The CIA and torture: Time to move on?

When somebody says it is time to move on, it means there is something deeply embarrassing that they don't want to discuss in public

Gwynne Dyer

When somebody says it is time to move on, it means there is something deeply embarrassing that they don’t want to discuss in public. President Barack Obama said that about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, published on Tuesday, about the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture in the years after 9/11.

He put the best face on it after Senator Dianne Feinstein’s committee released the 528-page report anyway, talking about how “part of what sets us (Americans) apart is that when we do something wrong, we acknowledge it.” But as recently as Friday US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Feinstein not to release the report now on the grounds that the “timing” was wrong. When would it be right, then?

Feinstein ignored him because she knew (as did he) that if the report was not put out now, it never would be. Next month a new Congress will take office, and the majority on the new Senate Intelligence Committee will be Republicans. They would certainly make sure that it never sees the light of day.

But there is one Republican Senator, at least, who thinks differently. John McCain, who ran against Obama in the 2008 presidential election, said bluntly that torture “rarely yields credible information….What might come as a surprise, not just to our enemies, but to many Americans, is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow.”

McCain was severely tortured himself while a prisoner-of-war in North Vietnam in 1968, and eventually made an anti-American propaganda “confession”. As he later said: “I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.” But then, he knows more about this subject than any other American politician, and probably more than any CIA torturer. They were never at the receiving end.

Even McCain, however, confined himself to saying that torture was not a useful instrument of American policy. He avoided talking about the more important fact that it is also a grave crime under international law, because that would mean admitting that senior officials in former president George W Bush’s Republican administrations who authorised the torture in 2002-06 – possibly even including Bush himself – should face prosecution.

Almost every senior American politician will avoid talking about that. The debate in the United States will be between those who insist that the waterboarding, regular beatings, “stress positions”, ice baths, sleep deprivation, “rectal feeding”, and other torture techniques used on captives in the CIA’s “black sites” yielded useful information and saved American lives, and those who say that it was all pointless and useless.

The Senate committee’s report provides fuel for this debate, examining twenty cases of counterterrorism “successes” achieved by torture that the CIA has used to justify its actions.  Even now, CIA Director John Brennan defends the torture, claiming that “the intelligence gained from the programme was critical to our understanding of al-Qaeda.” But the committee concludes that not one case produced unique or otherwise unavailable intelligence.

But this is all beside the point. The law doesn’t say that torture is a crime unless it produces useful intelligence, any more than it says that murder is a crime unless it is profitable. It simply says that torture is a crime, always and in any circumstances. As it should.

The American Civil Liberties Union, to its credit, says that the attorney general should appoint a special prosecutor to conduct “an independent and complete investigation of Bush administration officials who created, approved, carried out and covered up the torture programme….In our system, no one should be above the law, yet only a handful of mainly low-level personnel have been criminally prosecuted for abuse. That is a scandal.”

But the discussion about punishing the people who committed these crimes will mostly be conducted outside the United States, and it won’t be conducted by governments. The several dozen American allies that were accomplices in the CIA’s “Rendition, Detention and Interrogation” programme, have all exercised their right to have information about their collaboration removed from the report.

The debate will therefore have to take place in the media and in the international organisations. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism Ben Emmerson, for example, said in Geneva that senior officials from the Bush administration who planned and sanctioned these crimes must be prosecuted, as well as CIA and US government officials responsible for torture such as waterboarding.

“As a matter of international law,” Emmerson said, “the US is legally obliged to bring those responsible to justice.” Well, yes, but you would be wise not to hold your breath while waiting for this to happen. So far, only one former CIA official, John Kyriakou, has been jailed in connection with the torture programme – and he was prosecuted for confirming to reporters that the CIA was waterboarding prisoners.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent

journalist based in London.

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