The world was shocked – briefly – last week with the publication of Dianna Feinstein’s report into the use of torture by the CIA around the world in its ‘war against terror.’ The report examines in great detail the methods and effectiveness of those methods and also the effects it will have on the United States’ reputation around the world. In her words:
‘[It has done] immeasurable damage to the United States’ public standing, as well as the United States’ longstanding global leadership on human rights in general and the prevention of torture in particular.’ (p16)
When we have campaigned in the street against the use of torture most people hurry on by, after all we don’t use torture in the UK do we? Some find the subject distasteful and even those who stop to sign a card will often decline to take a fact sheet with the details of what is happening to someone described on it. The fact remains that it is still widely used around the world despite the great majority of countries having signed UN pledges otherwise.
It has to be said in the United States’ defence that they are one of the few countries which could enable an investigation take place and then publish the results, despite redactions, for all to see. The United Kingdom who, along with other countries around the world, aided and abetted the CIA in its activities has gone to great lengths to frustrate, delay and otherwise prevent details of its involvement becoming known. It is to be hoped that over the coming months and years details will emerge to show our complicity in this sordid activity.
The report goes into great detail of the use and effectiveness of the methods used. The world was especially shocked to learn of ‘rectal feeding’. Precious little evidence is provided of any effectiveness. It notes that a lot of useful information was provided before suspects were then tortured and that many of the claims about counter-terrorism successes were ‘wrong on fundamental aspects’ (p2).
So how has this come about? Torture is of course as old as the hills. But there are several aspects which keep it alive in the modern state. Firstly a belief in its effectiveness despite evidence to the contrary. Part of the blame is a kind of Hollywood view of terrorism. The report quotes the TV series ’24’ the first of which showed a man being fearsomely tortured to reveal the vital secret which our hero then spends the next 24 hours dashing about trying to frustrate. Buried within this is the assumption that an individual has a key piece of information and once sufficient pain has been inflicted, he (or she) gives it up. But how does anyone know? The problem being that people will say anything to get it to stop so just because a piece of information is finally revealed, how does anyone know how accurate it is? This kind of thinking is demonstrated in the familiar question ‘if you knew someone had a key piece of information which could save hundreds of lives but he won’t tell you, wouldn’t you torture him to get hold of it?’ But how do you know it is key? The report notes that seven of the 39 detainees they looked at produced no information at all despite relentless beatings, waterboarding, starvation and sleep deprivation.
Another familiar Hollywood feature of crime series like CSI and NCIS for example, is the copious amounts of information that the officers seem to have at the press of a button. A screen suddenly appears on a wall with flashing dots to show where the culprit is and they all dash off to apprehend him. It is part of the technological view of crime detection. This engenders a belief that simply getting the information will enable the law enforcement agencies to close in on a terrorist cell. The problem was that the record keeping by the CIA was so poor combined with their lack of cooperation with other agencies such as the FBI, meant that little of value was derived from the activity. (p13) The reality of what actually happens on the ground is miles away from the fantasy world of TV series.
This Hollywood inspired view of the world goes someway to explain the public’s attitude to the revelations. It is seen as a regrettable necessity when a war is being fought against a terrorist enemy. If it keeps us safe, then what does it matter if someone is deprived of sleep for a few days to get them to talk? The end of saving hundreds of lives justifies the means of bad treatment of a handful of detainees. We cannot afford to be too squeamish when dealing with fanatics after all.
But the activity has corrupted the governing process. It was ineffective so lies were told about valuable information being gained when next to none was. People like Secretary of State Colin Powell were kept out of the loop. The media was deceived into believing that terrorism plots were being interdicted when in reality few if any were. The White House was lied to and up and down the CIA deception was practised. When some detainees died as a result of their torture no one was brought to account. Foreign governments were dragged into the process to provide locations known as ‘black sites’ where individuals were taken to be tortured. Foreign governments such as the UK government lied about ‘rendition’ flights through the UK, in particular Prestwick. The use of Diego Garcia which the USA leases from the UK, is a story which may slowly unravel over time.
Torture is widely practised around the world. It is routinely used to coerce people and to inhibit opposition parties. If the world’s leading nation – the United States – does it then the moral force they might apply to the nations who routinely use it is dissipated. Let us hope the Feinstein Report results in an end to the practice in the States.