By Tom Switzer
There have been howls of outrage at the US Senate intelligence committee’s portrait of the interrogation program. Yet the report merely told us what we already knew: that terror suspects had been tortured after the September 11 attacks, and that the Bush administration had authorised and sponsored the program to detain and interrogate these people in pursuit of the war on terror.
Also bear in mind that the report was hardly bipartisan: with a Democratic majority on the committee, it is a fair bet the inquiry was an attempt to settle old scores against the Republican administration of George W. Bush. Nor did it interview the former CIA directors and their deputies who maintain the torture program was legal and effective.
Moreover, the report has failed to put the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program” in its proper context.
Go back to the immediate aftermath of September 11. There was a widespread expectation of a second wave of terrorist attacks on the US, especially amid the anthrax letters. Having been blamed for not stopping 9/11, the CIA was under all sorts of pressure to do everything possible to ensure another terrorist attack was avoided. Meanwhile, Bush’s approval rating was above 90 per cent, which meant that virtually no one, including Democrats, believed he was on the wrong track in preventing terrorism against the US.
And so began the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program with, let’s not forget, broad US congressional support.
Yet the Senate committee report on the CIA interrogation program is a damning indictment of the Bush administration and a blow to America’s global reputation. It confirms accounts of waterboarding suspects, depriving some of sleep for several days, subjecting others to sexual abuse and threats of sexual violence against their family members, and so on — enough abuses for conservative British historian and journalist Max Hastings to have no qualms in stating: “The world’s greatest democracy resorted to methods customarily associated with the regimes of Hitler and Stalin, and more recently with Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the mullahs of Iran.”
Make no mistake: the term rendition has become a term of shame in American history for years to come.
So has the name of Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s legal counsel, who dismissed the Geneva Conventions designed to protect prisoners of war as “quaint” and “obsolete”. Later promoted to attorney-general for presumably giving the right answers, Gonzales has been conspicuous by his absence this week.
Defenders of the CIA interrogations maintain that the system was effective in keeping America safe. At the same time, the Senate report claims that torture was an ineffective tool to obtain valuable information about terrorist plots.
The truth is no one knows for sure, though it is true the American homeland has not suffered an attack since 9/11. The CIA is claiming some success, but at what moral cost? It is probably wiser to be agnostic about effectiveness but clear about ethics.
“We can’t know whether information gained from harsh interrogation helped provide essential leads that allowed the targeting of Osama bin Laden,” observes the leading Washington Post columnist David Ignatius says. “That’s why banning torture is a moral choice: in doing so, we may indeed lose useful information. That’s the risk we take in doing the right thing.”
All the more so when the US claims to be promoting freedom, democracy and the rule of law.
There are those, such as the aforementioned Hastings, who claim that rendition had set up some sort of moral equivalence between the US and, say, the many murderous regimes of the Arab world and that Bush’s Washington embodied the ruthless, amoral traditions of torture and imperial conduct America is known to deplore.
Never mind that the perpetuators of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal of 2004 were court-martialled. Never mind that we know about the US interrogation program, precisely because the Americans are good at washing their dirty linen in public.
Even The Guardian, a left-wing British newspaper, says the report is a “landmark in accountability” and that it’s “a tribute to the US that it has published such a report”.
Barack Obama distinguished himself from his successor by ending the interrogation techniques in 2009, which Ronald Reagan had essentially outlawed in 1988 when he signed the UN convention against torture. But it’s also true the Obama administration has been engaged in warrantless wire-tapping. Guantanamo remains open and is still a due-process quagmire. And with drone warfare, Obama is pushing a policy to assassinate terror suspects virtually anywhere in the world.
Drone strikes sound like an easy way of combating terrorism. The problem is that the policy leaves virtually no room for due process. The victims are merely suspected of engaging in terrorism. They are targeted from a platform thousands of metres above the surface. And there is the likelihood of innocent civilian deaths.
America is basically a good and decent country with powerful self-correcting mechanisms. But the combination of rendition, Guantanamo, drone warfare and the questionable surveillance of the American people has had the effect of depriving the US of moral authority.
If the US wants to promote freedom, democracy and the rule of law, it cannot hope to achieve that end by means that are clearly disgusting, illegal and wrong.
This article was originally published at The Australian