Despite damning report, US officials unlikely to be prosecuted for torture

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

Published Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Updated at 5:40 pm (GMT+2): The CIA's use of torture between 2001 and 2009 was far more brutal than acknowledged, did not produce useful intelligence and was so poorly managed it lost track of detainees, a scathing US Senate report revealed Tuesday.

The report was hailed as a significant exposure of US crimes committed as part of its “War On Terror,” but the US Justice Department indicated that officials would not be prosecuted, leading to serious criticism about continued impunity for those accused of torture.

The Central Intelligence Agency also misled the White House and Congress with inaccurate claims about the program's usefulness in thwarting attacks, the Senate Intelligence Committee said in its graphic report that revived the debate over interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.

Among the findings: a CIA operative used "Russian Roulette" to intimidate a prisoner and another – untrained in interrogation techniques – threatened to use a power drill.

Detainees were humiliated through the painful use of "rectal feeding" and "rectal rehydration." One died of hypothermia while shackled, some suffered broken limbs.

CIA director John Brennan defended his agency's adoption of tough tactics under president George W. Bush in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on US cities.

By 2009, Bush had ended many aspects of "Rendition, Detention and Interrogation" that he authorized after 9/11.

Brennan insisted that, while mistakes were made, brutal techniques "did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists and save lives."

US President Barack Obama admitted some of the tactics detailed in the explosive report's 500-page declassified summary were "brutal."

"There are a lot of folks who worked very hard after 9/11 to keep us safe, during a very hazardous situation and a time when people were unsure of what was taking place," he said in an interview with Telemundo.

"But what was also true is that we took some steps that were contrary to who we are, contrary to our values."

Minutes after the Senate intelligence panel released details of CIA torture, Obama suggested the country should move on.

"Rather than another reason to refight old arguments, I hope that today's report can help us leave these techniques where they belong – in the past," said Obama, who banned the use of torture in interrogations after taking office in 2009.

The extensive detailing of the CIA's interrogation of al-Qaeda suspects followed Obama's admission in August that "we tortured some folks."

'Naked and shackled'

Feinstein told the Senate at least 119 detainees were held under the program, with many subjected to "coercive interrogation techniques, in some cases amounting to torture."

The detainees were rounded up by US operatives beginning in 2001 after al-Qaeda destroyed New York's World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, and through to 2009.

They were interrogated either at CIA-run secret prisons in allied nations or at the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

US embassies were on alert for reprisals as committee chair Senator Dianne Feinstein pushed ahead with publication of the report, despite Secretary of State John Kerry warning it could provoke international anger.

Feinstein said some around the world "will try to use it to justify evil actions or incite more violence."

"We can't prevent that. But history will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law, and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say 'never again.'"

While heavily redacted, the report is damning.

"The interrogations of CIA detainees were brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers and others," it said.

Conditions were particularly ghastly at a so-called black site nicknamed Cobalt, in an undisclosed country, where "at times detainees there were walked around naked and shackled with their hands above their head," the report said.

The report indicated that sleep deprivation – sometimes for up to 180 hours, or seven and a half days – and prolonged physical restraint were used in Cobalt. One individual was reportedly kept shackled in a standing position for 17 days in a row.

Management of the program deteriorated so poorly in one country "that the CIA remains unable to determine the number and identity of the individuals it detained."

The review of 6.3 million pages of documents concluded that use of the techniques "was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation."

Seven of 39 detainees known to have been subjected to so-called “enhanced” interrogations "produced no intelligence while in CIA custody," while others "provided significant accurate intelligence prior to, or without having been subjected to these techniques."

And in several cases "the CIA inaccurately claimed that specific, otherwise unavailable information was acquired from a CIA detainee" as a direct result of the harsh interrogations.

A number of CIA employees who conducted interrogations were also known to have committed sexual assault and dealt with anger management issues prior to being assigned to their roles questioning detainees.

According to Israeli publication Haaretz, CIA lawyers had used rulings by Israel's Supreme Court to build a legal case justifying torture in so-called "ticking time bomb" situations.

A draft memo by the CIA Office of General Counsel cited the "Israeli example" – referring to the 1987 Landau Commission – as a possible justification that "torture was necessary to prevent imminent, significant, physical harm to persons, where there is no other available means to prevent the harm."

No officials will be prosecuted

A senior law enforcement official said the Justice Department has no plans to reopen a criminal investigation. That inquiry, which narrowed to two cases in which prisoners died in CIA custody, was closed in 2012 with no criminal charges.

Former Bush vice president Dick Cheney staunchly defended the program, telling The New York Times the interrogations were "absolutely, totally justified."

"When we had that program in place, we kept the country safe from any more mass casualty attacks, which was our objective," he said.

Rights advocates hailed the program's exposure but criticized the Justice Department announcement that it will not prosecute any US officials implicated.

Criminal prosecutions of those who ran secret prisons and "enhanced interrogations" between 2002 and 2006, look unlikely despite renewed demands by civil rights advocates. So do efforts to hold to account politicians who authorized the CIA actions.

The CIA and its supporters have opposed criminal investigations, arguing their actions were legally authorized by the Bush-era Justice Department and the White House.

But accountability is needed, civil rights advocates say, to ensure that torture is not used in the future.

"It reopens the issue of accountability," said Alberto Mora, who as the US Navy's general counsel during the Bush administration, actively opposed the use of cruel interrogation practices at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Mora said it has been "politically unthinkable" that Bush and his top advisers would be prosecuted, but the report's publication means "The shield that has been provided ... now may be no longer as effective as it was."

The only civilian ever charged with wrongdoing in the CIA's treatment of detainees after 9/11 is David Passaro, a CIA contractor convicted in 2006 of felony assault in the death of an Afghan prisoner.

"The CIA's wrongful acts violated basic human rights, served as a huge recruiting tool for our enemies, and alienated allies worldwide," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Our response to the damning evidence in this report will define us as a nation."

Romero said the Senate report provided a blueprint for possible prosecution. Romero also said that if Obama granted formal pardons to Bush administration officials, that would send a signal that torture prosecutions could occur in future.

"Either you prosecute those who committed the torture or you grant the pardons. You don't pretend that the people who broke the law are not criminals," Romero said.

Reactions

Germany said Wednesday the CIA torture amounted to "a gross violation of our liberal, democratic values" that must never happen again.

"What was then considered right and done in the fight against Islamist terrorism was unacceptable and a serious mistake," Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the top-selling Bild newspaper.

"It is now time to take action. The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes," Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on counter terrorism and human rights, said in a statement.

"The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorized at a high level within the US government provides no excuse whatsoever," Emmerson added. "Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability."

Meanwhile, North Korea urged the UN Security Council Wednesday to censure the United States for its use of "inhuman torture" methods.

Discussing North Korea's rights record while "shutting its eyes" to rights violations by one of its permanent members would confirm the Security Council's "miserable position" as a "tool for US arbitrary practices," a foreign ministry spokesman said.

As well as the "inhuman torture practiced by the CIA," the spokesman cited the recent killings of African-Americans by white police officers as another "despicable" strike against the US' human rights record.

"If (the Security Council) wants to discuss the human rights issue, it should ... call into question the human rights abuses rampant in the US," he said.

Moreover, Afghanistan's new President Ashraf Ghani condemned the CIA report, saying the US' actions violated "all accepted principles of human rights" and were part of vicious cycle of violence.

"The Afghan government condemns these inhumane actions in the strongest terms," he said at a specially-convened press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul.

"There can be no justification for these kinds of actions and inhumane torture in today's world."

Ghani, who took office in September, said: "The reason I want to talk to my countrymen tonight is to explain our position on that report released by the US Senate."

"This report is 499 pages long and since downloading it from the Internet last night I have read every single word of it," Ghani said. "This is a vicious cycle. When a person is tortured in an inhumane way, the reaction will be inhumane. And thus a vicious cycle of action and reaction is created."

One of the "black sites" mentioned in the report, where practices such as "rectal feeding" and suspending inmates by the wrists, was a facility known as the "Salt Pit," located outside Afghanistan's Bagram Air Base.

"Unfortunately this report shows that our Afghan countrymen have been subjected to torture and their rights violated," Ghani said.

"Worse and even more painful is that it has been explained in this report that some of these people subjected to torture were completely innocent and it has been proven that they were innocent."

The report was a years-long project of the committee's Democratic members and staff. Republicans boycotted it, and on Tuesday they blasted it as a "political" assault on the CIA.

"We found that those biases led to faulty analysis, serious inaccuracies, and misrepresentations of fact," Republicans led by Senator Saxby Chambliss said in their minority report.

But Republican Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war who was tortured in Vietnam, praised the report's release and said harsh interrogations did little to make Americans safer.

"I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence," he said.

"This question isn't about our enemies, it's about us," he added. "It's about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be."

There was also international consternation at the findings, British Prime Minister David Cameron saying: "Those of us who want to see a safer, more secure world want to see extremism defeated. We won't succeed if we lose our moral authority."

There is the possibility of criminal probes outside of the United States. Some former Bush aides have been warned against travel to Europe. In 2012 Italy convicted, in absentia, 22 CIA officers and an Air Force pilot for kidnapping an Egyptian cleric off the streets of Milan.

Lawmakers spent months negotiating with the White House on redactions, an undertaking that caused deep friction between the intelligence community and senators and their staff.

The influx in "terrorist" attacks in recent years raises questions about the effectiveness of the US "War on Terror" launched by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks, which included US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, airstrikes in Pakistan and Yemen, and operations elsewhere.

A recent report by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) showed that the US campaign failed to eliminate or even reduce "terrorism," showing instead a steady increase in the death toll over the last 14 years, from 3,361 in 2000 to 11,133 in 2012 and 17,958 in 2013.

Critics have pointed out that "terrorism" is a politically loaded term has often been used by governments to either delegitimize its opponents or justify its own rights violations. Restricting the definition of terrorism to non-state actors – as done in the IEP's Global Terrorism Index – also has the effect of erasing acts of state "terrorism."

The figures could rise dramatically in 2014 due to escalation of violence in the Middle East and Nigeria.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

Comments

Bush must be brought in book and charged and along his officials involved such will a send a strong message to all the criminels that one is a bove the rules of law in respect of who s/he may be.

That will save the damage reputation of Usa and a preventive treatment to other leaders practising such methods; " the torture"

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