San Martin and Maoland – US Training of Police in the Art of Crushing Protests

Watching the events as they unfold in Egypt and earlier in Tunisia, I have been fascinated by the evolving role of the police. Though also true in the Tunisian case, the Egyptian police has long been particularly infamous for its rampant use of torture, a fact sometimes taken advantage of by the US. These police forces recently revealed their complete incompetence and senseless cruelty to the world as plentiful footage showed its beatings, lethal use of vehicle charges, and its ultimate dissolution in the face of massive protests in major cities across the country. Since then, at least some of its officers appear to have shed their uniforms and re-engaged with hired or sympathetic government supporters.

While we are constantly reminded of US connections to the Egyptian military, these events remind me of the history of US ties to repressive police institutions around the world that would clearly recognize their own behavior on Al Jazeera footage and in countless Youtube clips uploaded in the past week or two. Throughout the Cold War, but especially from 1962 to the mid-1970s, the United States engaged in an intensive effort to train police from allied states on a scale not seen again until the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Run primarily through the Office of Public Safety (OPS) and funded by USAID, this campaign was never primarily a matter of generally developing police efficacy and professionalism, though many OPS police advisors and USAID officials were personally committed to these causes commitments to these causes. From the beginning, this effort was defined as the core of a counter-insurgency strategy designed to thwart “interests inimical to the United States” threatening friendly regimes before they become powerful enough to require full military intervention. The organization was heavily infiltrated by CIA officers who were placed there under the guidance of Byron Engle, the OPS director and a former CIA operative himself.1

One important center of the police training provided by the US during the 1960s and 1970s was the International Police Academy (IPA) which was housed in the “Car Barn,” a building complex which now houses offices for Georgetown University in Washington D.C. Though accusations abound, I have not found any persuasive evidence that torture techniques were taught or tolerated at the academy, and it seems clear that, on the contrary, many US instructors went out of their way to deplore the use of torture and argue that it is inefficient, ineffective, and highly damaging to civil-police relations. It is also clear, as several accounts I have read claim, that many of the students disagreed with their instructors, and openly debated the virtues of torture with each other even while in attendance. There is much more to be said on this, but here I wish to introduce one anecdote I came across about the IPA in A. J. Langguth‘s 1978 book Hidden Terrors which reveals the degree to which US training was explicitly designed to help its allies maintain a lock on power in the face of a protesting opposition.

San Martin and Maoland

The IPA designed a number of exercises to test the ability of police officers to respond to a political threat in the imaginary country of San Martin. Neighboring this state was the diabolical Maoland, which was always trying to spread revolution. In the exercises IPA faculty would play the role of Maoland infiltrators while students were split into those who assisted in plotting revolution, those crushing the uprising, and those who judged between the two.

In one exercise Langguth recounts, an aerial photograph of Baltimore served as a map of San Martin, and demonstrations organized by the Maoland revolutionaries were plotted out on it. One part of the exercise came to mind as journalists and human rights activists were rounded up in Cairo yesterday. As the student police proceeded to execute their plans, if things were too easy, IPA instructors would call in and declare, posing as Prime Minister, “My problem is the reporters on the scene. They’re getting in the way and interfering with our police work.” (p129) If the police stalled, they would call in with this same complaint several times, and a student police chief would finally respond, “All right…arrest them! Bring them in!” This would give the students ten minutes of relief before more demands for specific actions would come over the phone.

Apparently, the students really enjoyed the San Martin and Maoland role-playing opportunities though they complained that the communications and anti-riot equipment deployed in the exercise was rarely available to them at home (130). Senior officers found the exercises nerve wrecking since their actions could be immediately judged by their peers, potentially including younger or less experienced policemen.

Films apparently were often used in training, including one filmed in Panama but claiming to again be in the midst of a politically unstable San Martin. Other movies like The Use of Tear Gas to Preserve Order served as marketing material for the Lake Erie Chemical Company (one wonders if the Combined Systems International of Jamestown Pennsylvania, which supplied tear gas to the Egyptians has similar marketing films provided to its Egyptian customers?). Another movie mentioned both in Langguth’s Hidden Terrors and in a Congressional Report dated February, 1976 is the “Battle of Algiers.” This is a fantastic movie but also a highly complex one from which a whole range of lessons can be drawn. I came away from it horrified by the images of torture used and defended by the French as well the terrorism of the FLN and other non-state actors.

The congressional report, written as the US began to wind down its police training efforts or shift them to function under the guise of anti-narcotics efforts, investigated accusations of torture training being carried out at the IPA. The showing of “Battle of Algiers” in an interrogation class was the closest they came to finding anything controversial, due to the film’s depiction of “questionable techniques of extracting information” but noted that the academy protested that the movie was designed to “bring out how abhorrent inhumane methods of interrogation can be.”2 That could well be true, as my own reaction to the film suggests, but it may also have provided a pretext for students, many of whom had plentiful experience in carrying out the kinds of techniques shown in the movie, to weigh in on their thoughts. It all depends on how the instructors handled it.

Though not connected to the San Martin and Maoland exercises, I mention this movie because it had an ironic connection with the demise of the Office of Public Safety. The script writer for “Battle of Algiers,” Italian Communist Party member Franco Solinas, wrote the script of the 1975 movie which cast unwanted light on the OPS. The film, “State of Siege” was also set in a fictional Latin American country (though based on real events in Uruguay), but this time, instead of depicting brave police efforts to crush a rebellion, it incorporated many of the accusations and rumors of direct US police advisor involvement in torture.3 Though I am not convinced the more sensationalist accusations leveled against the OPS involvement in torture are true, its advisors came into daily contact, as US soldiers and operatives in Iraq and Afghanistan do, with allied security forces who openly discussed and engaged in intolerable acts of brutality.

Today’s San Martin is Egypt, an American ally of critical importance to protecting its interests in the Middle East. The Maoland infiltrators, as Egyptian state television would have its audience believe, are on the streets promoting the subversive interests of foreigners. I hope the United States comes to the crystal clear observation that history will, in this case too, not treat its connection to this brutal regime kindly and more importantly, neither will the Egyptian people.

  1. I am deeply interested in Byron Engle due to his leading role in Japanese police reforms and only recently came across his long career as a Cold Warrior after he left Japan. []
  2. See “Stopping US Assistance to Foreign Police and Prisons” 16. OPS head Byron Engle denied the movie was ever shown at IPA in an interview with Langguth. Hidden Terrors, p324. []
  3. This is discussed in Langguth’s Hidden Terrors, 304-308. []

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