The revelations in the US Senate report on the CIA’s torture programme should have surprised nobody. They were foretold more than 50 years ago in a number of sites in Algeria: for instance, a former casino, the Villa Sésini, and improvised locations in kitchens and farmyards. These were places where French interrogators tortured Algerians in the mistaken belief that they were defending state security. Every act of self-deception and evasion that the Bush administration carried out after the 9/11 attacks has parallels somewhere in the mess that France left in Algeria.
In January 1957, the French authorities in Algiers turned policing over to the military after a string of café bombings. Suspects in the independence movement were rounded up and systematically tortured until the intricate cell structure of the National Liberation Army (ALN) unravelled.
Prefiguring the way in which the CIA would later seek to soften public opinion, military men told journalists that there was little else they could do when they knew that bombs were being set to explode. They avoided the word“torture” in favour of an emphasis on new, scientific interrogation techniques. In reality, French paratroopers were waterboarding Algerian suspects – something they wanted to hide from civilians at home, given that less than two decades earlier the Gestapo had perfected the technique on the French resistance in Paris.
The historical consensus has been that the French broke the ALN thanks to information extracted under torture but lost the long war because their brutal policies alienated the Algerian people. That view is enshrined in a 1966 film that was screened in the Pentagon in 2003 and has since become required viewing for counter-insurgents: Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. The film opens with the aftermath of a torture session: a semi-naked man, sitting on a chair, struggles for air after naming his co-conspirators. Now the unpleasantness is over, the paratroopers can be human once more. They talk to him kindly and offer him coffee. The implication is clear: the soldiers did what they had to do and did so with restraint. It’s great cinema but this is not what actually happened.
Rather than watching the film, counterterrorism forces at the Pentagon would have been better off reading the French historian Raphaëlle Branche’s 2001 book La Torture et l’armée pendant la guerre d’Algérie, 1954-1962 (“Torture and the Army During the Algerian War”). By examining state records and oral testimony, she shows that far from being surgical and restrained, “modern” torture programmes are hard to contain. The head of the local police in Algeria, Paul Teitgen, estimated that in a ten-month period he had signed arrest warrants for 24,000 people, of whom 3,024 never returned. The French did locate ALN operatives through their work but they processed far more suspects than the CIA has.
Justifying his actions later, the general in charge, Jacques Massu, claimed that the paratroopers’ techniques did not “degrade the individual”. However, given the blank canvas of a helpless human body, the soldiers did not restrict themselves to approved techniques. Torturers find what they need to find. The soldiers had quotas to meet and did so by extracting false confessions. The innocent implicated their innocent neighbours, creating an inexhaustible supply of suspects. Torturers often deploy a twisted logic: only criminals torture the innocent, so the suspect before me must be guilty.
The French experience in Algeria should have put an end to the preposterous suggestion that torture is about extracting the truth. It is often about invention and it is always about humiliation and fantasies of power.