Hearts and minds

CIA-made-doctors-torture--009The report into the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme is a grim read. Not because it is 524 pages long, or that this heavily redacted offering to the public is tiny compared to the more than 6,700 pages of the full classified Committee Study. Rather, it is grim because it is real. Think Homeland was an exaggeration? Take a deep breath, click here and think again.

The report describes individuals being waterboarded until the subject was “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth”, how detainees were subjected to “rectal feeding without documented medical necessity”, “ice water baths” and how “a detainee who had been held partially nude and chained to a concrete floor died from suspected hypothermia” among many other graphic descriptions of cruelty. There is no point in listing here all the abuses; there are too many and the report too compelling, in a macabre way, for one’s attention to waiver. It is not a chore reading this document; for politicians and the security agencies it should be a duty.

For clarity, the 12 ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ used by the CIA were as follows: the attention grasp; walling; facial hold; facial slap; cramped confinement; wall standing stress positions; sleep deprivation; waterboarding; use of diapers (sic); use of insects; and mock burial.

Defending the programme, Michael Hayden, Director of the CIA from 2006-2009, wrote a rebuttal to the report in the Daily Telegraph on 10th December. He suggested that the report was overly graphic in an attempt to shock. “So too,” he countered, “would an equally detailed description of drone strikes”. But this moral cut ‘n’ paste is indicative of how such a programme was allowed to exist, and go so wrong, for so many years. Liberal democracies accept that, occasionally, they must go to war and that this will involve killing and maiming people. The humanity comes from ensuring as far as possible that the right people are killed and that any such action takes place in a clearly defined and transparent legal framework. This humanity is notable by its absence from the Senate Committee’s report.

The CIA’s legal position was that “the criminal prohibition on torture would not prohibit the methods proposed by the interrogation team because of the absence of any specific intent to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering”. This is splitting definitional hairs: without ‘specific intent’ how does anything happen? And who decides when the line is crossed into ‘severe’ pain?

Apart from the graphic descriptions of abuse, the impression one is left with after reading the report is of an organisation pursuing an agenda of operational permissiveness unconcerned by outside scrutiny and actively seeking to avoid accountability.  In short, a complete failure of leadership. The glib manner in which Michael Hayden treated Congress when discussing detainee numbers is illustrative. The report details how, after Hayden had told Congress there were 98 detainees (in fact, there were 119) a CIA officer was instructed to pick a date that conformed to the 98 figure, so as to avoid suggestions of having misled Congress. The report further states: “Hayden did not view the discrepancy, if it existed, as particularly significant given that, if true, it would increase the total number by just over 10 percent.” As head of an organisation subjecting people to “near drownings” and “sleep deprivation…for up to 180 hours”, one might expect Hayden to know details such as exactly how many people this applied to.

General David Morrison, head of the Australian army, recently issued a powerful reminder of the conduct expected from those bearing arms (see link here). In a little over three minutes his words encapsulate the values the CIA failed to uphold over nearly ten years. John Brennan, the current head of the CIA, refused this week to describe the actions as torture, although President Obama did. The word is irrelevant; the events need no introduction. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

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