 attacks and feeling the high national imperative of protecting their fellow citizens, they authorized and implemented “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as water boarding.

Didn't they owe it to the American people to use any means possible to ensure that no further terrorist attacks might occur? Wasn't water boarding permitted because of the overriding national need? Didn't terrorism justify whatever method would be most effective to extract information, even though we would most certainly react in outrage if such heinous techniques were ever used against Americans?  

Back in Vietnam, one option I had was to just do nothing and let the torture go forward. In previous conversations, my civilian supervisor had privately said the best approach might be to not become involved and just allow the Vietnamese to decide how they would treat their fellow citizens. I had a way out. I could just say I was following orders. 

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But standing there in this makeshift, sandbagged military compound, 12,000 miles from home, the lessons I had absorbed growing up in Iowa and learning what it meant to be an American impelled me in a different direction. I could not turn my back. I could not let torture go forward. My course of action was clear. 

I raced to confront the Vietnamese commanding officer with my demand that torture not be used, adding that I would report him to the highest levels of his government if it were. Taken aback by my blunt message and threat, he assured me that the torture would not take place. I commended him for his decision, but guided by the principle of trust but verify, I sent my officer back to the intelligence center with instructions to force his way in to ensure that no methods involving torture were used. 

I felt that I had done the right thing. I still recall what one of my officers said at the time, and which still makes me resonate with enormous pride: “We’re Americans. We don’t torture people.” 



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