It’s Time To Look Backward

A torturer once told his victim: “You can never go to court, because we can never let the world know what I have done to you.” The torturer was right.

In December 2014 the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) released 525 pages of its 6900-page report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program in US government communiqués on detainees between 2001 and 2006. The committee studied the use of the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”, more fittingly known as the US torture-program.

The report describes the applied techniques in painful, bleak detail. It speaks of how prisoners were ‘rectally rehydrated’ and ‘rectally fed’, waterboarded to the point of unresponsiveness, forced to stand on broken legs for extended time-periods, denied desperately needed medical treatment, kept awake for at least 180 hours at a stretch and subjected to complete sensory deprivation. They were put in ice baths, paraded around naked and subjected to something referred to as a “rough takedown”. I invite the reader to have a look at the SSCI report to understand what those entail.

No criminal trial had preceded the detentions: Detainees were illegally snatched up and handed over to the CIA. They simply disappeared from their homes, their lives, their families, transported to a place from which they had no realistic hope of being saved, labelled a terrorist by a global superpower, the ringleader in the “war on terror”.

The detainees were used as test-subjects for interrogation methods that were so horrific, that modern day society would not allow to test their effects on any living creature. Basing on the theory of “learned helplessness”, the “architects” of the enhanced interrogation techniques, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, believed that actionable intelligence could be acquired by destroying the personality of the detainee, erasing his integrity and eliminating his power to control his own body or will. The infliction of profound psychological trauma was at the heart of the program. The methods they designed, which were signed off on by the American Psychological Association, were so appalling that several CIA agents walked away from the scene, unable to stomach what they were asked to do.

Besides detailing the interrogation methods, the SSCI report tells a terrifying tale of evasion and lies told by the CIA to congress, the White House, the media and the public. The horrific nature of the techniques was substantially downplayed, their effectiveness in ensuring a successful counter-terrorist strategy overstated.

It has become apparent that the use of torture was no unfortunate one-off incident, but part of a systemic program purposefully designed as part of a ruthless counter-terrorist strategy: The legal framework was carefully prepared, with the exclusion of Al-Qaeda or Taliban captives from Art. 3 of the Geneva Conventions as a necessary prerequisite, the program itself signed off on by then-president Bush. Senator Donald Rumsfeld — who purposefully misinterpreted Art. 3 of the Geneva Conventions to not offer protection to “unlawful combatants” without POW status and who questioned the applicability of the Geneva Conventions as a whole -, Alberto R. Gonzales — the White House counsel, who endorsed Rumsfeld’s views in a memorandum to Bush — and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, — who verbally agreed to the application of the enhanced interrogation techniques -, all played an important part in the steady erosion of fundamental human rights to suit the counter-terrorist agenda.
(For a more comprehensive list of high-ranking officials involved, see this HRW-report.)

The first question that comes to mind is why only 525 pages have been released: Where is the rest? In December 2014 the full 6900 pages were submitted to several executive branch agencies. Then-SSCI chairman Dianne Feinstein requested to make the entire report accessible to the public. In January 2015 however, Senator Richard Burr had taken over the baton as chairman. He asked for the submitted copies to be returned to the senate, denying Feinstein’s call for publicity. This decision has been widely criticized by members of the SSCI, but — besides efforts of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — has not been reversed.

Secondly: Even though the public and state-figureheads initially responded with cries of horror and disgust, apart from more shocking facts coming to light and partially being ignored by the US media, not much has actually happened in the 15 months since the release of the report. Even though president Obama admitted that having “tortured some folks” constituted having “done some things that were wrong”, he also advocated an attitude of “looking forward rather than backward”. By doing so he has granted impunity to those responsible for the conception, development and execution of the torture program.

A group of high-level CIA officials openly displayed their complete lack of fear of being prosecuted by more or less confessing to the SSCI allegations — of course consistently referring to the torture-methods as “enhanced interrogation techniques”- in “Rebuttal: The CIA Responds to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Study of Its Detention and Interrogation Program”, a book explaining why the methods were in fact effective and necessary to win the “war on terror”.

There has been only one exception to the rule that no persons higher up the chain of command who were involved in the program have been so much as questioned: ex-CIA analyst and case-officer John Kiriakou. Ironically he was not punished for his involvement in the program, but for it’s exposure, for whistleblowing.

Since the partial declassification of the SSCI report more facts have come to light. In June 2015 the document AR-2–2, Law and Policy Governing the Conduct of Intelligence Activities was published by the Guardian. This document discloses how the agency created its own internal rules that allowed its director to override all international law in its torture practices, which culminated in the use of detainees as guinea-pigs for Mitchell’s and Jessen’s theory.

Human rights lawyers and organizations such as the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) have done invaluable work in the struggle for accountability of those responsible for the torture-program. They have contributed through fact-finding — e.g. CCR exposed that the techniques used on former Guantanamo-detainee Majid Khan were even worse than those detailed in the SSCI report -, through raising public awareness and through relentlessly asking European governments to take a stance against the US government, which has shown time and time again to be entirely unwilling to respect the rule of law in this instance. Despite these efforts — besides some low-level soldiers at Abu Ghraib and John Kiriakou — not one of the persons responsible for the program has been tried. According to Wikileaks cables the US government has put pressure on European governments to refrain from requesting extradition on grounds of diplomacy. The US Justice Department has refused to prosecute the involved officials twice for reasons of state secrecy. Surely, after the release of the SSCI report such a reasoning is hard to uphold.

The US government has not only shown an unwillingness to prosecute those who are to be held accountable for the torture-program, but has even actively offered them protection. It becomes apparent that — as Elizabeth Beaver from Amnesty International puts it — the lack of accountability for torture is not a bug in the system, but a feature. Torture is back in full force. International law is being distorted to the point of being unrecognizable. If the distortion is unmasked, the law is simply not upheld. There is no deterrence, only encouragement.

This is a disaster for human rights, a leap back into medieval times and into the times of Hitler’s Third Reich, a unequivocal abandoning of the rule of law.

The systematic use of torture as part of a counter-terrorist strategy, endorsed and protected by the US government, will fuel radicalization and further violence, it will do the opposite of what it claims to aim to achieve.

We, the public, need to drastically ramp up pressure and demand that every single person who could possibly be held accountable for the conception, creation, implementation, execution, protection or continuation of the torture program is tried. We have been made aware- all be it partially: we’re still waiting for those 6300 odd pages — , but our attention has shifted elsewhere before justice was achieved. We need to refocus and demand for the US government and other governments to take appropriate action. “Looking forward rather than backward” is a catchy phrase intended at achieving personal growth and happiness, it has no place in the justice system. In stead it serves as a synonym for sweeping something under the rug and implicitly affirms and encourages the continuation of an appalling program which clearly and grossly violates international law.

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