by Ayesha Alam (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 11, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1436)
While documenting CIA torture of innocents in the so-called war on terror, the American establishment is loathe to put the perpetrators on trial for their crimes.
The release on December 9 of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 500-page Executive summary of CIA torture techniques has sparked a media firestorm. The committee headed by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein documented the agency’s waterboarding and other practices of torture committed under the George W. Bush regime. The Executive Summary is culled from the 6,700-page Report that remains classified. While Bush and his minions constantly harped on the theme, “we don’t do torture,” even the greatly redacted summary makes for horrific reading.
There was already considerable media speculation over the Report. Back in March 2014, Feinstein took to the Senate floor to upbraid the CIA for spying on Senate computers that contained contents of the report. In the rush to get the Executive Summary out the door before a Republican-led majority takes over Congress, Feinstein agreed to print the document with mid-level CIA officers’ names blacked out. The report took four years to research and compile from around six million pages of CIA materials — some of the outgoing Democrats, such as Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), are trying to declassify the entire report and put it in the public domain before the Republicans come in to quash it.
The move to neuter the report continued till the eleventh hour. The progressive magazine Mother Jones revealed in the week preceding the Report’s release, that “Secretary of State John Kerry asked Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), to consider delaying the release of the report given the ongoing threat of ISIS and the safety of American hostages abroad. Former Bush and CIA officials have also been organizing to preemptively challenge the report’s findings.” After the report was released, there has been widespread outrage in the US media, including a New York Times article calling for a criminal investigation of Dick Cheney and other members of the Bush administration.
“Americans have known about many of these acts for years, but the 524-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report erases any lingering doubt about their depravity and illegality,” declared the NYT Editorial board in its December 21 op-ed. “In addition to new revelations of sadistic tactics like “rectal feeding,” scores of detainees were waterboarded, hung by their wrists, confined in coffins, sleep-deprived, threatened with death or brutally beaten. In November 2002, one detainee who was chained to a concrete floor died of “suspected hypothermia. These are, simply crimes.”
These crimes could reach ghastly proportions: according to the Executive Summary. “[It] is my personal conclusion that, under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured,” wrote Feinstein in her introductory letter to the report. “I also believe that the conditions of confinement and the use of unauthorized interrogation and conditioning techniques were cruel, inhuman, and degrading. I believe the evidence of this is overwhelming and incontrovertible.”
Besides the examples listed in the NYT op-ed, there are other examples of physical and psychological torture. A detainee was left partially nude in a freezing cell, where he essentially died of cold. Another detainee was forced to stand on broken legs. “Others were deprived of sleep, which could involve staying awake for as long as 180 hours — sometimes standing, sometimes with their hands shackled above their heads,” describes a December 9 article published in The Daily Beast. “Some detainees were forced to walk around naked, or shackled with their hands above their heads. In other instances, naked detainees were hooded and dragged up and down corridors while subject to physical abuse. At one facility, detainees were kept in total darkness and shackled in cells with loud noise or music, and only a bucket to use for waste.”
“What happened broke faith in the Constitution,” said Udall of the CIA’s torture practices, “It is morally repugnant. When this report is declassified, people will abhor what they read. They’re gonna [sic] be disgusted. They’re gonna be appalled. They’re gonna be shocked at what we did. But it will lay a foundation whereby we don’t do this in the future.”
The hope is rather optimistic — it remains to be seen whether the report will stop the CIA from committing horrific acts of torture against innocent civilians. The CIA has been involved in torture for decades; this is part of the agency’s culture. While chief architects of the torture policy like Dick Cheney hit the airwaves supporting it and stubbornly maintained “it worked” and “saved American lives,” despite clear evidence to the contrary in the Senate report, even Obama signaled he was not going to do anything about it.
Following release of the report, Obama said the interrogation techniques “were not only inconsistent with our values as nation, they did not serve our broader counter-terrorism efforts or our national security interests.” Feinstein had used similar language about the detention and interrogation program calling it “a stain on our values and on our history.” What “values” and “history” is Feinstein referring to: did the US not perpetrate the genocide of Native Americans; did it not practice slavery of African Americans for centuries; has it not waged genocidal wars against innocent people abroad or is not continuing racism against African Americans at home? Pray, tell us what values and history are you referring to, Ms. Feinstein.
When there is not only complete denial that this is in reality America’s true nature but also total resistance to punishing those responsible for such horrific acts, as Obama did, what hope is there for modification in CIA torture practices? “Rather than another reason to re-fight old arguments, I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong, in the past,” Obama said in a written statement.
After denying for months, including lying during Senate hearings, CIA director Brennan sought refuge behind the “few bad apples” excuse. He asserted that the vast majority of CIA operatives do a great job in serving the interests of the nation and saving American lives!
What the revelations do illustrate is that the apparatus of demonizing the Muslim “other” used to justify the waterboarding were erected on a foundation of lies, mistruths, and misdirections. For instance, the Executive Summary alludes to but does not fully disclose a document found in the CIA files titled the Panetta Review (named for ex-CIA Director Leon Panetta, who preceded the current spook chief John Brennan). According to the Panetta Review, the practices of torture were an ineffective way to gain information — a stark contrast with the lofty rhetoric spouted about torture as a necessary evil in order to obtain intel to save American lives. The Panetta Review concluded that detainees will say or agree to anything prompted by the interrogators in order to stop the torture; and most of the “leads” obtained by tortured detainees merely confirmed the information culled from the intelligence gathering “leg-work” performed by operatives on the ground. In other words, torture is tactically useless.
Despite such internal admissions, other former CIA officials, perhaps trying to save their own hides, disputed the report's findings. Senate Republicans always eager to justify crimes committed by the US accused the Democrats of inaccuracies, sloppy analysis and cherry-picking evidence to reach a predetermined conclusion.
At least five men in CIA detention received “rectal rehydration,” a form of feeding through the rectum. Food mixed with chillis was inserted into detainees. The report found no medical necessity for the treatment. Others were threatened that their children or mother would be sexually abused.
After his capture in Pakistan in 2002, Abu Zubaydah was held at a secret facility in Thailand, called “detention Site Green,” He was left in isolation for 47 days without questioning, the report says. Later, he was subjected to a whole range of CIA torture methods including waterboarding that American officials have described with such exotic expressions as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” During one waterboarding session, Abu Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive with bubbles rising through his open full mouth,” according to internal CIA records. He later suffered mental problems.
Gul Rahman, an Afghan detainee, was tortured at the same black site in late 2002. He was shackled to a wall in his cell and forced to rest on a bare concrete floor in only a sweatshirt. The next day he was dead. A CIA review and autopsy found he died of hypothermia.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was subjected to the most horrific torture. He was waterboarded 183 times. It was during one of these waterboarding sessions that he “confessed” to have masterminded the 9/11 attacks. He has been held at Guantanamo Bay since his capture in Pakistan in 2003 and has demanded that he be tried in an open court, an offer the Americans have refused. Though CIA officers noted he wasn’t becoming more compliant, they waterboarded him for 10 more days. He was waterboarded for not confirming a “nuclear suitcase” plot the CIA later deemed a scam. Another time, his waterboarding produced a fabricated confession about recruiting black Muslims in Montana.
The CIA also lied on the extent of its torture program — CIA officials claimed that they only tortured three individuals, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The reality is that many more were subjected to the ordeal of waterboarding or “simulated drowning.” In the Executive Report, the Senate committee describes finding a photograph of a “well worn waterboard” at a detention site where the CIA claimed that waterboarding never took place. There was no “escalation” — the CIA officers proceeded immediately to subjecting detainees to torture, without beginning with non-threatening forms of interrogation. At least 26 detainees were found to be innocent, but were not released. Many detainees were found to be cooperative: despite willingly imparting information, the Report states that the torture continued for months, and even years.
The CIA torture report sheds light on one of the many dark chapters of US history, and the public moment of self-reflection is an important one. However, it is unlikely that this will lead to productive action — while Obama has indeed dismantled the waterboarding program, Guantanamo remains open for business, and a global fleet of drones continues to dispense death in gruesome and horrific ways to civilians in Muslim countries. As constitutional rights and civil liberties erode, Muslim lives at home and abroad grow tragically dispensable.
While Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder refuse to put on trial those officials that authorized torture — Bush, Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Yoo and a host of others — Francis Boyle, internationally renowned Professor of International Law at the University of Illinois, Champaign, has lodged a formal complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate these crimes and to arrest the named individuals (the full Senate report can be accessed at: http://www.intelligence.senate.gov/study2014/ sscistudy1.pdf).