By Charlie de Rivaz:
A few hours ago the Senate Intelligence Committee released parts of the long-awaited 6000-page ‘CIA Torture report’. The report has revealed the extent and the brutality of the torture used by the CIA during the ‘War on Terror’, initiated in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the USA.
The report tells us that the infamous ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ used by the CIA against detainees were even more extreme than first thought, and go far beyond the ‘severe mental or physical suffering’ required to be torture.
The use of waterboarding – or “near-drowning”, as the CIA itself describes it – has long been known. Then there was hooding, slaps and “wallings”, which involved slamming detainees against walls, alongside the familiar techniques of isolation, sleep deprivation, stress positions, and long-term exposure to loud and dissonant noises. But there were also the mock executions, the revving of power-drills near heads, the “rectal rehydration” (unnecessary feeding through the anus), the “rough takedowns” (dragging a nude but hooded detainee up and down the corridor while punching and slapping him), as well as the threats to sexually abuse a detainee’s mother, to harm his children, to only let him leave “in a coffin-shaped box”.
The torture report has shown that the full details of the CIA’s torture regime were not revealed to Congress or the White House, and that senior CIA officials repeatedly overruled interrogators concerned about what they were being asked to do. The CIA also misrepresented both the extent and the effectiveness of their torture program. These findings will lead to serious questioning about the future role of the CIA.
But I believe that the most lasting impact of the report is that it finally puts to bed the lie that torture can be justified by national security concerns. The report categorically states that the CIA’s torture regime “was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees” (p.11).
The belief that torture can be justified on national security grounds is not uncommon. Unfortunately it has been held by politicians with the power to act on that belief. Tony Blair and Jack Straw allegedly knew at least some of the details of the CIA’s ‘interrogation’ regime and did not act to prevent MI6’s complicity in it. Dick Cheney has repeatedly extolled the virtues of the CIA’s regime. Just yesterday he said that “when we had that [CIA] program in place, we kept the country safe from any more mass casualty attacks, which was our objective”.
This belief that torture can be justified also infects the minds of ordinary people. It stems from our intuitive response to the “ticking bomb” scenario: if we torture the terrorist then we save the city from a nuclear bomb, if we don’t then millions die. Put in such stark terms we cannot help but be seduced by torture, and arguments about the importance of human dignity become, quite frankly, obtuse.
But the issue with the “ticking bomb” is that in the real world we cannot be so certain. We cannot know for sure that the terrorist we have is the one with the vital information, or that torturing him will reveal that information. The CIA torture report demonstrates this more forcefully than, arguably, any other document in history.
The torture of Hassan Ghul, who led the CIA to the courier who would in turn lead the CIA to Bin-Laden, provided “no actionable information”. All the useful information he provided came before he was tortured. The same is true of Abu Zubaydah, who revealed the crucial information that led to the capture of a senior al-Qaeda operative before he was tortured. During his waterboarding he just told the CIA the same thing again. This operative was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who, after waterboarding, told the CIA about the ‘Second Wave’ of 9/11 attacks that had been planned for the West Coast. But the CIA already knew all of this information, which had been revealed – without torture – by a Malaysian national four years earlier.
In each of these cases, and the 17 others investigated in the report, the CIA claimed that their ‘interrogation’ program had led them to the crucial information. But they were lying every time. The information was either revealed before torture or, when torture did lead to information, it was stuff the CIA already knew. At no point was torture effective in preventing terrorist attacks. The fact that the CIA pretended that it was shows that they believed they needed a real justification for their actions (presumably because they knew their actions were wrong or, at the very least, on shaky legal ground).
I hope that the belief that torture works, that we need it to protect our countries, will finally be put to bed. The CIA torture report is the most unequivocal declaration of the inefficacy of torture. We do not live in the world of the “ticking bomb”; we live in a world of uncertainties, and in this world waterboarding, wallings and rough takedowns do not work. So the next time a politician, or anyone for that matter, says that torture is necessary to protect us, remind them of today, when we were shown, definitively, that it is not.
Charlie is an MA student on the Conflict, Security and Development programme at King’s College, London. For three years he worked in Argentina and Colombia as an English teacher and journalist. His main interests include the political economy of war, international human rights law, conflict resolution, and state-failure and state-building. Charlie is currently the Managing Editor of the Strife blog.
Editors’ note: Strife and the US Foreign Policy Research group will be hosting our first annual conference 4 March 2015 at King’s College London entitled: “A world in flux? Analysis and prospects for the U.S. in global security”. Leading up to this, we will be featuring a number of articles and responses to current events related to US and global security from a variety of students, researchers, practitioners and academics. This article is part of that series.