Humor me: more archival considerations

I understand there is some sort of election coming up but I'm still thinking that Uruguay in the 1970s is more interesting and has more to say about our grand democracy than whatever those fellas in suits are saying on the teevee set. So: more on Dan Mitrione. In my last entry, I mentioned a book written by a defected (not sure that's the right word, but it'll do) Cuban CIA operative/double agent. Pasaporte 11333, it's called, authored by Manuel Hevia Cosculluela in 1972. This one is also hard to find—my copy was published in 1988 by Túpac Amaru Editorial, Montevideo—and, shockingly, hasn't found a US publisher or even an amateur online translator. No volume I've encountered in English quotes (or, often, misquotes) more than a line or two, so I took the liberty of translating (quickly, inelegantly) a few of the longer sections dealing with Mitrione and the classes in interrogation that he offered to a select group of Uruguayan police and military officials. I’ll begin on page 239:

We had obtained a house in Malvín that met all the minimum requirements: basement adaptable into a mini-amphitheater, sound-proof insulation, garage with an interior door to the house, and distant neighbors.

From that moment on, Mitrione began to transform himself into a perfectionist. He would check everything personally, down to each part of the electrical installation! We returned once more to the house. I had to play a record player at high volume in the basement—he loved Hawaiian music—while he sat in the living room, satisfied that he couldn't hear anything. Even that wasn't enough. We had to fire a magnum too.

"Good, very good," he said. "That time I heard absolutely nothing. Now you stay here while I go down to the basement..." And on and on.


The classes began suggestively: anatomy and the description of the human nervous system, psychology of the fugitive and psychology of the detained, social prophylaxis—I never figured out what that consisted of and always considered it an elegant euphemism to avoid a more severe term.

Soon things took a disagreeable turn. As subjects of the first tests, he used three beggars (known in Uruguay as bichicomes), residents of the suburbs of Montevideo, as well as one woman, apparently from the area of the Brazilian border. There was no interrogation, just a demonstration of the effects of different voltages on human body parts, as well as an example of an emetic—I don't know why or for what—and one other chemical substance.

All four died.

... what gave it an air of unreality, of particular horror, was Mitrione's cold, composed efficiency: his vocation as a teacher, his attention to detail, the exactitude of his movements, the cleanliness and hygiene that he demanded of everyone, as if we were in the operating room of a modern hospital.

He insisted on economy of effort, as he called it. No useless expenditure. No movement out of place. That’s what the earlier softening session was for. So that every action might be directed toward the final goal of obtaining information. He was annoyed by the relish with which [Colonel] Buda manipulated male genitalia. He found the vulgar language used by [founder of the Uruguayan Office of Information and Intelligence José Pedro] Macchi shocking. “Commissioner,” he would say, “it is more appropriate if we refer to those parts by their correct names. I beg you to maintain the dignity and discipline of a good police officer."

As the classes continued, interrogations carried out by students at police headquarters were also discussed, and successes and errors pointed out. Gradually the classes on Calle Rivera reached a level of frightfulness within that atmosphere of clinical detachment. With time, they ended up carrying out real interrogations there. …

In the damp Uruguayan winter of 1970 I had the rare opportunity to break through Dan Mitrione’s laconic barrier. I had arrived in Maldonado a little late, so instead of heading to the embassy, I called him at his house. He asked me to come see him.

We sat across from one another in a little room in his comfortable home. I still don’t know what his motive was for asking me to come see him. For three hours we limited ourselves to drinking a few drinks and talking about his philosophy of life.

Mitrione considered interrogation a complex art. First one had to carry out a period of softening, with all the usual blows and taunts. The goal pursued consisted of humiliating the captive, making him understand his state of defenselessness, disconnecting him from reality. No questions, just blows and insults. Then exclusively blows in silence.

Only after all that came the interrogation. Here one must not produce any pain other than the one caused by the instrument that one is using.

“The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise proportion chosen to that end.”

During the session it was essential to prevent the subject from losing all hope of living, which might make him pig-headed.

“One must always leave them some hope, some remote light.”

“When the objective is attained, and I always attain it,” he told me, “it can be opportune to continue the session a little longer, or apply another round of softening, not to extract information anymore, but as a political weapon, a warning to create a healthy fear of meddling in subversive activities.”

Later he expressed to me how, on receiving a subject, the first thing that he did was determine their physical condition, their degree of resistance, by means of an exhaustive medical exam.

“A premature death,” he stressed, “would mean the failure of the technique.”

Another important question consisted in knowing for certain how far you could go according to the political situation and the personality of the prisoner. Dan went on, delusional. He needed an audience and had found one in me. And he continued: “It’s crucial to know in advance if we can permit ourselves the luxury of the subject dying.” That was the only time in all those months that I saw his flat, plastic eyes take on a little shine.

Finally, he concluded: “But above all, efficiency. Causing only the damage that’s strictly necessary, not an iota more. In no case letting ourselves get carried away by rage. Acting with the efficacy and cleanliness of a surgeon, with the perfection of an artist. This is a war to the death. That person is my enemy. This is a hard job, someone has to do it, it’s necessary. Now that it’s my turn, I’m going to do it to perfection. If I were a boxer, I’d try to be the world champion, but I’m not. Nonetheless, in this profession, my profession, I’m the best.”

It was our last conversation. Before I left, I saw Dan Mitrione one more time, but we no longer had anything to say.

Mitrione! His personal importance has been exaggerated. He represents the Uruguayan version of the process of Vietnamization. That is, training the native forces addicted to imperialism to assume the defense of the system, so that the dirty work, the bloodiest aspects, fall on them. That way they evade criticism, minimize the loss of prestige, and the dead don’t turn up in Chicago, Hartford, or Denver, but among the local lumpen. With Mitrione the training policy reached its culmination. … This wasn’t an isolated case of peculiar perversity but, as he himself admitted, the routine labor of a specialist. Any other advisor would have done the same. It was part of the program. This is what should be emphasized. This is what is especially repugnant.



Department of Conservation

I know, the scan is a little freaky, but we were trying not to crease the pages. Machines and me don’t always see eye to eye. The point though, which is relevant to the 15 or so people who share my obsessions, is that I got my hands on this rare document: Dialogue Before Death: Transcript of a Tape-Recording of an English Conversation between Dan Mitrione and an Unidentified Uruguayan Tupamaro, August 1970. Catchy title, no? Dan Mitrione, in case you didn’t know, was a former FBI agent who worked with the US Agency for International Development’s Office of Public Safety, training police officers in Brazil from 1960 to 1967, and later in Uruguay, where he directed the OPS office from 1969 until his death in 1970. OPS postings, in case you didn’t know, frequently provided cover for CIA operatives in Latin America in the years before the OPS was dissolved by act of Congress in 1974. On July 31, 1970, Mitrione was kidnapped by Tupamaro guerrillas. As ransom, they demanded the freedom of 150 political prisoners. The Nixon administration offered the Venezuelan government its full support in securing Mitrione’s release, which apparently extended to torturing Tupamaro prisoners and murdering their relatives, but not to actually negotiating with the guerrillas. (“I am confident,” Nixon wrote in a personal message to the Uruguayan president, “that … you will not foreclose any actions which could bring about the safe return of Mr. Mitrione.”) On August 10, one day after the Tupamaro's deadline had passed, Mitrione’s body was found in the trunk of a stolen Buick. He had been shot twice in the head. His body showed no signs of torture. In the weeks that followed, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis would perform in a benefit concert for Mitrione’s family and a White House spokesman would call him “an example for free men everywhere.” Before the year was up, the former head of the Uruguayan intelligence service, himself a CIA asset, told a Brazilian newspaper that Mitrione had instituted torture as a routine measure and escalated its use in the interrogation of Tupamaro prisoners. A few years later, a Cuban CIA operative who had worked under Mitrione in Uruguay alleged that Mitrione had taught torture methods to local police in the basement of a Montevideo home, demonstrating the effects of electrocution on live subjects, including beggars kidnapped off the city’s streets. He recalled Mitrione advising that, "You have to act with the efficiency and cleanliness of a surgeon and with the perfection of an artist." It is safe to assume that Mitrione’s Tupamaro interlocutors did not survive the decade. 

I can’t tell you much about the provenance of this document, except that the original is unbound, printed on heavy paper fastened with staples. An unsigned "Editor’s Note" claims that portions of the transcript were published in the English-language press and that Spanish-language newspapers published the full transcript in translation. It says nothing, however, about the original source of the full English transcript, except that unnamed "official U.S. sources" believe it to be authentic. As far as I can gather from some reasonably intrepid googling, the publisher, Squirrel Publications, was responsible for printing only one other text, also in the summer of 1970, a bilingual edition of Peru’s General Law on Industries. 


Borenboim’s dream

He dreamed a dream: he was a teenager, at his stepfather’s dacha in Sosenki, standing at the gate and looking out at the street. Vitka, Keras, and Gera were walking down the street toward him. They were supposed to go together to the Salarevsky dump.  The guys were approaching. They held sticks for poking around in the garbage. His stick stood next to the fence. He picked it up and walked toward them. They walked quickly and happily down the street. It was early in the morning, midsummer, the weather dry and cool. He was enjoying himself and his step was light. They came to the dump. It was enormous, stretching to the very horizon.
    “We’re going to go through and turn it up from south to north,” said Karas. “There are turbines in there.”
    They picked through the garbage. Borenboim sank in to his waist. Sank even lower. There was an underground vault. An intolerable stench. The heavy, sticky trash quivered like quicksand. Borenboim cried out in fear.
     “Don’t be chicken,” Gera giggled, grabbing him by the feet.
    “These are positive catacombs,” Vitka explained. “This is where the parent accelerators live.”
    People walked through the catacombs. Odd, fearsome machines passed by.
    “I have to find the computer dough, then at home I’ll make traveling boots for super-powered diesel locomotives,” Borenboim thought to himself. He kept picking through the trash.
    All sorts of objects turned up. Suddenly Karas and Gera broke through a wall with their sticks. A glooming din emerged from the opening. “It’s the turbines,” Borenboim realized. He looked into the opening and saw a huge cave with bluish turbines rising in the center. They produced a dismal roar: smoke spread from them, stinging the eyes.
    “Let’s get out of here before we’re squashed!” Vitka advised.
    They ran along a twisting path, getting bogged down in sticky, squelching garbage. Borenboim bumped into a piece of computer dough. A silvery-lilac color, it smelled like gasoline and lilac. He pulled the dough from the heaps of trash.
    “Mold it in the form, or else it will come unsoldered,” said Karas.
    Suddenly, a rat jumped out of the computer dough.
    “Bastard, he ate the computer program!” Vitka shouted.
    Vitka, Gera, and Karas began to beat the rat with their sticks. Its gray body shook with the blows, and it squeaked pitifully. Borenboim looked at the rat. He felt its palpitating heart. It was a tender little bundle which sent waves of the subtlest vibrations across the whole world, sublime waves of love. And the most remarkable thing—they were in no way connected to the death throes and the horror of the dying rat, they existed all by themselves. They penetrated Borenboim’s body. His heart contracted from a powerful attack of tenderness, joy, and delight. He pushed the guys aside and lifted the bloody rat. He bent over it and sobbed. The rat’s moist eyes closed. Its heart quivered, sending its last farewell waves of love. Borenboim caught them with his heart. He understood the language of hearts. It was untranslatable. Sublime. Borenboim sobbed from happiness and pity. The rat’s heart shuddered for the last time. And stopped: FOREVER! The horror of losing this tiny heart seized Borenboim. He pressed the little body to his chest. He sobbed aloud, as he had in childhood. Sobbed helplessly on and on.

—Vladimir Sorokin, Ice


I apologize

I’ve been negligent, I know, I’ve been distracted, as always, so hard to focus these days, what with this and that, and I know it’s irresponsible of me to let myself wander like that, but really, I’ve been busy, so busy with this and that, and they called on me, that’s right, they called, and when they call you can’t say no, or you could but they wouldn’t listen, they’d do something dreadful, something unimaginably dreadful, so, you know, I did what they asked, I played the “candidates,” the presidential candidates, in the recent “debate,” because the “candidates” themselves couldn’t be bothered, they said, because they had more important obligations, and they didn’t say more because they didn’t have to, because I couldn’t compel them to, because I simply don’t rank and they don’t owe me anything, not even spittle, and certainly not an explanation, so I did what they asked with no further questions, I was even a little flattered that they asked me, I won’t lie, because they never asked before and never really even noticed me, but I didn’t have time to practice as much as I would have liked, maybe you noticed, I hope not, god my hands hurt, mainly the fingertips and that weird muscle beneath the index finger across from the thumb, it aches no matter how much I ice it and of course I can’t hold the ice to it well because the other hand hurts just as badly and I don’t remember now which hand held which “candidate” and I fear I may have failed to differentiate their voices adequately, to present them as two distinct options, but I kept forgetting which hand was which because of course I couldn’t see, I was all stooped over and I had that cloth over my head because it was essential that I not be seen, but no one ever considered that it was equally essential that I be able to see, if only well enough to know which "candidate" was on which hand, and now I’m certain I got their lines mixed up and I may have even put them on the wrong hands, so that the right candidate was on the left hand and the left candidate was on the right hand and lord knows who said what and I am mortified by my amateurishness, but it seems from all the commentary that no one noticed, so please don’t tell, please just shush, or of course there will be consequences, unimaginable consequences, and for the time being I am relieved that it’s blown over, that the commentators were convinced and the public thought there was a winner and a loser and hence a choice, a clear choice, two options and not just one and now if you don’t mind terribly, even typing this is causing me considerable discomfort, and I do fear that they will call me again for the upcoming “debate,” since no one noticed the hash I made of this last one, since everyone seemed to really enjoy the show, the drama and the disappointment of it, so I should really go now and immerse my hands in a bucket of ice water and I plan to remove my hands from the bucket of ice water only to pray that I escape their notice entirely, that they call off the next “debate” or find someone else, someone more experienced, more capable, someone more suitable for the job.



"The Orad Group is a major player in the perimeter security field, with a specialty of integrating technologies pertaining to access control, biometrics, and Intelligent Video Surveillance. According to its deputy CEO, Orad is now looking into the creation of virtual or, more precisely, invisible security apparatuses. The idea is to transform cities or different facilities into military bases of sorts whereby people inhabiting a space are secured by all the technologies used to secure a military base but that these technologies are invisible. One will not need guards in booths at the entrance of the gated community, which might not be gated at all; the fences, cameras, sensors and other technologies that are used for perimeter security and safety (as well as social sorting) in a military base will all be there, but they will be unidentifiable from the surface so that the inhabitants can enjoy the serenity of the space."

—Neve Gordon, "The Political Economy of Israel’s Homeland Security Industry"