View from abroad: US loses moral high ground after CIA report

Updated December 29, 2014

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This August 14, 2008 photo shows a man as he crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. — AFP/File
This August 14, 2008 photo shows a man as he crosses the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) logo in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. — AFP/File

When the US Senate report on the CIA’s torture campaign was released recently, the State Department sent out a warning to US missions abroad to beware of a possible backlash. In the event, beyond indignant newspaper editorials, the international reaction has been somewhat muted.

The reason for this restrained response to the CIA’s catalogue of horrors is, I suspect, the widespread complicity of other nations in these abhorrent practices. From Pakistan to Poland, secret services connived with the US government in torturing suspected terrorists at the behest of CIA agents. In a vast, dispersed gulag of black sites, suspects were incarcerated and subjected to agonising torture techniques.

Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, to name only a few, welcomed American and British agents to witness the torture sessions and pose questions to the victims. Some of them were British citizens of Pakistani origin who later gave evidence before British judges. In their testimony, they alleged the presence of MI6 officers. In most cases, the British government has chosen to settle out of court rather than defend itself, or to admit its guilt.

The truth — and one we are in denial over — is that torture is so commonly used in our part of the world that it no longer shocks. For centuries, inflicting pain on suspects was considered a normal part of police investigations. In the Subcontinent, at least, this still goes on day in and day out.

But over the last century, civilised societies have gradually moved away from this inhuman practice, specially as forensic techniques have improved. The 1987 UN Convention against Torture outlaws it, and calls for action against officials who carry it out. The US has ratified it, as have most other UN member states. But I seriously doubt that Obama has the stomach to take on the CIA and the American defence establishment, to say nothing of the Republicans, by putting those responsible.

While US law enforcement agencies have traditionally used harsh interrogation methods, this was taken to a new level of pain post-9/11. Fearing fresh Al Qaeda attacks, politicians like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld pushed the CIA to extract any possible information from suspects cooped up in Afghanistan and taken to the US military base at Bagram in Afghanistan, or to Guantanomo Bay half a world away.

Hence, waterboarding and the other stomach-turning techniques detailed in the Senate report. What made it easier for CIA agents as well as ordinary soldiers to mistreat their prisoners so readily is that they were from another religion and from other races. They were thus easy to demonise as hateful enemies threatening America. And inflicting pain on the ‘other’ is easier than hurting one of your own.

Once this precedent had been established, the Abu Ghraib horror story was a logical next step. The image of a hooded Iraqi prisoner standing with his arms outstretched still remains seared on our consciousness. Despite the global outcry those terrible images caused, action was taken only against a few low-ranking soldiers, and not those who had designed the policy and oversaw its implementation.

While the Senate report has caused relatively little outrage, it has given odious dictators a fig leaf to hide their atrocities behind. Thus, when a UN report on torture in North Korea was placed before the Security Council, the government of Kim Jong-Il responded by pointing to the Senate report, and advising the Obama administration to ‘mend its ways’.

Losing the moral high ground is far easier than regaining it. For many years, the US has been in the forefront of those preaching human rights to the rest of the world. But after the incident at Ferguson and the spate of killings of young black men by white policemen, it is the US that is being widely viewed as a racist nation that is committing human rights violations on an industrial scale.

Of course, comparing the US record to North Korea would be absurd: the surreal hellhole created by three generations of the Kim dynasty remains a vast human prison disconnected from the rest of the world. I recently watched a chilling prize-winning documentary called Camp 14 based on a series of interviews by an escaped prisoner who had been born in a North Korean concentration camp, and two guards who had defected.

The film documents the daily horrors and the casual way in which prisoners were tortured, and often killed, for the most minor offences. One friend who has visited the country as a consultant for an aid agency reported on the chronic hunger faced by ordinary people. The capricious nature of the young Kim Jong-Il was recently portrayed in The Interview, a movie whose distribution was halted due to a cyber attack launched on its producer, Sony Studios, and the threat issued to all those going to watch it in movie theatres. North Korea is widely suspected of being behind this campaign that has done more to publicise the film than any amount of advertising could have done.

The British, too, are wrestling with their culpability in the CIA torture programme. It is now common knowledge that MI6, the British secret service, cooperated with its American counterpart in the policy of extraordinary rendition. But again, beyond some lone voices in the liberal media, the calls for justice and accountability have been restrained.

Perhaps the most relevant portion of the Senate report was the portion that concluded that all this torture ultimately resulted in no useful intelligence. And yet, to their shame, psychologists devised the programme, and lawyers ratified it. Nevertheless, it does not take a genius to point out that if you subject a person to acute pain, he will say anything that will make the torture stop. So much pain inflicted on so many people for so little.

Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2014