Bush Administration Links Between Torture, Tough Love

Speaking in Florida last week, President Bush began his remarks by thanking Mel Sembler, whom he called "my buddy," noting his service as ambassador to Australia for his father and as ambassador to Italy under this administration.

But Bush did not mention Sembler's controversial history as founder of what is now known to be one of the most abusive "rehab" programs for teenagers in American history: Straight Incorporated.

Sembler is currently heading the defense fund for Scooter Libby, former chief of staff for Dick Cheney. Libby is facing charges in the Valerie Plame case. As Cheney and his staff are known as the architects of America's torture policy, the Sembler/ Straight connection is illuminating.

Straight Inc. was founded by Sembler and Joseph Zappala in 1976. Zappala would become ambassador to Spain in 1988, though he did not speak Spanish. Each man gave over $100,000 to Bush I's 1988 campaign. The link between the campaign donations and the ambassadorships was so obvious that it was satirized in Doonesbury, with panels showing the two bidding for the spots at an auction.

The Straight story, however, is not funny. Straight was based on an earlier program, called The Seed, which was originally a government-funded experiment to see whether "behavior modification" practices could prevent and treat drug problems. In 1974, Congress investigated federal funding of such experiments, discovering that they were being done without informed consent and comparing The Seed to "the highly refined brainwashing techniques employed by the North Koreans in the early 1950's."

"Treatment" at The Seed involved 12-hour days of brutal, confrontational group therapy, supplemented with beatings and isolation if the teens did not comply. Food and sleep were also limited, kids were completely deprived of privacy, even in the bathroom and they were permitted no reading, music, TV or contact with the outside world.

The Congressional investigation gave The Seed a bad name--but Sembler and Zappala and a number of other participants in it believed it saved kids' from the evils of drugs.

Despite the fact that only anecdotal evidence favored it and despite research suggesting that its techniques were harmful, they founded a new organization that would utilize even harsher tactics.

Although the federal agency that funded The Seed was supposed to be precluded from funding further human experimentation, Straight received money from it almost immediately after its founding. And parents were still not informed that the treatment had never been researched and was still essentially, experimental.

Sembler proudly claims in his official state department biography that Straight graduated 12,000 kids from its programs. At its peak, it operated nine centers in seven states.

But Sembler never discusses what the Straight "treatment" actually involved. As was done at the Seed, kids spent 12 hours or longer a day seated on hard blue plastic chairs. If they slouched or looked the wrong direction, they would be prodded by those next them: if they still didn't sit up straight, they would be thrown to the floor and restrained by fellow participants, often for hours.

During the lengthy group sessions and during restraints, kids rarely received bathroom breaks; as a result, they would often wet or even soil themselves. Regulatory documents from state investigations and court cases document all of these facts and include tales of kids being gagged with Kotex pads, being made to stay awake for days, and being fed diets consisting of only peanut butter sandwiches.

And many of the kids in the program, it would turn out, hadn't actually been drug addicts or even users at all: the program's confrontational evaluation and "intake" procedure frequently produced false confessions. The last Straight program closed in 1993--but its tactics live on in hundreds of similar programs holding thousands of teens, some even run by former Straight employees in former Straight buildings.

An ACLU official once called Straight a "brutal" "concentration camp for throwaway kids." Sembler later remarked to a business magazine that the ACLU opposition, "just shows that we have been doing things right."

Is it any wonder that people who support this kind of treatment for our children wouldn't think twice about torture for terrorist suspects? Is it surprising that a society that accepts such brutal tactics in the "war on drugs" would become even more desensitized in its "war on terror?" When will we recognize that how we treat our children influences not only how they will treat the world, but how we respond to it as well?