A man as he crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The director of the CIA insisted December 9, 2014 that US agents’ use of brutal interrogation techniques against Al-Qaeda suspects helped prevent attacks, in the wake of a critical Senate report. John Brennan admitted that mistakes had been made, but said the Central Intelligence Agency’s own review found that harsh interrogations “did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives.” AFP
Despite international outrage over the torture of terror suspects by the CIA, one cannot but hail the United States governmental structure which gives hope that there is still space for value-based politics.
The United States may be the world’s biggest mischief maker with its lopsided foreign policy that allows countries like Israel to commit war crimes and get away unpunished, but domestically, the country is blessed with one of the best forms of democracy -- preserved and nurtured by a Constitution which is regarded as the most enlightened human document the world has ever seen. That is why the system is now working to tie up the loose ends that have allowed the CIA to flush moral values and the founding principles of the federation down the Guantanamo Bay Gulag prison toilets.
It is encouraging to note that the release of the report, which found that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) misled the government, Congress and the people over the torture programme, has reinvigorated calls to reactivate the accountability process. The need to strengthen democratic institutions that had been undermined during the previous George W. Bush administration is being felt strongly again.
"The United States may be the world’s biggest mischief maker with its lopsided foreign policy that allows countries like Israel to commit war crimes and get away unpunished, but domestically, the country is blessed with one of the best forms of democracy -- preserved and nurtured by a Constitution regarded as the most enlightened human document the world has ever seen."
The Barack Obama administration knew that the de-classification of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture would draw worldwide condemnation from friends and foes alike. But it had the moral courage to expose the illegal practices adopted by the key intelligence arm of the state.
“No nation is perfect. But one of the strengths that make America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better,” Obama said in response to the release of the report.
Some ten years ago, leaked photographs showed how Iraqi detainees in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were subjected to physical and sexual abuse, rape, sodomy, and other forms of torture which even led to deaths. Many of the Abu Ghraib victims are today mental wrecks. The Bush administration was quick to dismiss the photographic evidence as an aberration or isolated incidents, which were not in conformity with US policy or values. But international human rights groups such as the Red Cross, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said that what happened in Abu Ghraib was part of a wider pattern of torture and brutal treatment at detention centres manned by the US in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay.
When it became impossible to ignore the international condemnations, the US Department of State charged eleven soldiers with dereliction of duty, maltreatment, aggravated assault and battery. A military court found them guilty and sentenced them to military prison, and dishonorable discharge from service.
Another torture exposé described how two suspects died during their detention at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. They were chained to the ceiling and beaten until they died.
The US also followed a policy of outsourcing torture. Suspects were sent to countries like Libya, Egypt and Syria, which were notorious for their brutal torture methods.
"The practice of such sadistic forms of torture by dehumanised CIA officials who, according to some reports, had troubled pasts, has vindicated nations that had warned the US that it should not throw stones at others while living in a glasshouse. "
The shame of Abu Ghraib and Bagram and the policy of rendition (outsourcing torture) was one of the issues that dominated Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Pledging to end torture, Obama said during the campaign: “We have to be clear and unequivocal. We do not torture, period,” he said, adding, “That will be my position as president.”
But once in office, Obama began to think like a politician. As president, he signed an executive order prohibiting torture but shielded the CIA from torture allegations. He appointed John Brennan who oversaw the CIA’s torture programme as his chief counter-terrorism advisor and later as the CIA chief. In 2010, Attorney General, Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would not prosecute CIA operatives who destroyed videotapes of CIA waterboarding sessions in 2005. So much for his commitment to end torture!
However, the public debate on torture led to the 45 million dollar Congressional investigation. Surely in a country that led the world in drafting the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the Geneva Conventions in 1949, the details contained in the declassified part of the Senate report must be shocking. US citizens and the rest of the world were shocked to know that the CIA’s torture methods, euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques”, included not only waterboarding but worse forms of torture such as sleep deprivation for weeks, head-banging, sensory deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, holding detainees in stress positions, confinement in coffin-like boxes, rectal hydration and rectal feeding.
The practice of such sadistic forms of torture by dehumanised CIA officials who, according to some reports, had troubled pasts, has vindicated nations that had warned the US that it should not throw stones at others while living in a glasshouse. These states -- some of which the US has tried to shame at the UN Human Rights Council sessions by way of resolutions – have questioned the moral authority of the US to champion human rights. If not for the election campaign, Sri Lanka could have taken a dig at the US.
China, painted by the US brush as one of the biggest violators of human rights, in a display of moral one-upmanship said: “We believe the US should reflect upon itself, correct its ways and earnestly respect and abide by the rules of international conventions.”
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, which is often taunted by the Western media and politicians for its human rights record, in a Twitter message described the United States as a “symbol of tyranny against humanity” -- not just in the CIA torture programme but also in domestic law enforcement.
The executive summary report gives only the pain of the pin prick. The bigger picture remains classified and untold. Yet the gross details revealed in the heavily redacted report are shocking enough.
Naureen Shah, Amnesty International’s US director, said that among the most shocking disclosures in the report were revelations that the US hired two psychologists with no experience in interrogation methods at the cost of more than $180m to help establish the programme.
“This is the kind of thing that goes beyond horrific,” Shah said. “It shows exactly how free the US government felt to commit torture with impunity. It’s brazen in its detail and also in its abdication of legal responsibility – the idea that you would outsource to contractors the design of a programme that at base was about torture and ill treatment.”
Well, it was no secret that the US had hired psychologists to set up similar programmes to elicit information from spies arrested during the Cold War. Torture has been part of secret state policy in the US and other countries. What we have been conditioned to believe is that torture is practised by rogue states and that democratic states or civilised nations do not resort to barbarism. But the real rogue states are the ones that overtly practise democracy at domestic level but covertly adopt wicked policies to pursue their national interests.
Now that the report is out, the question is, “what’s next?” A UN special investigator has demanded those responsible for “systematic crimes” be brought to justice. Will the Obama administration take the authors of torture to court?
The report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee led by Democrat Dianne Feinstein, does not name a single top Bush administration official. The report also does not recommend criminal prosecution. But human rights groups that carried out investigations into the Abu Ghraib and Bagram air base torture allegations had claimed that the Bush administration high-ups had permitted the CIA and the US military to use torture as a method of eliciting information.
Ahead of the release of the report, Bush in an interview rejected the Senate committee’s suggestion that he was deceived by the CIA about the scope and nature of the interrogation programme and categorically defended it. His Vice President Dick Cheney said that any attempt to portray the programme as a rogue operation was a “bunch of hooey” and defended its use as “absolutely, totally justified”.
“We did exactly what needed to be done in order to catch those who were guilty on 9/11 and to prevent a further attack, and we were successful on both parts,” Cheney said.
But as the report rightly says torture does not provide useful information. The raid on al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s hideout was not based on information elicited from a tortured suspect. Instead, it was sophisticated techniques of monitoring movements and conversations that led to the raid. Obama acknowledged that torture had been counterproductive and contrary to American values.
The UN Convention against torture – a treaty to which the US is a signatory -- says no exceptional circumstances can be invoked to justify torture, and all those responsible for authorising or carrying out torture or other ill-treatment must be fully investigated.
Torture is a crime against humanity. It is a process by which a dehumanised person dehumanises his victim. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who believes that the “prohibition against torture is absolute” must realise that there is a big gap between the written word on the convention and what is practised by the convention’s signatories. He must convene a review conference to make the convention meaningful and appoint an international investigator or rapporteur to name and shame the torturers. Otherwise, states will be encouraged to follow the US example and violate the convention with impunity.