Counterterror Wars and Human Rights: From Operation Condor to the Present

J. Patrice McSherry

In spring 2009 explosive new documentation appeared of the George W. Bush administration’s authorization of harsh and degrading methods in the “war on terror,” including a leaked Red Cross report, Senate investigation findings, and newly declassified Justice Department memos. The New York Times called the memos, which sanctioned one extreme, coldly applied “enhanced interrogation” method after another, “the torturers’ manifesto.” While some U.S. critics may have assumed that these practices began under Bush, the revelations left many Latin Americans and those who know the region with a sense of reliving the horrors of the past. Many of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques—in plain words, torture—used in Guantánamo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so-called CIA black sites were identical to those used in Latin America’s “dirty wars”: near drowning (submarino), forced standing (plantón), confinement in boxes, forced nudity, sexual violence, hanging in contorted positions, and others. Also disturbingly familiar was the use of disappearance, “rendition” to other countries, and extrajudicial execution. In 2005 then CIA director Porter Goss defended “waterboarding” as “a professional interrogation technique,” implicitly reflecting the centrality of brutal methods to counterterror practice. We now know that two detainees were subjected to this form of torture 266 times—although one was acknowledged to have no more information to give. Such methods, and operations like rendition, were not aberrations but were, and are, components of classified U.S. “counterterror” doctrine in place for some 50 years. They can be traced from the early Cold War (when U.S. trainers drew on Chinese and Soviet methods) to CIA and School of the Americas manuals of the 1960s, to Operation Condor in the 1970s, to the Central American dirty wars of the 1980s, to recent covert organizations like Task Force 121, deployed by the Bush administration in the Middle East. Such “counterterror” operations escape democratic control and oversight and pose grave risks to human rights worldwide—and to U.S. democracy. Some of the Bush administration’s cross-border operations called to mind Operation Condor, a transnational confederation of multinational “hunter-killer” squads, organized and integrated by six to eight South American military regimes in the 1970s with substantial backing from Washington. Operation (or Plan) Condor used unconventional warfare methods to pursue persons who fled their own countries after military coups to find safe haven elsewhere. Some of Condor’s targets were insurgents, but many were activists, dissidents, and leaders who opposed military rule—including unionists, professors, legislators, party officials, and former presidents. Most were abducted, extra-legally transferred to their home countries, tortured, and killed; some prominent figures were assassinated. U.S. declassified documents of the time indicated that U.S. officials considered Condor a legitimate “counterterror” or “counterinsurgent” organization in the fight against so-called subversives in Latin America. For example, one 1976 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report entitled “Special Operations Forces” discussed Condor at length, describing its “joint counterinsurgency operations” to “eliminate Marxist terrorist activities.” The memo noted that a Condor assassination unit was “structured much like a U.S. Special Forces Team.” What are special operations? M. Tugwell and D. Charters, in a chapter of the 1984 National Defense University book Special Operations in US Strategy, called them “[s]mall scale, clandestine, covert or overt operations of an unorthodox and frequently high-risk nature, undertaken to achieve significant political or military objectives in support of foreign policy.” An Australian military officer, in a 2005 article for the Land Warfare Studies Centre, noted that special operations forces specialize in “preemptive action and offensive counterterrorism.” What is “counterterrorism”? Essentially it is the use, by military or covert intelligence operatives, of “terror to fight terror.” That is, the use of extralegal and ruthless tactics in secret operations, carried out by clandestine elite forces, to neutralize enemies—and terrorize large populations. The strategy of counterterror was adopted by the U.S. Special Forces and the CIA in the context of the Cold War and the perceived threat of Communism and revolution, especially in the developing world. Washington feared “another Cuba” in Latin America and interpreted social mobilization and protest as signs of Communist agitation. According to analyst Michael McClintock, a classified U.S. Army Special Forces manual of December 1960, Counter-Insurgency Operations, was one of the earliest to mention explicitly, in its section “Terror Operations,” the use of counterinsurgent terror as a legitimate tactic. He cites many other secret U.S. Army special operations handbooks from the 1960s that endorsed “counterterror,” including assassination, sabotage, subversion, and abduction, in certain situations. U.S. Mobile Training Teams and School of the Americas instructors taught such tactics to militaries throughout the region. McClintock wrote in his 1992 book Instruments of Statecraft: “By 1960, U.S. army Special Forces doctrine had already begun to crudely adapt unconventional warfare doctrine to counterinsurgency; in the decade to come, a more sophisticated rationale for counterinsurgent terror emerged. No longer confined to the shadowy world of the CIA and covert Green Beret operations, a hygienic concept of counterterror—terror to fight terror—emerged in the service magazines, in a rash of books on counterinsurgency, and in the training materials of the mainstream military.” In a 1976 paper, cited by McClintock, on 1960s-era Guatemalan army campaigns that killed thousands of peasants, counterterrorism experts Brian Jenkins and Caesar Sereseres noted that “the objective of the ‘counterterror’ was to frighten everyone from collaborating with the guerrilla movement.” In short, counterterror is in part a preventive, or preemptive, strategy that targets broad civilian publics. Counterterror doctrine—which was, and still is, largely classified—specifies the formation of clandestine “special action” squadrons to use abduction, subversion, and assassination in covert operations. Such squadrons often became death squads in Latin America during the Cold War, and these forms of organization and tactics also characterized Condor. Many declassified U.S. documents suggest that Condor was a top-secret component of U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaigns. There were many links between the CIA and the Pentagon and Condor, and political support was also provided to the military dictatorships of the 1970s by both the Nixon and Ford administrations. * Evidence of direct connections between U.S. doctrine, training, and advising and the adoption and use of counter-terror methods during Latin America’s anti-Communist wars continues to surface. In July, for example, a graphic Argentine military training manual of 1968, Operaciones sicológicas, was submitted to a judge presiding over the trial of an accused Condor commander. The manual described three categories of psychological operations (psyops or psywar) methods: natural, technical, and hidden or secret. The third category included “physical compulsion: third degree tortures.” Under the subcategory “psychic compulsion” were listed threats, abductions, terrorism, sabotage, and drugs, among other methods of psyops. Human rights advocates and lawyers commented to reporters that they had never seen such an explicit Argentine manual. Retired colonel Horacio Ballester, president of the Center of Military Men for Democracy, told the Argentine daily Página 12 that he thought it was a translation of a U.S. manual used in the School of the Americas at the time. “In the School of the Americas they taught directly how to break the will of an opponent with torture. These methods are in writing,” he added. The U.S. Army had coined the term psychological operations in its 1962 Field Manual 33-5 of the same name, although they were employed in World War II in a top-secret capacity. As the Latin American militaries reorganized to fight “internal enemies” in the 1960s and 1970s, they, together with U.S. advisers, created elite units modeled on Special Forces teams (experts in covert operations, direct offensive action, and political-psychological operations). U.S. advice and support were instrumental in shaping these new intelligence and “hunter-killer” units, and some of them became the nucleus of Condor: the National Information Service (SNI) in Brazil, the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) in Chile, the National Directorate of Technical Matters (known as La Técnica) in Paraguay, the National Information and Intelligence Directorate (DNII) in Uruguay, and so on. These units became the main perpetrators of repression and illegal methods in the so-called dirty wars. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans were abducted, tortured and killed during the Cold War by military regimes that made little distinction between local revolutionary insurgents, unarmed political opponents, and their families and friends (of course, insurgents as well as non-combatants were entitled to lawful treatment). The counterinsurgency militaries rejected not only leftism, socialism, and Communism, but also liberal democracy and civil and political liberties in general, which they saw as opening the door to “subversion.” Many regimes used death squads and created other parallel structures to carry out lawless counterinsurgency and counterterror wars in the shadows. An onslaught of state-directed bloodshed and terror across most of Latin America ensued. In late 1973 or early 1974, the Latin American militaries—again with significant covert assistance from the U.S. government—created a new transnational organization that permitted the regimes to pursue and seize “subversives” who had escaped to other countries: Operation Condor. Condor was, in essence, a kidnap-torture-murder apparatus run by the dictatorships of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, with Peru and Ecuador in less central roles. Condor was not a rogue or ad hoc operation, but a modern, well-organized network with sophisticated equipment, intelligence planning and training, operations and communications centers, and a chain of command in each country. Condor operatives received specialized instruction. Clandestine detention and torture centers were established explicitly for Condor’s foreign prisoners, including one in Buenos Aires in an abandoned garage called Orletti Motors, which was equipped with torture devices and staffed by Uruguayan and Argentine military officers and former torturers of the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance, or Triple A, death squads of the Peronist years. One 1977 document from CIA headquarters called Condor “a cooperative arrangement among the military services of Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil to counter terrorism and subversion.” Another document, a top-secret CIA National Intelligence Daily (no. 168) of June 23, 1976, read: “In early 1974, security officials from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia met in Buenos Aires to prepare coordinated actions against subversive targets.” The bland language obscured the fact that these “coordinated actions” were the abduction and torture of exiles. Those reports and others demonstrated intimate CIA knowledge of Condor meetings and extralegal action plans. The coordinated operations of the continent’s militaries and intelligence agencies backed by U.S. security and intelligence assets made Condor lethally effective. Condor operated on three levels: mutual intelligence sharing and coordination of political surveillance of targeted dissidents; covert action, usually cross-border hunter-killer operations and other forms of offensive unconventional warfare; and, most secret, an assassination capability known as “Phase III.” Under Phase III, special teams of assassins from member countries were formed to travel worldwide to eliminate “subversive enemies”—i.e., political leaders who could organize and lead pro-democracy movements against the military regimes. One Condor assassination targeted former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier, a prominent critic of the Pinochet regime, and his U.S. colleague Ronni Moffitt, who were murdered in a 1976 car bombing in Washington. Other well-known targets included constitutionalist Chilean general Carlos Prats and his wife, Sofía Cuthbert, assassinated in Buenos Aires (1974), and two Uruguayan legislators and opponents of the Uruguayan military regime, Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez Ruiz, disappeared, tortured, and killed in Buenos Aires (1976). In 2008 a former police intelligence agent provided new testimony suggesting that Brazilian ex-president João Goulart had been poisoned by Condor operatives in 1976. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lower-level activists, dissidents, and militants were also pursued, tortured, and killed. The CIA provided state-of-the-art computers to the Condor system, and U.S. security agencies supplied intelligence and collaboration. U.S. personnel were closely informed of secret Condor operations and worked with the intelligence agencies that carried them out. Perhaps more stunning, Condor units operated from the major U.S. military base in the Panama Canal Zone, where they were granted access to the U.S. continental communications system. A 1978 cable by U.S. ambassador in Paraguay, Robert White, reported on a meeting initiated by Paraguayan general Alejandro Fretes Dávalos, who described the use by Latin American officers of a special, top-secret, encrypted channel within the U.S. network to coordinate intelligence operations throughout Latin America. As White noted in his report, Fretes Dávalos was clearly referring to Condor. In short, U.S. forces were hosting, and providing crucial support to, Condor’s covert actions across the continent. Access to the secure telecommunications network would enormously upgrade Condor’s ability to track and seize people across a vast geographical region. Moreover, U.S. officials could monitor Condor operations. That Washington provided such crucial covert support indicates that Condor was considered an important black operation serving U.S. interests. * The George W. Bush administration formed a unit eerily similar to Condor to carry out the “war on terror.” Journalist Seymour Hersh first discovered Task Force 121, a covert force consisting of about 1,000 elite U.S. paramilitary specialists that carried out cross-border incursions to abduct and torture “high-value” individuals in the Middle East and elsewhere. Hersh wrote in 2003 that the task force comprised Delta Force and Navy Seal personnel, as well as CIA paramilitary operatives and some foreign agents, and that it specialized in “preemptive manhunts” and assassination. Thomas Ricks, in his 2006 book Fiasco, also identified Task Force 121 as an elite, interagency black operations unit that was responsible for torture at Abu Ghraib. Methods used there included sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, hanging, hypothermia, forced standing, and beatings. One U.S. adviser in Iraq told Hersh: “The only way we can win is to go unconventional. We’re going to have to play their game. Guerrilla versus guerrilla. Terrorism versus terrorism. We’ve got to scare the Iraqis into submission.” That sort of mentality echoed the chilling rationales of Operation Condor. In contrast, many interrogation experts assert not only that the use of terror and extralegal methods is ethically wrong but also that it produces false confessions—and creates legions of new enemies. An FBI interrogator recently disclosed that one detainee had provided him with important intelligence on Al Qaeda before the CIA began using torture techniques against him. The recently released torture memos describe grotesque techniques to break detainees: confining them in coffin-sized boxes, introducing stinging insects inside the box, slamming them against walls—and using many of these methods in c
mbination, over and over, for weeks and months. General Antonio M. Taguba, appointed by the army in 2004 to investigate U.S. military detention practices, wrote in June 2008: “There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.” * What lessons can be drawn about the strategy of counterterror as practiced by Condor, the Latin American military regimes, and the United States? First, the resort to extralegal methods—a classified part of training and doctrine—produced dirty wars and massive human rights abuses in Latin America. In recent years, while the scale of such practices has been smaller, the international reputation of the United States has been stained by revelations of torture, rendition, incommunicado detention without due process, and other lawless actions. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has called for a truth commission in the United States—a response pioneered in Argentina in the mid-1980s—while the ACLU, legal scholars, and other professional law associations have demanded criminal investigations and prosecutions. In Latin America significant progress has been made to right the wrongs of the dirty war period. In country after country, the demand has been for justice, not revenge. Different countries have pursued different paths, several following the truth commission model, sometimes with UN involvement (Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru) while in others, human rights organizations have done exhaustive studies of the repression based on testimonies and official documents (Uruguay, Brazil). In recent years, especially after the groundbreaking arrest of Pinochet in 1998, more and more governments have tried commanders of the dirty wars as well as individual torturers, Condor operatives, and others (and noted Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón is reportedly pursuing an investigation of six Bush officials for their role in authorizing torture). In 2006, for the first time, six notorious Uruguayan Condor operatives were arrested after 20 years of impunity, and last spring they were convicted in a landmark ruling, a first in that country. In October the Supreme Court ruled that Uruguay’s Ley de Caducidad—which had amnestied military officers suspected of human rights violations—was unconstitutional. The Argentine Supreme Court had declared similar impunity laws unconstitutional in 2005. In Chile former DINA chief Manuel Contreras has received multiple life sentences for human rights crimes. In Peru, former president Alberto Fujimori was found guilty of serious abuses, including responsibility for a death squad. Other infamous torturers and military commanders have been convicted of Condor crimes and other abuses in Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Uruguay. The wall of impunity that protected and empowered human rights violators seems to be crumbling. All of this shows—just as the persisting search for Nazis shows—that justice is a human need and a social necessity that cannot be ignored. Counterterror operations, with their brutal tactics and mystique of operating above the law, have legitimized in dangerous ways grave human rights abuses like extrajudicial execution, disappearance, and torture—at least in some circles. That has been a severe blow to international human rights standards as well as democratic values. It is possible to fight terrorism within the law, as the Europeans have done and as the FBI has done in the past. On the positive side, in his first days President Obama issued executive orders to close Guantánamo within a year, halt military tribunals, outlaw overseas CIA prisons, and nullify Bush administration interrogation guidelines that “legalized” torture. He has been quite equivocal, though, on the question of investigating torture, and he is apparently considering restarting military tribunals. The Cold War record shows that too often the methods of dictatorship were advocated, taught, and used by U.S. personnel in the name of preserving democracy. Millions of people in Latin America lost their freedom under dictators who justified their activities in the name of freedom. During the Cold War, a doctrine and philosophy at odds with a human rights culture arose in the U.S. national security apparatus and took hold throughout the hemisphere. Today, national security cultures live on. For example, the former U.S. vice president has repeatedly argued that methods and operations from “the dark side” were necessary to save the lives of U.S. citizens. But counterterror that employs the methods of terror is equally repugnant. There is no “good terrorism” and “bad terrorism.” Until the United States brings its security doctrines within the rule of law and respect for human rights, the dangers exemplified by Operation Condor will persist.

J. Patrice McSherry teaches political science and directs the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program at Long Island University, Brooklyn. She is the author of Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) and co-author of The Iraq Papers (Oxford University Press, 2009). This article is adapted from a talk given at the CUNY Graduate Center in May 2009.


Copyright J. Patrice McSherry


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.