Brazil: US turns over documents on military abuses

During a visit to Brasilia on June 17, US vice president Joe Biden presented Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff with 43 declassified US State Department documents referring to abuses committed under the country's 1964-1985 military dictatorship. The handover of the documents, which will go to Brazil's National Truth Commission (CNV), was part of an effort to mend relations with Brazil after revelations in 2013 that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had been spying on Brazilian government agencies and on President Rousseff herself. The NSA revelations led to Brazil's cancellation of a planned state visit to the US in September 2013 and to the US manufacturer Boeing Co's loss of a $4 billion fighter jet contract with the Brazilian air force. (Reuters, June 17)

The CNV posted all 43 documents to its website on July 2, and the Washington, DC-based National Security Archive research group's blog Redacted links to five documents of special interest. One of these, an April 1973 cable from the US consul general in Rio de Janeiro entitled "Widespread Arrests and Psychophysical Interrogation of Suspected Subversives," detailed a "sophisticated and elaborate psychophysical duress system" used to "intimidate and terrify" suspected leftists. In some cases suspects were placed naked on a metal floor "through which electric current is pulsated." The military also used more violent methods, and the suspects were sometimes "eliminated"; the media were told that these prisoners were killed in shootouts. "The shootout technique is being used increasingly in order to deal with the public relations aspect of eliminating subversives," the cable said, and to "obviate ‘death-by-torture' charges in the international press."

The State Department seemed less concerned about the reports of torture than about the possibility that the US Senate might pass an amendment proposed by then-senator John Tunney (D-CA) to pressure the Brazilian military to end the practice. A July 1972 cable from the US embassy in Brasilia, "Allegation of torture in Brazil," claimed that top Brazilian officials were trying to halt the use of "excessive police measures," but "without undermining the continuing and notably successful battle against terrorism." The cable's author—presumably then-ambassador William Rountree—said there appeared to be a reduction in the reports of torture, "undoubtedly due in part to [Brazilian government] success in substantially reducing number of active terrorists." The US government did not "condone" what the cable described as "harsh interrogation techniques," the writer noted, but he said he "strongly support[ed] the [State] Department's efforts to dissuade senators from advancing the new proposal [for an anti-torture amendment], and to encourage its defeat if offered."

The military was apparently not selective about which people it arrested and tortured. "Conditions in DEOPS Prison as Told by Detained American Citizen," an Oct. 7, 1970 memo, recounted the experiences of Robert Henry North, described as a "tall, clean-cut" US citizen working for a Brazilian seed company. North was arrested at an airport on his return from a trip to the US and was kept for three days in a cell with six other detainees. He reported that all of his cellmates were being held without charges and had been tortured. North, who was fluent in Portuguese, was convinced that five of the cellmates "were absolutely innocent of subversive political activity," although the sixth "looked like he might easily throw a bomb." The authorities arrested North himself because they had a watch list with the names of members of the radical US Weather Underground group, including the activist Robert Henry Roth; it seems the name was enough of a match for the military to justify an arrest. (Redacted, July 3)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 6.