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Tuesday, December 09, 2014 

Torture: time we came clean also.

I never thought I'd say this, but thank Christ (somewhat) for the Intelligence and Security Committee and Peter Gibson's (non) report into rendition.  Attempting to read the Senate select committee on intelligence's report (PDF) of the CIA's "Detention and Interrogation Program", aka the resort to torture at the very first opportunity program, you can't help but wish for the relative lack of redactions they contained, as well as their sheer legibility.  Granted, even with the constant, ludicrous slabs of black that interrupt the report, it's still far more revealing than anything we're ever likely to produce, yet at least ours didn't have endless footnotes containing the real detail and which sometimes consist of an entire page filled with a single paragraph, some of them only repeating what you've already read.  Anyone might have thought making it as difficult to follow as possible was one of the committee's other aims.

When you then realise this is a mere 525 page summary of the full 6,000 page report submitted to the White House, this being the agreed upon redacted (did I mention the redactions?) shorter version for those of us without the requisite security clearance, it becomes clear that regardless of the readability problems, this truly is an attempt to quantify just what did happen immediately after 9/11.  A good proportion of it we already know: within a matter of days George W. Bush had given almost carte blanche to the CIA to "capture or detain" nearly anyone posing a threat to the United States, "granting the CIA significant discretion in determining whom to detain, the factual basis for the detention, and the length of the detention."  The CIA at first didn't know what to do: anyone who's read the Looming Tower will know that while there were some within the US intelligence community who had expertise on bin Laden and al-Qaida, they weren't numerous and didn't have the resources they needed.

Matters came to a head with the capture of Abu Zubaydah, the first significant al-Qaida figure to be transferred into US custody.  Despite cooperating with the FBI officers who first questioned him, the CIA became convinced he was holding back information about specific threats or plots, and equally convinced themselves the only to get Zubaydah to detail what he knew was to use "enhanced techniques".  The only research the committee found the CIA to have looked into was conducted by two contractors previously with the U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school, given pseudonyms in the report but who are known to be James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.  They produced a report on an al-Qaida manual thought to be on resisting interrogation; despite having no experience as interrogators themselves, or any specialised knowledge on al-Qaida, terrorism or pretty much anything relevant to Zubaydah whatsoever, one of the pair had read about "learned helplessness", and thought "inducing such a state could encourage a detainee to cooperate and provide information."

Unsurprisingly, he believed the way to induce this state was to adapt somewhat the methods taught to cadets at the SERE school, 12 of which he recommended specifically.  These included the most notorious, waterboarding, but also "walling", throwing a detainee into a specially built "flexible" wall, sleep deprivation, cramped confinement, use of diapers, and mock burial.  Almost all were to be used, and on far more than just the "3" some have claimed to have been specifically tortured by the United States rather than by partner government officials.  Once authorised, Zubaydah was subjected to these techniques in '"varying combinations, 24 hours a day" for 17 straight days, through August 20, 2002'.  As the report drily notes, the interrogation was later deemed a success not because Zubaydah produced the information the CIA believed he was hiding, but "because it provided further evidence that Abu Zubaydah had not been withholding the aforementioned information from the interrogators".  Orwellian doesn't even begin to describe it.

These interrogations were also more brutal than had previously been admitted.  Zubaydah lost conciousness during one waterboarding session, "bubbles rising through his open, full mouth", and had to be revived through medical intervention.  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, waterboarded 183 times in total, had his lips held open and water poured over his mouth as he tried to breathe.  In what can only be considered pure sadism, at least 5 detainees were fed via "rectal rehydration", in one case in what seems to have been a punishment for a detainee self-harming.  Detainees were hung from bars on the ceiling of their cells, left wearing only diapers, sometimes for days at a time.  When President Bush was finally briefed on the enhanced interrogation program, he expressed disquiet at an image of one detainee in precisely this position.  39 detainees were subject to "cold water dousing", which is exactly what it sounds like.  This took place in environments described by the CIA themselves as "dungeons", where one detainee, Gul Rahman, died of hypothermia.  The officer who ordered his torture was subsequently recommended for a $2,500 cash reward for his "consistently superior work".

Torture.  It's the only possible way to summarise the program in one word, and while one of Obama's first acts as president was to definitively shut it down, by that point James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen had been paid $81m dollars for their role as contractors.  Even now the committee seems to think they are deserving of protection, just as it was decided previously no charges should be brought, which if nothing else proves it's not just police officers above the law in America.  The CIA and others in the Bush administration meanwhile continue to fight a rearguard action to defend themselves, claiming against every speck of available evidence their program "worked", saving "innumerable" lives.  They've had some very willing accomplices, whether it be journalists or Hollywood filmmakers.

At least now no one can say they don't know the depths the United States sank to, overcome by emotion, a thirst for revenge and determination to prevent anything like it happening again.  As for ourselves, all we have still is those reports mentioned at the outset, completely lacking in detail and which have only scratched the veneer of the intelligence agencies' involvement with and almost certain complicity in the US program.  While the redacted version of the report does not make clear that Diego Garcia was used as a "black site" as well as a stopover point as had been reported, it does name three British residents detained in the secret prison system, including Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna, who were all but handed over to the CIA by MI6.  If David Cameron truly means what he says about losing "moral authority", then it's still not too late to order a full judicial inquiry into our policies post-9/11, the sort capable of gaining the support of all parties.  The alternative is another Woolwich-type debacle, where the ISC sifts through the evidence and then concludes it was someone else's fault, presumably in this instance the United States' rather than Facebook.  Then again, do we really have much in the way of moral authority to lose?

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