Are you tired of hearing, viewing and reading about this yet? If you are, then you should skip this post. But let me try a multifaceted approach that may overcome your reluctance. There is legality and there is morality. There is politics and pragmatics. There is truth and there are lies. There are causes and there are consequences (effects). Finally, there is the opportunity for national self-reflection–if one can get beyond the self-protective rationalization.
The attacks of 9/11 were horrible acts with terrible consequences. They had immediate and lasting effects on those who died and those who survived. American governmental officials had good reason to expect more of the same. With the responsibility to protect and defend America and its people, the government undertook an unprecedented effort to locate, detain and interrogate those responsible for 9/11 or associated with them to prevent future attacks. Additionally, of course, the government instituted massive (and massively annoying and intrusive) security measures at airports, surveillance of American citizens and interception of emails and phone calls. But that is another topic.
George Orwell and Franz Kafka had nothing on American officials in crafting the “enhanced interrogation techniques”–which John McCain, who endured six years of them in North Vietnam, rightly calls torture. Here is where “legality” and the Orwellian aspects come in. In February 2002, based on advice from CIA attorneys, President Bush determined that the provisions of the Geneva Convention did not apply to Al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. Since they were not acting on behalf of any state or foreign government, they were not soldiers in a war and therefore not covered. They were “unlawful combatants”–AKA terrorists. Curiously, the notion that we are fighting a war on terror, does not make this an actual war–only a figurative one. It was also determined that the defense of necessity (to prevent imminent harm to potentially thousands of people–a la 9/11) to acquire information quickly that otherwise would not be available acquits the use of interrogation techniques that might otherwise qualify as torture. Ultimately, the CIA hired two psychologists who had no experience with prisoners, interrogation, etc., but did teach a course for the Air Force as part of escape and evasion training on how to survive extreme treatment as a prisoner of a lawless nation that did not honor Geneva conventions. Interestingly, the model for their course came from the treatment North Vietnam afforded prisoners (like John McCain). This in turn came as the model for the enhanced interrogation training techniques–which as consultant contractors, the two psychologists were paid $81 million to basically run the program for the CIA.
The justification for the program, of course, was that the techniques were effective in quickly finding actionable (useful) intelligence. This claim is the subject of much disagreement between former Bush administration officials, including former CIA directors, and the Senate Committee which produced the report. It is true that the committee did not interview any former members of the CIA–due to a contemporaneous inquiry by the Justice Department into destruction videos of interrogations and other matters. However, the committee did review over six million pages of cables, intelligence reports, emails, etc. produced and provided to the committee by the CIA. Among them was a 2001 report (prior to 9/11) which concluded that over the history of the CIA, coercive interrogation did not produce valuable intelligence, often produced false or fabricated information and consequently had not been shown to be effective. (Does anyone suppose the Inquisition or the Salem Witch Trials produced real information?) The committee report takes pains to identify internal CIA documents reviewed during their study that justify the conclusion that claims to the contrary by those former officials voiced previously and currently are false and misleading at best. What valuable information that was obtained came from pre-enhanced interrogation efforts–for example, that of Abu Zubaydah whose questioning by the FBI produced actual intelligence but subsequent interrogation by the CIA little or nothing of value. Their conclusion: the techniques employed produced little or nothing of value–specifically not including any information that led to locating and killing Osama Bin Laden.
So what are the enhanced interrogation techniques, hereinafter called by their rightful name–torture? Sleep deprivation–which in some cases amounted to 180 hours. “Walling” grabbing and slamming into a wall. Shackling a (typically nude) prisoner with arms over his head for as many as 22 hours a day. Keeping detainees in complete darkness, perhaps hooded as well for good measure. Blasting them with loud rock music 24 hours a day or with white noise. As an alternative to complete darkness; complete brightness with strong lighting in a white room. Punching, slapping, face grabbing, etc. Restricting calories or providing ostensibly nutritious but unpalatable food. Keeping the facility as cold as 45 degrees while the prisoners were nude. One died of hypothermia shackled to a wall with his bare bottom sitting on a concrete floor. Finally, the infamous waterboarding. Khalid Sheik Mohammed was subjected to this no less than 180 times–without producing any but false information. The legal conclusion that such torture was not torture was predicated on the notion that such would not produce death or lasting injury. Well, Abu Zubaydah lost an eye. Others, who endured “rectal rehydration” (pumping nutrients into their rectum) suffered intestinal injury or prolapsed rectums). Those with wounds or broken feet suffered what one might expect from enduring being shackled to the ceiling with feet supporting their weight. Many suffered hallucinations and mental disturbances that resulted in the need for anti-psychotic drugs since interrogation ended and their ongoing detention continued. So, does this sound like torture to you?
So the torture didn’t work and it really is torture. In the meantime, The CIA misled Congress and even the White House at times. They deny it, of course, but the Senate report documents it. It is important to cut the CIA some slack here–they were not experienced at running prisons and did not have a ready supply of trained interrogators. Who did? The FBI did. The military did. But they weren’t given the job of asking questions. The CIA actually walled them off. The bureau of prisons knew about facilities and did do some inspection of the black site prisons–and were shocked. According to the Senate report, the CIA did not help themselves out by putting a CIA staffer on his first tour overseas in charge of the biggest of the sites. In some instances, CIA headquarters overruled onsite interrogators who recommended the torture of some detainees should stop because they were getting no further results. In other instances, the report says the onsite people went way beyond what was authorized. Reporting, supervision and management seemed confused and disorganized. Understandable perhaps, given the fear of more attacks in the aftermath of 9/11. Which makes all the more puzzling the 47 days of isolation that the first big detainee, Zubaydah endured before the first session of interrogation (torture) after transferring in from the hospital where the FBI had succeeded in getting information–where was the urgency that justified the torture?
So, all-in-all, this report reveals undeniably the biggest clusterf–k (a military term) since Watergate and Nixon’s “Peace With Honor” (the inaptly named peace treaty supposedly ending the Vietnam War), which ended in the most undeserved Nobel Peace Prizes in history for Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. While lawyers twisted opinions into a perverted semblance of American law to protect the actors in the detention and torture program, the international community may not be so sanguine. Those involved may wish to avoid overseas travel which may subject them to prosecution in any number of more enlightened countries. As for morality, if it were true that imminent attacks were prevented by torture–it might be defensible, but they weren’t. Early on, the results of the torture confirmed the CIA’s own conclusion–the techniques were useless. So America is left with a history of horrible unjustifiable abuses of prisoners. Politically expedient–we will find them and we will punish those responsible for 9/11. We will prevent any more such attacks. Pragmatically–it took many years of painstaking intelligence work, wholly unrelated to torture, to find Bin Laden and no real, planned attacks were prevented. We as a nation made terrible causes which have produced and will continue to produce bad consequences in the form of easier recruiting for America-hating terrorists, mistrust by other countries and a general disgust among many of our fellow citizens that our country is not the wonderful place we wished or thought it was. Of course I lost those illusions in the seventies in the wake of a year in Vietnam, Watergate and what the CIA and American military was doing in Central America and other places around the globe.
For me, the urgency of introducing more people to the pacifism and the humanism of a religion like Nichiren Buddhism has never been more obvious. There are many terrorist groups and totalitarian states around the world which are far more evil than America. But I am not in those countries and have no contact with their people. I am here in America where I have the ability to express my feelings about our own shortcomings and urge others to begin the process of killing the will to kill, to exercise compassion and engage others in dialogue. In the meantime, the protestations of former officials that their conduct was not only essential but aided America must be discredited and reforms maintained to avoid a repeat of these actions.