© Josh Sager – April 2014
After the September 11th terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration implemented a covert program of rendition and torture that flew in the face of international law and the American Constitution. This program was ostensibly aimed at preventing terrorist attacks, but, in reality, it only served to fuel hatred for the United States while destroying the United States’ credibility on the issue of human rights.
While we know a great deal about the torture program’s implementation from public statements by Bush officials and leaks (ex. the Abu Ghraib scandal), many of the details surrounding the torture program are still unknown—fortunately, this could be changing, as it appears that the Senate Intelligence Committee is getting ready to release its report on the CIA’s torture program.
The only reason that this report on the failures of the CIA torture programs has not yet been released is that the CIA is refusing to release it. It is ridiculous that the CIA can block this report detailing their own misconduct (like an internal affairs office letting officers accused of excessive force redact or block the release of reports on their misconduct), but they are citing the need to redact sensitive material from the report and have so far been successful in blocking it. This situation illustrates the problem with letting the government simply classify all of its crimes in order to hide them from the public eye.
Fortunately for the American public and the press, the CIA overplayed its hand by spying on the Senate during their investigation and getting caught. While spying on, or even kidnapping and torturing, poor people on other continents is tolerated by the current establishment power-structure, turning those same spying lenses on the politically powerful is seen as an unforgivable offense. When the Senate caught the CIA spying on them, they were outraged and the recent push to release this report is likely a type of bureaucratic payback for that slight.
The full Senate report won’t be released for a little while longer, but the legislature has been leaking snippets and summaries of its contents for over a week. Leaked conclusions from the report appear to paint a very dark picture, with the United States knowingly torturing innocent people for no constructive reason.
The following are a few major conclusions from the report:
Torture Didn’t Work
Arguably the most important conclusion of the report on the CIA torture program is that torture didn’t actually provide good intelligence. This wouldn’t surprise anybody who has read the literature on torture, as the general consensus on the practice is that it elicits false confessions much more readily than it does any real information.
“The CIA described [its program] repeatedly both to the Department of Justice and eventually to Congress as getting unique, otherwise unobtainable intelligence that helped disrupt terrorist plots and save thousands of lives. Was that actually true? The answer is no?”
One specific example of the failure of torture to elicit good intelligence is that of Hassan Ghul. Ghul was an Al Qaeda courier who carried messages for Bin Laden himself and who was pivotal in the tracking and execution of the Al Qaeda leader (if you saw Zero Dark Thirty, it was his torture which was portrayed in the beginning). While the CIA claimed to have extracted the information that led to Bin Laden under enhanced interrogation, this report indicates that that information was obtained by Kurdish authorities before the CIA ever had custody of Ghul. Once he was transferred to, and tortured by, the CIA, Ghul shut down and refused to give further actionable information.
It is important to remember that the efficacy of torture is actually irrelevant—torture is illegal and, even if it were effective, it would still be a war crime that no country should be allowed to use without cost.
The CIA Lied to the Public and to their Legislative Oversight
In addition to lying to the American public about the nature and effectiveness of the torture program (which is somewhat expected), the CIA also deceived both the Senate and the Congress. Through the deceptive dissemination of information, concealment of inconvenient facts, and flat-out fabrications, the CIA tricked the Committees which have oversight powers over them into believing a false narrative surrounding torture.
To many politicians, secretly looking the other way in the face of torture is an easy choice—they face no consequences for letting the CIA run wild, but will be held to the fire by the public if a terrorist attack happens on their watch and the CIA even suggests that the politicians bound their hands. By perpetuating the illusion that torture works and concealing the truth from their legislative oversight, the CIA plays into this disparity in accountability in order to gain more power.
The revelation that the CIA was lying to its oversight presents a massive legal problem for them and a breach in the separation of powers. It is illegal for an agency to lie to its oversight committee and CIA officials could very well be liable for contempt, perjury or other criminal charges for their part in this deception. Unfortunately, while legal action is possible, I seriously doubt that any will be taken any time soon (after all, the NSA didn’t have to pay a price for lying to its oversight committee on the issue of spying).
The CIA Torture Regime was Even Worse than we Thought
We have long known that the United States tortured individuals with a combination of stress position, isolation, intimidation, and waterboarding—all of which are recognized torture techniques under international and domestic law—but this report confirms that even more extreme torture methods were used.
While all torture is inexcusable and no fabricated legal justification by administration lawyers (ex. calling people “enemy combatants” to avoid laws protecting POWs and criminal defendants or calling torture “enhanced interrogation”) mitigates the responsibility of the torturers, this report indicates that the CIA went even farther than the torture techniques officially sanctioned by the White House.
Leaks by officials of segments of this report reference several specific facilities where particularly extreme methods were used:
- A CIA black site in Kabul, Afghanistan called the “Salt Pit” is reported to have dunked prisoners’ repeatedly in freezing cold water then beaten them with batons and bashed their heads into walls.
- The CIA was forced to vacate a black site in Thailand when it was revealed that they were using “disturbing” interrogation techniques on detainees–while specifics on this case are currently unknown, it is safe to assume that whatever the CIA was doing at this site was FAR worse than waterboarding and beatings.
In addition to torturing detainees with methods even more brutal than the “approved” torture techniques, CIA officers regularly tortured detainees who were known not to have any relevant information. This tends to indicate that the CIA was either torturing just for the sake of torturing, intentionally trying to elicit false confessions, or simply unspeakably incompetent—personally, I tend to believe the second option, as false confessions let the CIA brag about false plots that they “stopped” and new “terrorists” who they brought in.
At the end of the day, this report confirms that torture is ineffective as an information gathering tactic and that the CIA was operating lawlessly during the entire Bush era. In order to move forward as a country, we must ensure that every American knows how ineffective torture has been (polls regularly show that over 40% of Americans think that torture is sometimes justifiable and necessary) and mobilize to punish those responsible for this embarrassment.
If we refuse to hold those responsible for the war crimes of the past decade, even in the face of this damning report, the United States has set the groundwork for other nations to follow our example. Russia has already utilized the Bush-era justifications for preemptive war in its recent seizure of Crimea—how long do you think it will be before they decide to emulate the USA in this regard as well?