Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The French Connection

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The French Connection

Article excerpt

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 Sesini, 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 cafe 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. …

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