Barack Obama wants to draw line under evidence of CIA torture. He must be stopped
Conclusions of Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture programme are devastating
‘The Senate report has lifted the lid on just one element of the disastrous “global war on terror” unleashed by the Bush administration after 9/11. In doing so, US lawmakers have gone further than their counterparts in Europe’s national parliaments – indeed, Poland only finally admitted this week that it had hosted one of the CIA’s secret prisons.’ Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA
President Barack Obama and his intelligence director John Brennan want to draw a line under evidence that the CIA tortured detainees in secret prisons around the world.
They must not be allowed to do so.
The 525-page summary released this week represents just a fraction of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture programme, which runs to more than 6,700 pages and is based on a five-year examination of millions of pages of official documents.
The report’s conclusions are devastating: that the CIA’s treatment of detainees was far more brutal than the agency admitted; that the use of torture yielded no useful intelligence that could not be acquired by other means; and that the CIA repeatedly misled the White House, Congress and the American public about its torture programme.
The agency emerges from the report as a dysfunctional organisation that was woefully ill-equipped to meet the challenges it faced after the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
The CIA had little expertise in interrogation, and had concluded as long ago as 1978 that coercive methods were counterproductive; however, it was under pressure to thwart a feared “second wave” of attacks on the US.
Experienced investigators from the FBI were initially involved in interrogating suspected terrorists picked up in Pakistan and Afghanistan after 9/11 and they secured valuable intelligence from a number of detainees without the use of harsh methods.
Determined to push the FBI out of the way, the CIA opened a number of “black sites”, secret prisons in countries including Thailand, Afghanistan, Poland, Romania and Lithuania, where they could detain and interrogate suspects beyond the reach of the US legal system.
Over the subsequent years, the CIA would conceal and lie about its activities at these black sites to legislators, the justice department, the White House and of course, the media.
In many cases, US ambassadors to the host countries were unaware of the existence of the black sites, and President George W Bush was made aware of the location of only one - the secret prison in Thailand.
It was here that the interrogation began of Abu Zubaydah, an al-Qaeda facilitator who was captured in Pakistan in March 2002.
The FBI was first to interrogate Abu Zubaydah, and its non-coercive techniques elicited all the valuable information he would ever divulge.
The CIA was convinced, however, that the detainee was withholding some crucial piece of information and that he should be subjected to a harsher approach devised by two retired Air Force psychologists, who had become private contractors.
The psychologists had no expertise in hostile interrogation and no relevant linguistic or cultural knowledge. But the CIA effectively outsourced the entire torture programme to these two men, paying them more than $80 million over the next seven years.
The psychologists espoused a concept called “learned helplessness” – using various forms of torture and deprivation to make detainees feel entirely dependent on their captors.
Abu Zubaydah was held in isolation for 47 days before being subjected to 20 days of almost constant interrogation during which he spent 266 hours in a coffin-shaped box and was waterboarded 83 times.
During one waterboarding session he was described as “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open full mouth”.
Abu Zubaydah revealed nothing of significance under torture, but the psychologists informed CIA headquarters that the harsh methods had been successful because their use confirmed that he was no longer hiding anything.
Dozens of other detainees were subjected to similar torture before the programme was wound down in 2006, but none, according to the Senate report, would reveal anything of value in preventing or disrupting a terrorist threat.
To his credit, Obama issued an executive order soon after he took office, banning many of the torture techniques described in the Senate report, but without legislation, a future president could rescind the order.
Obama acknowledged this week that the methods described in the report amounted to torture, eschewing the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” favoured by the Bush administration and the CIA.
CIA director Brennan admitted this week that his agency had been guilty of “lapses”, but rejected the report’s conclusion that torture had not yielded valuable intelligence, adding that there should be no further revelations about the CIA’s programme.
“I think there is more than enough transparency that has happened over the last couple of days,” he said. “I think it’s over the top.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Senate report has lifted the lid on just one element of the disastrous “global war on terror” unleashed by the Bush administration after 9/11.
In doing so, US lawmakers have gone further than their counterparts in Europe’s national parliaments – indeed, Poland only finally admitted this week that it had hosted one of the CIA’s secret prisons.
We have yet to learn the full story of the secret renditions that snatched non-US citizens all over the world and flew them to secret sites, sometimes run by friendly dictatorships, for torture and interrogation. And the role of America’s allies and friends, including Ireland, has yet to be properly documented.
Above all, the United States has an obligation under the United Nations Convention against Torture to prosecute those who have ordered or carried out torture.
Only after those responsible for the CIA’s torture programme are held to account can Americans begin to draw a line under this shameful episode in their history.
Denis Staunton is Deputy Editor