After US torture report, how to enshrine ‘never again’?


Gul Rahman (pictured above), an Afghan citizen arrested by US officials in Pakistan in October 2002, froze to his death on the floor of a prison in US captivity just a month later, stripped half-naked and chained to a wall in a secret ‘black site’ operated by the US Central Intelligence Agency in Kabul. USflag

That’s one of several revelations from the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report respecting the CIA’s use of torture techniques in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks and throughout two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the duration of the presidency of George W. Bush.

The techniques used by CIA interrogators, as outlined in the report, are more gruesome than previously reported, though I can’t imagine that it surprises anyone. It’s not completely unrealistic, for example, that interrogators could have waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times or that officials ‘rectally force-fed’ a suspect or conducted rectal searches that amounted to sexual assault. Vox has a look at the 16 most outrageous CIA abuses, and the Daily Beast has a similar look at the excesses described in the report, and there’s not much to add to it. The report speaks for itself — there’s not a particularly partisan way to spin ‘rectal rehydration.’

Like Bagram and Abu Ghraib and My Lai, the Kabul black site, known as the ‘Salt Pit,’ will become another byword for US hypocrisy, a new example of how American brutality abroad triumphed over the legal, moral and democratic ideals upon which the United States claims to hold sacred. In fact, the abuses that took place at the ‘Salt Pit’ make the prisoner abuses within the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib seem like a trip to summer camp.

Though the report redacts the role of other countries, responsibility for the shameful actions aren’t solely for the United States alone to bear, despite international calls, including from UN special rapporteur on counter terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, for the United States to prosecute the perpetrators of the worst CIA violations. But countries like Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Thailand, Egypt and many, many others (their roles not always clear from the redacted report) were happy to host CIA ‘black sites,’ sometimes at a price, where most of the alleged torture took place. It’s a reminder that, of course, the world’s a messy place and our allies, many of which are longstanding or emerging democracies themselves, are happy to be silent partners in the darker aspects of what’s been an often stabilizing US global presence.

The report’s release wasn’t even certain, given efforts by the CIA and the administration of Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, to prevent or redact much of the report. Over the weekend, US secretary of state John Kerry reportedly tried to delay the report’s release in a phone conversation with the chair of the intelligence committee, Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein of California. The CIA itself has even admitted that CIA personnel spied on Senate staffers throughout the five-year process of investigating and writing today’s 6,000-page report, for which only a redacted 480-page executive summary was released. The efforts have brought together an odd-bedfellows coalition of officials, including Feinstein, who otherwise holds hawkish views with respect to the Obama administration’s anti-terrorism efforts abroad, and Republican senators, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom have taken hard lines in favor of American interventionism in Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere.

The refrain that we hear over and over again is that the report’s release will help ensure that the CIA abuses of the 2000s (call them ‘enhanced interrogation’ or torture) won’t happen again.

But there’s really no guarantee that it won’t.

Remember that throughout 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney argued that he would deploy more ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques than Obama, who curbed the use of controversial techniques in early 2009 upon taking office. Romney, however, never fully clarified whether he would return to the full panoply of CIA tactics that the Bush administration used. Plenty of Republicans are today defending Bush-era tactics, and they are taking issue with the Senate report’s conclusion that the interrogations didn’t result in quality intelligence. Former vice president Dick Cheney called the report a ‘bunch of hooey,’ and Bush himself made a rare statement defending the actions of what he called ‘patriots.’

Critics rightly worry that the Obama administration has not done enough to enshrine the notion that ‘enhanced interrogation’ tactics — many of which reasonably constitute torture under the United Nations Convention against Torture — are unacceptable. The Obama administration, to its credit, moved quickly to denounce the Bush-era tactics and, pursuant to executive order, ended the practices. But the US Congress hasn’t passed any legislation that would enshrine that into law, and the Obama administration hasn’t been incredibly quick to champion the cause of preventing torture in future governments. So the next administration, of either party, could just as easily return to those tactics — especially in the frenzied climate of fear following a terrorist attack. Even if the Bush administration is culpable for some incredibly foul human rights abuses, it’s easy to understand the very human instincts involved. If Cheney, CIA officials and other crossed the line, they didn’t do so because they’re cartoonishly evil potentates, it’s because they woke up every day terrified that another terrorist attack could happen on their watch.  rodriguez

Nevertheless, the Obama administration hasn’t moved to prosecute anyone for the CIA’s abuses, the most notable of which seem to be the way that CIA officials misled the public and even top members of the Bush administration, including the president himself. The report singles out John McLaughlin, the CIA deputy director between 2000 and 2004, and Jose Rodriguez (pictured above), the head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, in particular. Rodriguez apparently exaggerated the benefits of the CIA’s interrogation program, including his claim that the tactics directly led to the successful raid on al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011. Rodriguez destroyed videotape evidence of waterboarding, and the Senate report notes that he tried to silence internal CIA dissent as to the program’s legality:

“Strongly urge that any speculative language as to the legality of given activities or, more precisely, judgment calls as to their legality vis-à-vis operational guidelines for this activity agreed upon and vetted at the most senior levels of the agency, be refrained from in written traffic (email or cable traffic). Such language is not helpful.”

By not working more forcefully to establish a norm that torture is clearly wrong, the Obama administration has arguably failed in what should have been its chief objectives since 2009. Institutionally, the natural tendency of executive power is to work to retain the prerogatives of executive power. One explanation is that the Obama administration, through its aggressive use of unmanned drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere, doesn’t want to set a precedent of criminal liability for arguably unlawful foreign policy practices.

That’s opened the door for the kind of arguments you can expect to hear for the rest of the week — that CIA officials, working hard to prevent another terrorist attack, faced a ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario and employed the necessary tactics to produce the intelligence to keep Americans safe. Though the Senate report concluded that the CIA tactics did not, in fact, result in actionable or cognizable intelligence.

The coordinated response from former CIA officials, including McLaughlin and former CIA directors George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden, doesn’t even bother to contest the facts that the Senate report produced — instead, it engages in a kind of cost-benefit analysis of torture. Was it worth it? Did we save lives? They’ve even created a website called ‘’ Note that they didn’t call it, instead, ‘CIADidn’’ It shifts the debate from absolute terms (i.e., whether the CIA tactics torture and therefore illegal, notwithstanding the White House’s legal justifications to the contrary) to relative terms (i.e., whether the CIA tactics were justified) in ways that I think most of us find uncomfortable in a democracy governed by the rule of law and due process.

But even acknowledging, for the sake of argument, that torture techniques work, the CIA abuses have weakened the United States’s reputation for following the rule of law and for due process. It makes it that much easier to recruit and radicalize young Muslims throughout the Middle East — every suspect tortured or killed at the hands of a US official is a propaganda victory for the nastiest of jihadist enemies hellbent on creating neo-caliphates based on the most skewed ideas of Islamist law.

Whatever you think of the merits of the CIA’s interrogation program, it takes some serious blinders not to realize that it’s hindered both hard-power and soft-power efforts to advance the US national interest in the ensuing years.

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