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For all the splash of national spotlight on the Connecticut Congressional campaign, surprisingly little has been written about Congressman Rob Simmons’ experience as a CIA interrogator. Simmons, an incumbent Republican, is fighting for his political life in one of those hotly contested seats that could tip the House majority from Republican to Democrat on November 7. He denigrates his Democratic challenger Joe Courtney for having “no war experience.” Yet the shadowy circumstances of Simmons’ own war experience of running an interrogation center during the Vietnam war has gone unexamined by the mainstream press, even as a feckless Congress rolls back the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners of war.During four campaigns Simmons, a lanky “aw shucks” kind of guy, has touted his experience as a “soldier and spy” to gain political traction in Connecticut’s sprawling blue-collar Second District, which includes Electric Boat, the Groton Submarine Base, and assorted military subcontractors that have sustained the region’s economy for two and three generations. He has struggled for union support while his opponent has become the choice of most union locals in the Second District. Courtney has overtaken Simmons by as little as one percentage point in recent polls and the race is sure to be a nail bitter right down to the finish.
Simmons’ close ties with the President and Vice President have been a problem in the 2006 race, and when the President visited the state to fundraise the candidate stayed away from the event. Simmons’ web site also promoted a visit by Prescott Bush, Jr., however, the controversial uncle to the President kept a low profile. He has been something of a business czar to China, helping negotiate U.S.–China deals and run Chinese defense companies like Norinco, sanctioned by the U.S. in 2004 over the sale of missile parts to Iran. Thanks to poor media scrutiny, Simmons has been able to hold onto support from conservatives and a core group of veterans that have been behind him since the 2000 election. For some of them, Simmons’ figurative waving of his dog tags has brought welcome relief from their own painful baggage about the Vietnam War. This in itself is not a bad thing. But Simmons’ Disneyfied rewriting of Vietnam War history omits the carpet bombing, the defoliation, the napalm. And, of course, it leaves out the torture that shocked members of U.S. Congress during hearings in the 1970s. Simmons has been feeding the media a murky picture of his Vietnam story for years, but he has walked a fine line between truth and lies during interviews about torture, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the recently approved Military Commissions Act of 2006.In 2004, USA Today’s Andrea Stone spent the day with him on the campaign trail. Her focus was the impact of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal on the GOP’s chances for reelection. Political analysts had described Simmons as “one of the most vulnerable Republicans in Congress,” but he didn’t come across as vulnerable. He came across as a defender of anti-torture laws. Stone’s May 28, 2004 story began, “Everywhere Rep. Rob Simmons goes these days he lugs a 2-inch-thick binder. Inside are a summary of an investigation into the Iraq prisoner-abuse scandal and the Army’s field manual on interrogation.” She described Simmons as, “a former Army intelligence officer who observed prisoner interrogations in Vietnam,” leaving out the facts about Simmons work for the CIA. “That’s the way he characterized it,” she explained carefully during a phone conversation. “He observed or was in the room when interrogations were conducted, I wouldn’t have put that in otherwise.” Had Simmons been intentionally unclear? Probably, and there was an uncanny similarity between the opening lines of Stone’s piece and the opening lines of a more recent one by Hartford Courant Washington Bureau Chief, David Lightman. His September 28, 2006 article began: “When U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons was a Central Intelligence Agency case officer during the Vietnam War, he kept a card in his wallet summarizing key provisions of the Geneva Conventions, the rules that dictate how wartime prisoners should be treated.” Lightman said he spent about a half an hour interviewing Rob Simmons about his “yes” vote for the House version of the Military Commissions Act, and he wrote that Simmons found conditions at Guantanamo “favorable to anything I saw in Vietnam.” It was the perfect opportunity to ask Simmons what he had seen in Vietnam, but the reporter didn’t take it. It was one of many examples that the state and national press has ignored the relevance of Simmons’ work for the CIA, in general, and as an interrogator in particular. That aspect of Simmons’ role in Vietnam was well documented. Simmons was one of many CIA agents interviewed by Douglas Valentine for a book released in 1990, entitled, “The Phoenix Program.” In taped interviews he told Valentine he had been the Commander at the Phu-Yen Province Interrogation Center, or PIC. He said, “I was the special police advisor overall. In a way I outranked the guy at the PIC and when the guy at the PIC left he wasn’t replaced and I assumed responsibility for that.” Simmons also admitted, “Occasionally I would do the interrogation myself.—For somebody that seemed to be reluctant to work with the South Vietnamese or with any Vietnamese because you know if an American comes in and he’s alone and he speaks a little bit of the language maybe they’ll warm up to him.“As he shared the contents of his tapes Valentine pointed out that Simmons was careful not to say things that would incriminate him, although he did “let his hair down” when discussing the Phoenix Program and various aspects of how the Phu Yen interrogation center had been set up. He had gotten names from Phoenix, and the interrogation program was part of Phoenix. While others in Valentine’s book mentioned the torture that went on at the centers, Simmons put a more positive spin on things. But as it turns out there was a darker side to his story too.The tapes reveal a Simmons entirely different from the squeaky-clean public persona. This Simmons used the “F”-word and at times seemed boastful, speaking of his peers as “boomers” – those who pulled the trigger – and “knuckle draggers,” or sadists. He referred easily to the “Special Branch” police he worked with and they were notorious for their use of “the old french methods,” according to another CIA source Valentine interviewed named John Patrick Muldoon. He was the director of the CIA’s first interrogation center in Vietnam. Simmons was also interviewed by Mark Moyar, conservative author of, Birds of Prey, published in 1997. He told him his success rate during interrogations was raised by 50 percent when prisoners were wounded. That, he explained, was because he would withhold their medical care to get them to talk. Moyar took a revisionist’s view that the U.S. actually won the war in Vietnam. Even so, Simmons’ disclosures to him remain important. On page 105 in his chapter on “Prisoners: Interrogation, Torture, and Execution,” Simmons told Moyar, “I knew some American doctors who helped me out from time to time. I’d bring in an American doctor with a big bag full of pills and devices and everything, and he’d put his gear on and listen to a heartbeat and go through a fairly elaborate routine, which seemed quite sophisticated to a peasant. Then the doctor would look at the wound and say, “Oh that looks very bad. It could get infected. You could lose that limb.” Simmons would then send the doctor away. “I’d usually let the doctor go and then tell the prisoner, “We’d like to help, but it’s hard to get the medicine—I can’t do anything to help you without getting some sort of help in return.”“That delay ran contrary to the mandate of the Geneva Conventions, which were originally written to deal with problems that would arise when prisoners at war would be brought in from the war zone with wounds. According to Wells Dixon, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, “The denial of medical care to someone in the custody of the United States certainly would be illegal and unconscionable and it would violate the Geneva Conventions. No question about it.” Valentine explored the possible violation in his November 4, 2000, story in Counterpunch. He wrote, “The specific charge against Simmons is that he routinely violated the Geneva Conventions while interrogating civilian prisoners during his 20 months of se
rvice with the CIA in Vietnam.” He referred to a 1994 profile of Simmons published in Connecticut’s, New London Day, and “in that profile,” he explained, “Simmons said he would threaten to withhold medicine from injured prisoners, in order to obtain information, but that he would never actually make good on the threat. According to Simmons, such coercive tactics are perfectly legitimate and do not reach the threshold of a war crime.“During an interview on Connecticut’s WHUS Radio in October, Valentine pointed out the physical and psychological impact of withholding medical care from a wounded detainee during the Vietnam War. “Let’s assume that the person has a bullet wound,” he said. “That’s pretty painful. These people aren’t being brought in with paper cuts.—We’re usually talking about wounds that occurred while the person was being arrested, because people did not go to these interrogation centers voluntarily, counter-terror teams went out to snatch them from their homes at midnight. Or they were snatched up in Special Branch, FBI, or Police round ups.” Simmons had become defensive in 1994 when students got wind of the story and argued that he shouldn’t run against incumbent Democrat Sam Gejdenson. According to separate reports in The New London Day, in 1994 and 2001, the students called Simmons a “war criminal,” a charge he claimed was politically motivated. Writing for The Day, January 14, 2001, Stan DeCoster said, “He considered it a smear, pure and simple. He was particularly offended, he said, because for nearly three decades he has tried to redirect any negative energy from the war years into a productive life.” According to DeCoster, Simmons got angry and said, “It’s crap like this—that takes us right back to where we were. And that’s not good for me personally, and it’s not good for America.” Clearly, the charges had hit home with Simmons. But his anger should have raised serious questions. Why didn’t he simply respond to questions he must have known would be asked? To make matters worse a connection was found between the Gejdenson campaign and one of the protesters raising the question of Simmons’ alleged “war crimes.” In the ensuing chaos Gejdenson disowned his supporter and apologized for the “war crimes” charge. At that point Connecticut reporters began to think of the charges as the “smear” Simmons said they were.By 2001, Connecticut’s media had been purchased by multinational corporations. The Hartford Courant, for example, is now run by the Tribune out of Chicago. Political candidates were stymied when trying to communicate complex ideas to voters. In that climate of low press scrutiny Rob Simmons caught the wave of post 9/11 neo-conservatism that empowered George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Unchecked by the national media in Washington, he has found it easy to lobby for even controversial legislation such as the Military Commissions Act, which relaxes restrictions on some of the same interrogation tactics Congress said were illegal when the CIA and Military used them in Vietnam. In 1984, U.S. Navy Seal and Vietnam veteran Elton Manzione told Valentine, “the story [of Phoenix] needs to be told. Because the whole aura of the Vietnam War was influenced by what went on in the ‘hunter-killer’ teams of Phoenix, Delta, etc. That was the point at which many of us realized we were no longer the good guys in the white hats defending freedom—that we were assassins, pure and simple. That disillusionment carried over to all other aspects of the war and was eventually responsible for it becoming America’s most unpopular war.“Now, the Iraq War rivals Vietnam for unpopularity and grim statistics on death, torture, and the heavy civilian cost. Dori Smith is an independent radio producer and host of “Talk Nation Radio” airing weekly at the University of Connecticut, in Storrs, Connecticut. She can be reached at her web site at firstname.lastname@example.org.David Morse is an independent journalist and political analyst and author of the historical novel, “The Iron Bridge”, [Harcourt Brace, 1998.] His articles have appeared in Progressive Populist, Salon, the New York Times Magazine, Dissent, the Nation, Friends Journal, and Esquire. His most recent article, “War of the Future, Oil Drives the Genocide in Darfur,” appeared in TomDispatch. He can be reached at his website at email@example.com