“What does this mean for the future direction of our society?” The CIA Torture Report

Disproportionate, Ineffective, and Immoral: Torture is always wrong

We tortured some folks.

Torture works. Torture saves lives.

The alarming implications of the above statements aside, the first one is an understatement and the second one is false.

First of all, the CIA tortured a lot more than just “some” folks, never minding the fact that torturing so much as one person, is one person – and one human rights violation – too many.

Second of all, torture is ineffective. It doesn’t work:

according to CIA records, seven of the 39 CIA detainees known to have been subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques produced no intelligence while in CIA custody.

Also, The CIA lied – repeatedly: CIA torture since 9/11 has been far worse than represented. Conditions in which detainees were held were far worse than represented. The CIA actively avoided oversight by Congress and the White House. Human rights violations were not reprimanded, sometimes even rewarded.

These are just some of the key findings of this week’s Torture Report – or Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA enhanced interrogation techniques, to use the official, euphemistic lingo.

Some of it reads like something straight out of the Middle Ages:

Detainees shackled to walls in absolute darkness, stripped naked and forced to sit on cold floors for hours, stress positions, waterboarding, extensive exposure to bright light and noise, sleep deprivation, mock executions and burials, anal feeding or rehydration.

The question

[i]f torture does not lead to actionable intelligence and does not stop terrorist acts, then why use it at all?

is off the mark. That’s because the question of whether or not to torture should not even present itself, regardless of effectiveness. Torture isn’t justifiable. Full stop. Not ever, but certainly not in a 21st century society that considers itself to be placing any value on human rights and human life – and that rebukes other countries for the same practices it itself uses.

As to torture saving lives, or being a means for obtaining actionable intelligence – it has not been proven to do so (and still wouldn’t be justified, even this if it did.) Given the documented ineffectiveness of torture, Tony Camerino, former senior military interrogator, has a point when he writes in the Guardian:

It makes me question whether the techniques were ever about getting intelligence – or just exacting punishment.

Indeed, it does seem that what this report reveals is the repeated and systematic use of punishment without law.

The report also makes it clear that not only were some or all of the practices used by the CIA illegal, but the CIA was aware of their illegality. So, apparently, were senior White House officials.

Torture is a crime worthy of prosecution – so why is no one being prosecuted?

Yet, disturbingly, as Trevor Timm comments:

The debate, now, is whether torture worked. It clearly didn’t. But the debate should be: Why the hell aren’t these torturous liars in jail?

Or rather, why aren’t they being prosecuted?

The White House…insists it is up to the Department of Justice to decide whether to reopen a previously closed criminal inquiry into whether charges should be brought against those responsible. Instead, it argues that allowing the report to be published goes a long way to repairing damage to America’s reputation and preventing future instances of torture.

Now, I don’t think that simply admitting that torture has happened will go that long a way to repairing America’s damaged reputation or, in fact, preventing future torture. Fair enough, some people might think that admitting to one’s mistakes is somehow enough. We have admitted that we did wrong, so now let’s all kiss and make up and move on kind of thing.

Sorry, but no. Simply admitting to anything isn’t enough. And it isn’t okay to argue that “these techniques [should be left] where they belong — in the past”, as President Obama has done.

Certainly not when something like this has happened:

A man named Gul Rahman, suspected of ties to al-Qaida and its Afghan allies, was shackled to the wall of his cell in November 2002. He was wearing nothing but a sweatshirt. All his other clothing was removed after he was found to be “uncooperative”; his uncooperativeness came after he received, per a CIA cable to headquarters, “48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, a cold shower and rough treatment.”… Rahman was found dead the next day….[he] mostly likely died from hypothermia.

How is this not a crime worthy of prosecution? How is saying “yes ok, we tortured some folks, let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again” with no consequences for the people involved, enough?

Don’t get me wrong: I am not calling for retribution here, far from it. But like any other crime, surely CIA torture should be met with appropriate legal consequences?


[n]o CIA officials were disciplined – let alone charged – for Rahman’s death. Not even a month after he froze to death, CIA approved a plan to strip detainees nude in 45F rooms. Three months after that, one of Rahman’s interrogators was recommended to receive a $2,500 cash bonus for his “consistently superior work”.

The fact that President Obama did not immediately commit to holding the people responsible accountable makes you wonder not only what the priorities are here. More importantly, if you tell someone not to do something (and Obama has prohibited torture) but at the same time take no action to suggest that violations will have consequences, then how effective can you expect your prohibition to be?

Bear in mind that detainees continued to be subjected to cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment

in July 2007 – after John McCain ensured passage of legislation banning the CIA from engaging in cruel treatment, after the Supreme Court ruled that Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions protected every prisoner in U.S. custody.

Torture is unworthy of 21st century societies

Now, I know that there are people who argue that in order to prevent worse atrocities (like terrorist attacks) torture is justified. Similarly, people argue that for certain particularly heinous crimes, the death penalty is justified. Both are equally wrong. Like the death penalty, torture is unworthy of 21st century democracies. The same is true of mass surveillance and any other unwarranted infringement of human dignity and human rights. They are relics of a bygone, less enlightened age. Instinctively, we know that this is true because we do not hesitate to condemn such violations by states which we see as being outside of our club of enlightened societies. Hence the surprise of so many when, more than a year ago, fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden found shelter in a country which we see as antithetical to many of our ideas of what 21st century states ought to be. Yet, Snowden to this day is on the run from a country that we still understand to be a pillar of human rights and dignity when really it isn’t. The CIA Torture Report highlights the US’s own, deeply flawed human rights record. Mass surveillance and drone strikes are further examples.

You may want argue, like Barack Obama has done, that

[n]obody can fully understand what it was like to be responsible for the safety and security of the American people in the aftermath of the worst attack on our national soil… When countries are threatened, oftentimes they act rashly in ways that in retrospect were wrong.

Granted, we may not fully understand what it was like to have that responsibility. But that doesn’t mean that anything goes. As individuals, we may or may not agree with the consequences that the law attaches to certain crimes, but that is part of the point: law and state need to place themselves outside the realm of individual feelings and emotional responses to ensure that human dignity, human rights, and human life continue to be guaranteed and protected, even when ensuring that crime meets with consequence. Torture of any kind, and certainly that conducted by the CIA, potentially with knowledge and sanction from Bush administration officials like Condoleezza Rice and even Bush himself, is a crime not only against the law but also against human dignity, human rights, the basic ideas of humanity, and the idea of a state as an institution that guarantees people these rights.

And it is not just the human rights and dignity of detainees that are at stake here but that of CIA employees as well: we should be worried about what CIA torture does to people witnessing the torture.

Some CIA officers were said to have been reduced “to the point of tears” by witnessing the treatment meted out to one detainee.

And what we know now, shocking as it is, may only be the tip of the iceberg, conserving that “[a] tremendous amount of the Senate torture report remains unseen.”

It isn’t enough for Barack Obama to say that he has been “very explicit … in prohibiting these techniques” and then to rely on this being enough to stop people being tortured in the future. Instead he should be heeding calls like the one from “from a UN special human rights rapporteur for prosecutions of those in the CIA and the Bush administration responsible for the torture programme”.

In fact,

the UN convention against torture require[s] states to prosecute acts of torture where there [is] sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction.

Fundamental wrongs

Sadly, Obama’s hesitation to prosecute, as much as George W. Bush saying that “[w]e’re fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the CIA serving on our behalf” before the report was even released, while also claiming that “the detention and interrogation program was humane and legal” shows that there is something very fundamentally and very worryingly wrong with the way some people in the US (and probably other countries as well) think. To suggest that CIA operatives who torture detainees to death are hardworking employees of the CIA who should be applauded as patriots rather than prosecuted, should raise any possible red flag there is. Note that while “Mr. Obama welcomed the release of the report… in a written statement [he] made sure to praise the C.I.A. employees as “patriots” to whom “we owe a profound debt of gratitude” for trying to protect the country.” As an aside: I personally would like to know how the people responsible for these crimes are considered patriots while Edward Snowden is called traitor.

What the Torture Report also shows is what happens when intelligence agencies are left to do their work in secret with minimum oversight. Like the CIA, the NSA and the GCHQ have been revealed by Edward Snowden and others to conduct work that is of at best questionable legality, with minimum oversight and effectiveness. NSA and intelligence officials have lied about NSA surveillance and its effectiveness just like CIA officials have lied about CIA torture. They have both used the “war on terror”, protection against terrorist attacks, and national security as justification for what they are doing.

I am not saying that everyone in the CIA and the NSA is out to get us.

In fact,

some C.I.A. officers began sending messages to the agency’s headquarters in Virginia questioning the utility — and the legality — of what they were doing. But such questions were rejected.

Yet, the fact that some of these practices were reported but never investigated points to abuse being not the exception but the rule – a rule sanctified by people in positions of power. In any case, Human Rights Watch is right to say that the Torture Report

underscores the need for the US government to promptly release the full report, bolster oversight of the CIA, and investigate and appropriately prosecute the senior officials responsible for the torture program


[t]he failure of the Obama administration to hold those responsible for torture to account risks leaving torture as a policy option when the next inevitable security threat strikes.

Put differently, as Edward Snowden recently told and Amnesty International event in Paris:

If we can run a rendition, a kidnapping, a detention programme, a torture programme, keep it secret for years and then, when it is revealed, hold no one to account, what does this mean for the future direction of our society?

The answer to that question is crucial. Not just for Americans.


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