Moral Low Ground


‘On This Day’ 1970: USAID Torturer Dan Mitrione Executed by Tupamaro Rebels in Uruguay

Dan Mitrione

“The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect.” -Dan Mitrione

Few Americans outside national security and counterinsurgency circles know about Dan Mitrione. But the former police officer and family man from the small town of Richmond, Indiana is notorious throughout Latin America for having taught torture techniques to the security forces of various US-backed South American military dictatorships in the 1960s until his capture and execution by urban guerrillas in Uruguay on August 10, 1970.

Mitrione, then 29 years old, left local law enforcement to join the FBI in 1959. The following year, he was assigned to the State Department’s International Cooperation Administration and sent to South America to instruct allied security forces in advanced counterinsurgency techniques in the fight against communism. In 1964, a US-backed military coup overthrew João Goulart, the democratically elected progressive president of Brazil, ushering in a brutal dictatorship that ruled for 20 years. Brazilians who opposed the military coup and dictatorship were systematically hunted down, arrested, imprisoned, tortured, raped and disappeared. A 2007 report from the Brazilian government’s Special Commission on Murders and Political Disappeared estimated the number of torture victims at roughly 30,000.

Among the regime’s victims was recently deposed Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, then a Marxist student activist associated with leftist guerrillas who was captured and imprisoned in 1970 and tortured for more than two years. Rousseff described being subjected to electric shocks, excruciating suspension by her hands and feet and having her jaw dislocated. Mitrione was reportedly among the American advisers instructing Brazilian police how much electric shock to torture prisoners with so they suffered tremendously but did not die.

Mitrione later explained:

When you receive a subject, the first thing to do is to determine his physical state, his degree of resistance, through a medical examination. A premature death means failure by the technician. Another important thing to know is exactly how far you can go given the political situation and the personality of the prisoner. It is very important to know beforehand whether you have the luxury of letting the subject die… Before all else, you must be efficient. You must cause only the damage that is strictly necessary, not a bit more. We must control our tempers in any case. You have to act with the efficiency and cleanliness of a surgeon and with the perfection of an artist.”

The “premature death means failure by the technician” comment was later eerily mirrored by George W. Bush-era CIA counterterrorism lawyer Jonathan Fredman, who instructed a gathering of military and intelligence personnel on fine-tuning torture of terror suspects, asserting that “if the detainee dies, you’re doing it wrong.” Mitrione’s work inspired the Bush officials who devised, authorized and implemented a torture program for use on detainees in the war against terrorism.

While Mitrione by no means deserves exclusive credit for perfecting this particular type of torture — such techniques were taught at the notorious US Army School of the Americas and detailed in various US manuals, including KUBARK (1963), and later, Human Resources Exploitation Training Manual (1983) and Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare (1984), the former small town cop from Indiana was instrumental in developing and perfecting increasingly brutal methods of breaking prisoners. In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, he tested his techniques on innocent street kids and homeless beggars, abuses that would later be replicated across the region during Operation Condor after Brazil’s neighbors were taken over by military dictatorships.

By 1969, Mitrione was in charge of the Office of Public Safety (OPS), operating under the supervision of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which officially exists to administer American foreign civilian aid but in reality has often acted as a counterinsurgency and covert action agency. USAID has been implicated in various secret schemes around the world, including recent efforts to destabilize the Cuban regime through social media and by infiltrating the local hip-hop scene.

With Brazil pacified, Mitrione was sent to Uruguay, where the right-wing military dictatorship had its hands full fighting leftist insurgents, chiefly the Raúl Sendic-led Movement of National Liberation (MLN), also known as the Tupamaros. Among the regime’s victims was future progressive president José Mujica, who was tortured and imprisoned for more than a decade in maddening solitary confinement at the bottom of a well. Mitrione clearly knew what he had in mind when he had a special soundproof dungeon installed in the basement of his Montevideo home, where police officers learned the limits of the human body during torture training sessions in which homeless residents were used as human guinea pigs. According to CIA double agent Manuel Hevia, Mitrione personally murdered four of these innocent beggars, including one woman. Not all of Mitrione’s torture techniques involved physical pain — he also played tapes of women and children screaming, telling prisoners their relatives were being tortured in an effort to terrorize them into submission.

“The special horror of the course was its academic, almost clinical atmosphere,” Hevia recalled. “Mitrione was a perfectionist. He was coldly efficient, he insisted on economy of effort… A premature death, he would say, meant that the technique failed.” Mitrione walked a fine line between precision and sadism, telling Hevia that after extracting the desired information from his torture subjects — which he claimed he always did — “it may be good to prolong the session a little to apply another softening-up.”

“Not to extract information now, but only as a political measure, to create a healthy fear of meddling in subversive activities,” he allegedly explained, again foreshadowing how former CIA director George Tenet ordered agents to torture suspected al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Zubaydah even after he fully cooperated with interrogators.

On July 31, 1970, Mitrione was kidnapped by Tupamaros. Tellingly, they did not torture him. Instead, they demanded the release of 150 of their comrades in exchange for the American. Documents later obtained by the National Security Archive revealed that the Nixon administration recommended threatening to execute Sendic and other MLN prisoners if Mitrione was killed. But on August 10, 1970, the Tupamaros executed him after their demands were ignored. His body was found in the trunk of a car with two bullet holes in the back of his head.

In addition to a legacy of torture and oppression, Mitrione left behind a wife and 10 children. He was hailed by the Nixon White House as a man of devoted service to the cause of peaceful progress in an orderly world” and as “an example for free men everywhere.” His well-publicized funeral was attended by secretary of state William Rogers and a hometown benefit concert to raise money for his widow and children featured performances by Rat Pack superstars Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis. More than 4,000 people attended, and Sinatra compared the slain killer to Abraham Lincoln. It is doubtful whether they, or any other American civilian, were aware of the horrors America’s leading torture teacher visited upon his hapless victims. Mitrione would be remembered differently abroad, with French historian Alain Labrousse calling him “an example… of the most blatant interference by the United States into the workings of a foreign state.”

Five years after Mitrione’s death, as the Rockefeller Commission was uncovering and revealing shocking covert crimes like the decades-long MK-ULTRA mind control program, Congress cut off OPS funding. But the damage done by the agency and its operatives, including Mitrione, has never been forgotten by those who suffered so much so long ago.

“What was the objective behind the torture and the disappearance? Where did the perpetrators of torture and genocide come from? Where did it all come from?” asked Nobel peace laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, an Argentine pacifist who was imprisoned and tortured for more than a year by US-trained forces who seized power in the military coup leading to the deadly seven-year Dirty War. “It came from the world’s so-called leader in democracy, the United States.” 

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