Water Man Spouts

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Alberto Gonzales: When Irish Eyes Aren't Smiling

The US Senate begins confirmation hearings for Alberto Gonzales today. President Bush has nominated Gonzales to replace Attorney General John Ashcroft as the head of the Department of Justice. Senate democrats are expected to question Gonzales, who is Bush's White House counsel, on his role in a series of communications with the the Justice Department on internment and torture in the "war on terror." Republicans are confident that the democrats will not stop Gonzales from being confirmed, because doing so could offend Hispanic voters.

It is rumored that President Bush will nominate Gonzales to serve on the US Supreme Court in 2006. Again, they believe they will get him by democrats in an election year, because no politician will dare to offend the Hispanic voting block. This thinking ignores another ethnic voting block that is taking interest in Gonzales' advocating policies of internment and torture. Irish Americans have a history with the tactics of internment and torture, most recently in Northern Ireland. Some of it may be of interest to the American public, and it may sound very familiar.

Much of this information comes from books by Irish author Tim Pat Coogan. He has a series of books on Irish history. For this essay, I will use his books "The IRA" and "The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal 1966-1996 and the Search for Peace" as sources. I strongly recommend his books to anyone interested in the politics of Ireland.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, there was a growing "civil rights" movement in Northern Ireland. This movement was influenced by the civil rights movement in the United States. The Catholics in Northern Ireland were as oppressed a people as either the African American or Native Americans in the United States. Not surprisingly, the Irish movement resembled those of the blacks and Indians in the US in the 1960s.

It is important to remember that Northern Ireland was no more of a country than Iraq. Both were "created" at about the same time by England. Both were attempts by the British government to secure access to the natural resources of foreign lands for the decaying "British Empire."

As the civil rights movement gained strength, the Protestant population in Northern Ireland began systematic intimidation of the Catholic neighborhoods. In response, the Catholics began to organize groups similar to the Black Panthers and American Indian Movement (AIM) in the USA. The best known of these was the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a group with historic roots in all of Ireland. Then, as violence between the Catholics and Protestants escalated, the British introduced more troops as "peace-keepers" in Northern Ireland.

The British military became convinced that most of the IRA support was "imported" from the Irish Free State. Thus, they began a crackdown on the borders, and on Catholic neighborhoods in the communities experiencing unrest. Coogan describes how "the British Army was the IRA's best recruiting agent. The saturation was such that at one stage there were 2,000 soldiers billeted in Paddy Devlin's Belfast consituency alone, one to every ten voters. On a specimen Saturday night Devlin counted thirty army vehicles in the district. Soldiers moved along in groups of twenty or more, dispersed on both sides of the street, guns at the ready." (The Troubles; page 137)

Paddy Devlin himself describes the British military's tactics: "I was downright angry at the mindless harassment, degrading obstruction and casual brutality the soldiers meted out to all who came in their path. I spent hours boiling over in anger and frustration, incoherent with rage, complaining to arrogant, overbearing British officers who failed to see the damage they were doing, the way they were walking into the trap the ruthless Provos had laid for them and how they were only acting as recruitment sergeants for the Provos." (ibid)

Devlin then identifies the single factor (the quality of military intelligence) that plunged Northern Ireland into an anarchy that resembles the Iraq that Bush created: "They failed to understand that many families shared common surnames, but were not related .... they arrested fathers when they wanted the sons and the sons when they were after the fathers. Innocent teenage boys and old men thus found themselves held at the point of a British rifle, and many of the people I dealt with then were so alienated by the experience that they joined the Provos and later became notorious terrorists." (ibid)

As the conflict intensified, it became obvious to the British military that the IRA had grown in strength in Northern Ireland. It was no longer possible to pretend that infiltraters from the Irish Free State were the cause of all the troubles. The sealing of the borders, curfews, and raids were no longer keeping the Catholics docile. Hence, a committee known as GEN 42 began to meet at Downing Street in England to decide on new tactics to combat the rise in Catholic nationalism.

The new strategy was called the "toothpaste policy": the British military would squeeze the Catholic community until they vomited out the IRA. It would focus more on those in the community who promoted "revolutionary" ideas, rather than those who committed the acts of terrorism. The idea was to "dry up" the ocean of Catholic water in which the radicals swam. They would call these tactics a "sustained opposition to terrorism," which served as a code for internment without trial, and torture to force "confessions."

The British had "plans for the systematic employment of torture against detainees. This policy had its origins in earlier British experience, in theatres such as Aden, Cyprus, Kenya, and in the brainwashing techniques employed against American and British servicemen in Korea. These were subsequently adopted by the British Army against EOKA during the Cyprus campaign. This type of expertise was unknown in the RUC and the British had to set up a special team of instructors to train the RUC Special Branch. The nature and extent of these preparations were both fully understood and sanctioned by the proper authorities within the Ministry of Defence, British intelligence and the upper echelons" of the British government, Coogan writes. (The Troubles; page 149)

The fact that this plan was not a new policy for the British is indicated by the fact that they not only had specific lists of Irish Catholics to be interned and tortured, but they had four sites already prepared for this operation. Known as "Operation Demetrius," these actions were never as successful as they were brutal. They started with a "trial run" that netted 48 suspects; this gave a two week warning to those who were actually involved in terrorist activity.

Next, when the British intelligence attempted to round up 450 suspects, they were only able to find 350 "targets." Because the actual terrorists were safely hidden "underground," those gathered up included people never associated with the IRA, as well as many who had been active in the late 1940s, but had been "retired" for decades. Many more were guilty of nothing more than writing about freedom.

Of the 350 suspects, 104 were released within 48 hours. The secret police had simply picked up the wrong person in 104 of 350 cases, which indicates a 30% rate of very inaccurate information. Still, in their 48 hours of incarceration, each of these 104 men were subjected to severe torture.

The tortures that the Catholics interned without trial in Northern Ireland sound very similar to what Mr. Gonzales has advocated for use in Iraq. The techniques include hooding, sleep deprivation, white noise, starvation, forced standing for extended periods spreadeagled and leaning against a wall on finger-tips, and sexual humiliation and torture. Men were kicked in the testicles, and raped with batons. Some were forced to run on broken glass bare-footed.

Coogan writes: "These techniques were accompanied by continual harassment, blows, insults, questioning. This treatment usually went on for six and seven days. It produced acute anxiety states, personality changes, depression and, sometimes, an early death. I spoke to a psychiatrist who had the thankless task of trying to rehabilitate some of the interrogation victims (at the behest of the British Government), and he told me that they were 'broken men', most of whom did not survive into their fifties." (The Troubles; page 150)

The community outrage was such that the British were forced to set up a committee to investigate the abuses. Known as the Compton Inquiry, it gave new meaning to the term "white-wash" when it determined the victims were subjected to "ill treatment," but not "brutality." After a human rights commission concluded the Irish were severely tortured, the case was sent to the European Court of Human Rights. After being dragged out for two years, the ECHR concluded there was no systematic torture. While a few low-ranking individuals ma have crossed the line, they found the policy avoided torture, and merely included "inhumane and degrading treatment."

It is interesting to note that during this period, the IRA enjoyed the most wide-spread support it ever had in Northern Ireland. As a result, there was a terrible increase in explosive violence that killed and maimed far too many people. Young and old, male and female, Catholic and Protestant, Irish and English, hundreds of people -- most of them innocent of any crime -- died in the reign of terror that resembles today's Iraq.

And so today, as Alberto Gonzales is questioned by the Senate, Irish Americans will recognize what type of man he is. We know exactly what he represents.


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