This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday March 3 2015.
President George W. Bush : Look, I’m going to say it one more time…. Maybe I can be more clear. The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you. We’re a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at these laws, and that might provide comfort for you. —Sea Island, Georgia, June 10, 2004
There have been a number of reports on the use of torture by the USA. There was a heavily redacted 2004 report from the Office of Professional Responsibility in the Department of Justice. In 2007, the ICRC (Red Cross) published its Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody. The ICRC said in the introduction, “that the consistency of the detailed allegations provided separately by each of the fourteen adds particular weight to the information provided.” There was a Senate Armed Services Committee report from 2008 about how the military used torture. There was a recent Senate report, or rather an executive summary, on CIA torture. There have been a dozen reports on torture practised at Abu Ghraib.
There is still no comprehensive public report on how the executive branch made decisions about torture. Former US Vice-President Dick Cheney described the recent Senate report as “full of crap”. Cheney will have none of the argument that GW Bush was ignorant of the methods used by the CIA. “He was in fact an integral part of the program. He had to approve it before we went forward with it. I think he knew everything he needed to know and wanted to know about the program.” At one meeting, John Ashcroft, then attorney general, demanded of his colleagues, “Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.”
These days we hear mealy-mouthed euphemisms, such as “alternative set of procedures”. The CIA, even after the damning Senate report, maintains that its “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not constitute torture. In the early days after 9/11, words went unminced. The CIA was already talking about torture before they even had a suspect on whom to practise.
The CIA did very little if any research about what kind of torture would work. There is no discussion springing from the need to torture particular people such as prisoners in hand who are unwilling to talk. Talk of torture itself started very soon after 9/11, when “high-value” detainees were not available.
When they did have someone to practise on, they went at it with a will. Abu Zubaydah, a thirty-one-year-old Palestinian from Gaza, was captured in March 2002 in Pakistan. Initially, he did provide some useful information – that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks, and that José Padilla was plotting to become a dirty bomber. However, that was down to the FBI not the CIA (although they claimed credit) and the information did not come from torture. Two experienced FBI interrogators who had fluent Arabic and deep knowledge about al-Qaeda used traditional “rapport-building” techniques.
The CIA had Abu Zubaydah in their clutches first but were too dumb to realise how important he was. Afterwards, they attributed too much importance to him, convincing themselves he was the third or fourth man in al-Qaeda. In reality, he was not even a member of al-Qaeda, merely a travel agent for al-Qaeda.
FBI expert Ali Soufan objected strenuously to rank amateurs like former military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen taking over the interrogation. FBI people who knew what they were doing without torture pulled out of the questioning leaving it to amateurs using a “black site” in Thailand. The CIA were diverted by their misguided conviction that Abu Zubaydah was withholding information about attacks that would have killed thousands of people. They believed they had to torture him so that he would reveal information to justify their use of torture. Their use of torture was because he had not revealed any such information.
They deprived Abu Zubaydah of sleep for 180 hours and waterboarded him eighty-three times, the last two sessions against the strenuous objections of the on-site interrogators, who judged correctly that he was completely compliant: he just had nothing more to reveal. He was mostly naked and cold, “sometimes with the air conditioning adjusted so that, one official said, he seemed to turn blue.” Zubaydah told the story himself. When loud music no longer played, “there was a constant loud hissing or crackling noise, which played twenty-four hours a day”. “I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room. I was also repeatedly slapped in the face….”. They put him in a black box. “As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds.” Eventually, a doctor stopped the torture. “I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.”
Testimony from others who were tortured supports this. A clear method emerges from these accounts, based on forced nudity, isolation, bombardment with noise and light, deprivation of sleep and food, and repeated beatings.
CIA Director George Tenet regularly told the highest government officials specific procedures to be used on specific detainees. Shortly after Abu Zubaydah was captured, according to ABC News, CIA officers “briefed high-level officials in the National Security Council’s Principals Committee,” including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, who “then signed off on the [interrogation] plan.”
The CIA justified the torture of Abu Zubaydah as a success because their brutal techniques allowed them to alleviate their anxiety about how much he really knew. They did not get any more information through torture but eventually convinced themselves that he had no more information.
Articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times revealed a secret world of black sites, prisons on military bases around the world, into which kidnapped people disappeared. “We don’t kick the [expletive] out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the [expletive] out of them”. Extraordinary rendition meant the detainee shackled at hands and feet was transported to the airport by road and loaded onto a plane. Earphones would be placed over his ears, through which music would sometimes be played. He would be blindfolded with a cloth tied around the head and black goggles. The journey times ranged from one hour to over thirty hours. The detainee and had to urinate and defecate into a diaper.
The US corrupted the world with this programme. A report by the Open Society Justice Initiative shows that 54 countries, including Ireland, helped to facilitate the CIA’s secret detention, rendition and interrogation programme. They participated in by hosting CIA prisons on their territories; detaining, interrogating, torturing, and abusing individuals; assisting in the capture and transport of detainees or permitting the use of domestic airspace and airports for secret flights transporting detainees.
The CIA’s former acting general counsel, John Rizzo, was involved in the programme from the start until 2009. He had a career at the CIA since the 1970s and was a main author of the 2001 Memorandum of Notification to the president that gave the CIA broad power to torture. Bush (pace Cheney’s recent comments), according to the intelligence committee report, was not briefed in detail on the actual techniques until 2006. The original authorization for the torture programme seems to have come from the Memorandum of Notification, a presidential document drafted by the CIA itself and signed by Bush on September 17, 2001.
An internal CIA draft letter to the attorney general sought a formal declaration that there would be no prosecutions of torturers. When the Justice Department’s Criminal Division refused to provide immunity, the CIA lied to the Justice Department and found lawyers who would do their bidding. John Yoo, the author of the original torture memo, told the Office of Professional Responsibility that he would not have judged waterboarding legal if he had known the truth about how brutal it was.
In 1994, the US signed the Convention against Torture. This not only prohibits torture but also requires that it be investigated and punished. On his second day in office, Obama announced plans to close the Guantánamo detention facility within a year and to end immediately George W. Bush’s authorization of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Although Obama once famously commented that “we tortured some folks” and that “I believe waterboarding was torture”, he has taken no action against the torturers. There are obvious avenues for investigation and possible prosecution, though the Obama administration shows no interest taking them.
This avoidance means that, practically speaking, torture remains an option for policymakers rather than a criminal offense. CIA director John Brennan has explicitly refused to rule out the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques under a future administration. The message to future presidents facing a serious security threat is that the prohibition of torture can be ignored without consequence. Abusive security forces from around the world are likely to take heart from that precedent as well.
Michael White was lambasted when he wrote in the Guardian: “it is also a day of redemption for the American system of imperfectly accountable government and that country’s many enemies should remember that as they hurl bricks and demand the prosecution of offenders”.
In his recent book Pay Any Price, investigative journalist James Risen described two of the most consequential aspects of American national security policy after September 11: the organized torture of al-Qaeda suspects in secret CIA prisons and the mass surveillance of communications by Americans carried out by the National Security Agency. There is a third consequence- attempts to muzzle the media. The Department of Justice prosecuted and imprisoned about half a dozen press sources for disclosing classified information about mass surveillance and torture.
At his first inauguration, Barack Obama rejected “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Fine words. Risen writes: “The rush to transform the United States from an open society to a walled fortress, prompted by the 9/11 attacks and propelled by billions of dollars spent on homeland security”, has left little room for serious public debate about “how best to balance security, civil liberties and freedom of movement. It is no longer much of a debate—security always wins.”