Ordinary Torture (Book Three, Part 66: The CIA)
Content warning: Images of physical mutilation
Previously in Last War in Albion: Joyce Brabner, after getting into the world of comics by becoming a major figure in Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic American Splendor (and marrying Pekar in the process), is contacted by the Christic Institute, run by Daniel Sheehan, a lawyer who came to prominence during the Karen Silkwood case.
You’re tuning it out. I can see your ocular focus shifting. You’ve been trained to handle interrogation, in a very specific way. I bet you can even bypass ordinary torture. And none of these people picked it u. Because DHS is formed out of sixteen domestic agencies. And you’re from the Central Intelligence Agency. – Warren Ellis, Jack Cross
Silkwood’s family ultimately sued Kerr-McGee for negligence in the original plutonium poisoning, successfully recovering $1.38 million dollars in a settlement; Sheehan was among the attorneys in the case, and founded the institute in the wake of their success to pursue similar cases, using civil suits to right wrongs that the criminal justice system had proved inadequate for.
This was often a successful strategy—in one of their early cases, for instance, the Institute represented survivors of the Greensboro massacre, in which white supremacists shot and killed five participants in a “Death to the Klan” rally. State and federal prosecutions failed to secure any convictions, and so the Christic Institute led a successful civil suit to secure justice. But it is important to stress the degree to which the Christic Institute’s strategy was also one of public relations. Sheehan was always, in part, a legal impresario, and one who was prone to making sure he was prominently centered in stories about the group. This meant that the Institute could often be a blunt instrument; one media article about it quotes the leader of another public interest group as saying that “Danny Sheehan is to investigating what a depth charge is to sports fishing.” This bluntness would ultimately have significant consequences.
In 1984, the Institute represented Stacey Lynn Merkt, who had been arrested transporting refugees from El Salvador on behalf of the Catholic American Sanctuary Movement. In the course of working this case, Sheehan was visited by multiple religious leaders who repeated claims passed by unnamed government officials that the Sanctuary Movement was in fact smuggling known terrorists into the country. Perturbed by this dedicated misinformation campaign, the Institute began investigating their source, and soon found itself investigating the Central Intelligence Agency.
The Central Intelligence Agency was formed in 1947, in the aftermath of World War II. During the War the US had set up the Office of Strategic Services, its first effort at an intelligence agency. At its head was General “Wild Bill” Donovan, who quickly developed a taste for extravagant covert operations, dropping agents behind enemy lines to commit sabotage or exploring complicated gadgets and tactics—at one point he was investigating how to use bats as a bomb delivery system. In late 1944, Donovan wrote to Franklin Roosevelt arguing for the establishment of a permanent intelligence service. Roosevelt, however, died five months later, at which point J. Edgar Hoover, a political enemy of Donovan’s who had his own designs on running an intelligence service, helped contribute to a report to new President Harry Truman disparaging the OSS as an abject failure, and with the war’s conclusion the OSS was disbanded.
The result of this, however, was that the US was lacking an intelligence service as it became increasingly clear the Cold War was looming. In 1946, Truman signed an executive order creating the National Intelligence Authority as a temporary solution. A year later, Congress passed the National Security Act of 1947, which established a permanent solution in the form of the CIA. This, however, was still a deeply contentious move. In theory the CIA was exactly what its name implied: a centralized office that would coordinate intelligence from the Department of Defense, the State Department, the FBI, and other sources. These responsibilities were mapped out over a couple of paragraphs, none of which set out any provisions whatsoever for secret operations of any sort. At the end of the description was a fairly standard issue sort of catch-all clause, noting that the agency should also handle “other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security.” In practice, that clause would be nearly the whole of the CIA’s operation.
Almost immediately, the CIA fashioned itself into an organization concerned with the containment of Soviet Communism through secretive means. Largely lacking any Congressional authorization for this, and indeed for its first few years lacking much in the way of a budget, the CIA quickly developed means of funding its own operations, becoming one of the world’s largest organized crime rackets, with hands in gun-running, drug trafficking, and money laundering, all producing large amounts of off the books money that it could then plow into covert activities, which often meant supporting military coups against democratically elected governments perceived as too sympathetic to Communism, whether or not the resultant dictatorships had the slightest degree of interest or respect for human rights. A summary of these actions would simply be too elaborate, and so a partial list will have to suffice: Syria, Iran, Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Vietnam, Brazil, Ghana, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and El Salvador number among the successful coups, but one mustn’t undersell actions in places like Angola, Cuba, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Albania, Afghanistan, Italy, the Dominican Republic, and Chad. Even still the list is incomplete. In a world full of abject moral horrors, the CIA has, at every point in its existence, managed to stand out.
Such a long list of malfeasance cannot stay hidden indefinitely, and at the end of 1974 a large portion of the bill became due when Seymour Hersh published an article in the New York Times entitled “Huge C.I.A. Operation Reported in U.S. Against Antiwar Forces, Other Dissidents in Nixon Years.” This began a period in which the CIA was in something of a political retreat as Congressional investigations uncovered their worst crimes, including a list of eighteen outright illegal operations internally referred to as the “Family Jewels,” perhaps most explosively a lengthy list of attempted assassinations of foreign leaders, although surveillance of journalists, break-ins at the homes of former employees, and the CIA’s experiments in whether LSD could successfully be used for mind control were certainly all jaw-dropping as well.
In 1980, however, the climate shifted again with the election of Ronald Reagan, who was determined to be a friend to the CIA, and whose Vice President, George. H.W. Bush, was a former director of the agency. Reagan’s initial choice to head the agency was his campaign manager, William J. Casey, who had worked under Wild Bill Donovan at the OSS. Casey shared his mentor’s fondness for outlandish, ambitious, but not necessarily wise covert operations. The most famous result of this would become known as the Iran-Contra scandal, and would successfully mix colossal fuckups on two continents.
On the one hand was Iran, where the CIA-backed 1953 coup unraveled in 1979 with the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was considerably more hostile to American interests. In 1984, Bill Buckley, the CIA’s station chief in Beirut, was kidnapped. The CIA obtained an audio recording of Buckley being tortured, which was played for Reagan, who became obsessed with securing his release. An Iranian named Manucher Ghorbanifar procured a meeting with a CIA officer named Ted Shackley, claiming that he could secure Buckley’s release. The scheme was simple: the CIA would sell arms to Iran, who would put pressure on Lebanon to release the prisoners. The problem with this was simple: Ghorbanifar was a known fabulist and con man who was the subject of a global CIA burn notice declaring him to be utterly useless as a source of intelligence. Naturally, then, the CIA took the deal and in late 1985 commenced selling arms to a regime that was openly hostile to the US and whose seizure of fifty-two hostages in 1979 and Jimmy Carter’s failure to secure their release was widely viewed as one of the primary reasons for Reagan’s electoral victory. Buckley, as it happened, had been dead for months.
Among the reasons Reagan and the CIA went for this self-evidently stupid deal was that it was viewed as a potential solution to another problem the agency faced in Nicaragua. There, in 1979, US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle had been overthrown by the socialist Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional. The US viewed the restoration of a friendly, non-socialist government as a priority, and so threw its backing to a number of military groups known as the Contras that sought to topple the Sandinista regime. This, however, proved politically controversial, and in 1982 Congress passed the Boland Amendment, which forbade the funding of the Contras. This prompted no small amount of flailing on the part of the CIA, who resorted to desperate schemes like distributing a comic book throughout Nicaragua advocating for petty acts of sabotage to topple the government such as leaving your faucets running. That, obviously, and large quantities of drug smuggling.
Ultimately, this would blow up in the Reagan administration’s face. It was, after all, an astonishingly politically odious arrangement—Reagan was selling arms to a country widely viewed as America’s enemy in order to illegally fund a politically unpopular bunch of rebels who were widely known to commit horrific atrocities including mass executions and torture. This began to emerge in November of 1986 when the Lebanese media reported on it, resulting in an escalating scandal for which the main fall guy was Colonel Oliver North. But in terms of the War, the crucial event was not the American political scandal, but a less known incident that occurred in the buildup to the scandal’s revelation: the La Penca bombing.
Although the main focus of the CIA’s efforts in Nicaragua centered on the Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense operating out of Honduras to the north, a second set of rebels were operating out of Costa Rica to the south. These were called the Alianza Revolucionaria Democrática, or ARDE, and were led by Edén Pastora. ARDE’s relationship with the main FDN force was always complicated—Pastora had been an opponent of the Somoza regime, and was skeptical of FDN, which was largely comprised of former Somoza supporters. Although ARDE was also supported by the CIA, who operated out of a farm owned by an American rancher named John Hull, this support was considerably more tentative, in part due to Pastora’s distinctly independent streak, and in part to the fact that Pastora was a former Sandinista.
On May 1st, 1984, the CIA gave Pastora an ultimatum, demanding he ally with the FDN within thirty days. On May 30th, 1984, with the time limit expired, Pastora traveled across the border into southern Nicaragua to a small outpost on the San Juan River called La Penca, where he intended to give a press conference defying the ultimatum. Pastora arrived late in the evening, and quickly commenced the press conference with the assembled journalists. Among the journalists was a man traveling under the name Per Anker Hansen, nominally a Danish photographer. Other photographers at the event noted that Hansen’s equipment case—a heavy aluminum case—was unusual, and that Hansen seemed relatively unfamiliar with his nominal job. As the press conference began, Hansen placed the metal case on the floor. Shortly thereafter he loudly complained that his camera was malfunctioning, and exited the room. Images captured by Costa Rican journalist Jorge Quirós show him exiting the building and walking down the back stairs. A few moments later, an explosion ripped through the press conference, killing seven people, including three journalists. One of the survivors, an American journalist named Tony Avirgan who was covering the conference for ABC, recalled crawling towards Linda Frazier, another American journalist, who had been grievously injured. She asked him, “Am I going to die?,” and he recalled thinking that it was amazing she was still alive. She succumbed to her injuries early the next morning.
Avirgan’s wife, Martha Honey, was also a journalist, and was asked by the Committee to Protect Journalists to head up an investigation into the bombing. Two obvious options presented themselves: the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or the CIA. Honey and, once he’d recovered, her husband’s investigations initially focused on the CIA, specifically on Hull, who had pulled his support from Pastora shortly before the bombing, and who conspicuously ordered his operatives not to offer any aid to the wounded at La Penca. Following up on this lead, Honey and Avirgan eventually uncovered many of the underpinnings of the Iran-Contra scandal, and eventually led to both Hull and Felipe Vidal, one of Hull’s employees, being indicted in Costa Rica for the seven murders. [continued]