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Revelations in the US: The CIA's Torture Training Manual in Honduras

Revelations in the US: The CIA's Torture Training Manual in Honduras


In 1995, the Baltimore Sun ran a four-part series based on interviews with Florencio Caballero, a former member of Battalion 316, and with torture survivors from Honduras.  Through these interviews, a portrait began to emerge of the CIA’s role in the operations of Battalion 316.

During the course of the reporters’ investigations, they filed a number of Freedom of Information Act requests with the CIA over classified documents related to the Contra war and the interrogation program in Honduras.  The CIA fiercely resisted releasing the material, but in 1997, it relented under pressure. The documents that emerged clearly demonstrated that the CIA had trained and cooperated with Honduran intelligence forces, while turning a blind eye to the commission of torture, extrajudicial killings and other severe human rights violations.  

Perhaps the most eye-opening revelation was the release of a document entitled the Human Resources Exploitation Manual (HRET). [1] Based on the CIA’s notes compiled during a three-week training session in Honduras in 1983, HRET outlines a range of psychologically and physically coercive interrogation techniques designed to extract information from prisoners. [2] The techniques outlined therein conform to accepted notions of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. It is important to note that a clear line connects the torture techniques described in HRET and the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” that would re-emerge in 2002, when US interrogators began to employ harsh coercive methods against suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees in the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan.  [3]

After Congressional Committees began to scrutinize the CIA’s activities in Latin America in 1984, the HRET manual was edited to suppress its most incriminating language.  Still, clearly visible beneath the handwritten redactions are the original lines describing techniques of physical coercion. On page 2 of the 1983 version, a sentence reads “While we do not stress the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them and the proper way to use them.”

Although the U.S. intelligence advisors in Honduras officially counseled against physical coercion, eyewitness testimony revealed that Honduran torturers often “prepared” prisoners for U.S. interrogators. [4] Although the physical signs of torture would have been hard to ignore, the practice seemed to have been tolerated.  Similarly, U.S. advisors seemed uninterested in the fate of the prisoners once they left their hidden jails. [5]

In 1986, a U.S. official told the New York Times: “The CIA had nothing to do with picking people up, but they knew about it and when some people disappeared, they looked the other way.” [5]

More documentation on the U.S. role in Honduran human rights violations is available at the National Security Archive of George Washington University.

NOTES

[1] Human Resources Exploitation Training Manual - 1983. Authors unknown. Available at: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB27/02-01.htm Accessed: August 17, 2009

[2] Fact Sheet Concerning Training Manuals Containing Materials Inconsistent With U.S. Policy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense/Public Affairs Office, Available at: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/archive/news/dodmans.htm  Accessed: August 17, 2009.

[3] Torture and Democracy, Darius Rejali, Princeton University Press, 2008.

[4] "Torture was taught by CIA; Declassified manual details the methods used in Honduras; Agency denials refuted", Gary Cohn, Ginger Thompson, and Mark Matthews, The Baltimore Sun, 27 January 1997. Available at: http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/40/055.html Accessed: August 17, 2009.

[5] Testifying to Torture, James LeMoyne, New York Times, June 5, 1988. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/05/magazine/testifying-to-torture.html?pagewanted=1  Accessed: August 17, 2009.