It is always easy to kick America somewhere very painful. This is one of the fattest countries in the world. It is also the richest, most powerful nation on earth, with an arrogant belief in its own exceptionalism and a propensity to lecture the world on moderation, justice, freedom and human rights. After Tuesday night, when the US senate published a self-flagellating report about the CIA’s use of torture from 2001 to 2009, America seems resigned to a well-deserved kicking.
Worldwide, US missions are on high alert. In the Middle East, thousands of marines are sleeping with their metaphorical boots on. Americans everywhere, including private individuals, have been advised to be wary of a possible backlash.
This is grim but appropriate. Americans must know that the world is repulsed by what they have done. It is inaccurate to say it was done in their name. In the paroxysm of paranoia and fear after 9/11, terrorism suspects were summarily abducted (it was called extraordinary rendition) and brutally interrogated in the grossest way imaginable at ominously named black sites in 54 partner countries. The coercive methods included rectal hydration and rectal feeding – previously unknown as a CIA torture tactic for uncooperative detainees – which is normally used to provide end-of-life medical care.
Suspects were waterboarded or dunked until they nearly drowned and were at the end of their tether. They were deprived of sleep for up to 180 hours and made to stand still in painful postures. Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian terror suspect born in Saudi Arabia, was one of the first to be clandestinely detained in an unnamed third country thought to be Thailand, where he was confined to a coffin-sized box for hours on end for 47 straight days in August 2002. Like putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop, numerous CIA interrogation officers were given their task despite documented problems of violent and abusive behaviour.
These operators were a world away from the sort of “enlightened hard-boiledness” employed by Sherwood Ford Moran, one of America’s most effective interrogators of Japanese prisoners of war. A missionary, who was living in Japan when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Moran joined the marines as a senior language intelligence officer and used his fluency and pleasant temperament to good effect. He would routinely begin by telling the prisoner he considered him “out of the war, out of the picture, and thus, in a way, not an enemy”.
There have been all too few Morans in America’s post-9/11 war. It is all there in the 525-page summary of the report, which was prepared after five years of analysing more than six million pages of CIA documents.
It cannot give the CIA’s innocent victims, such as the six men released from Guantanamo on Sunday after 12 years without charge, much comfort or indeed the lives they lost while incarcerated. But the devastating report does at least strip away euphemism from the cutely named procedure called enhanced interrogation.
“Under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured,” the senate intelligence committee chairman Dianne Feinstein wrote at the start of the report.
This merely confirms what has long been known, anecdotally and through a thin stream of reports from human rights groups and lawyers in the years that Guantanamo was a hideously flourishing enterprise. Torture was banned by the United Nations 30 years ago. And yet, the US, which believes it is both mighty and good, coldly institutionalised an inhuman and degrading system beyond the reach of any legal scrutiny. It’s fair to say that the highest standards in war and peace are expected of countries like the US mostly because it constantly lays claim to shining values and the moral high ground.
Is the report a mea culpa? It was a brave decision to publish it at all – not every country has the appetite for exposing its private shame to the world. But is that enough? Ms Feinstein calls the torture a “stain” on US history and handsomely acknowledges that though the report can’t bleach it out, “it can and does say to our people and the world that America is big enough to admit when it’s wrong and confident enough to learn from its mistakes”.
That would be more believable if the report’s primary focus was on the morality of torture rather than on its effectiveness.
The summary’s very first finding is that the CIA’s brutal methods were not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees. No terrorist attacks were foiled using information gathered from a waterboarded man “with bubbles rising from his open full mouth”. Torture did not produce the clues that led US Navy Seals to Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. That torture yields little is a repetition, in different words, of the US Army field manual’s guidance on limits to interrogation. President Barack Obama reimposed it on the CIA in 2009.
But by pointing out the ineffectiveness of torture, the report almost seems to suggest that America is not so much appalled by its moral lapse as embarrassed by its inefficiency. It didn’t work, had it done so things might have been different, Ms Feinstein told the BBC’s Jon Sopel after the report was made public.
The CIA has contested this, insisting lives were saved and terrorist acts foiled. A group of former senior CIA officials arenow involved in a counter-information campaign and its backbone is a new website titled CIASavedLives.com
But this is a false argument and lets America down. Is torture to be permitted if it yields any benefits in terms of security? Or any other tangible gain?
In any civilised society, both ends and means matter.