Concealing the truth about torture

Earlier this month, after an investigation that lasted five years and cost more than US$40M, the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6,000-page analysis of the CIA’s use of torture concluded that the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” was unnecessary. The review, which has not yet been declassified, reportedly shows that the US knowingly tortured prisoners held in the Global War on Terror. Leaked accounts say the review shows that the agency used torture methods that were much harsher than previously thought, that its officials misrepresented their use of various techniques to shield themselves from prosecution, and that a torture policy was kept in place long after it was known to be ineffective if not downright counterproductive.

Predictably, these conclusions have provoked a heated response. Noting that the Senate committee did not interview CIA officials or Republican staffers, some have complained of partisan bias. James Mitchell, the psychologist who is said to have designed key elements of the torture programme broke a 7-year silence to tell the Guardian that “people on the ground did the best they could with the way they understood the law at the time.” Others took the opportunity to defend the legacy of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Until the full text of the report is made public, it will likely remain no more than a talking point.

Even in the absence of the Senate committee’s review, however, there is ample evidence in the public domain that confirms the truth of its alleged findings. Websites like have exhaustively catalogued the Bush administration’s paper trail of its decision to use torture. The site’s stated aim was to trace the development of the US torture programme “from its improvised origins to the systematized, lawyer-rationalized maltreatment of hundreds of prisoners in US custody around the world.” Compellingly, the documents show that the Bush administration’s understated phrasing of “enhanced interrogation” repeatedly led to serious physical abuse of detainees – without yielding useful results.

It would be a shame if the ongoing debate about America’s limited embrace of torture continues to be overshadowed by partisan politicking. Although senior figures in the Bush administration undeniably crafted the policy with various degrees of culpability, others objected to its application strenuously. A courageous few even rescinded the legal memos that justified torture – regardless of the consequences for their careers. Scores of military personnel also raised serious objections about the use of torture – which directly contravenes the US Army’s code of conduct. As details about the implementation of the US torture policy surface, the courage of these people is vindicated.

America’s debate about the use of torture raises fundamental questions about the moral choices democracies face when they oversee the captivity of “illegal enemy combatants,” or “Persons Under Control” (as prisoners of war are now known in the US military’s revealing slang). It remains troubling that while there is now plenty of evidence to substantiate claims of detainee abuse at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and in CIA “black sites” around the world, the issue has not yet drawn an absolute condemnation from the Obama administration.

Last month, a review by the UN Human Rights Committee raised concerns about the US failure to comply with a host of international human rights obligations. Among other issues, the HRC highlighted the use of drones, domestic surveillance programmes, evidence of racism in the criminal justice system, the mandatory detention of immigrants, and gun violence. Damningly, it also raised the problem of impunity for the perpetrators of torture and noted that victims faced difficulty in claiming compensation “due to the application of broad doctrines of legal privilege and immunity.” If the Senate committee’s report does reveal that large parts of these doctrines were based on legal sophistry that was used to facilitate torture, both the American public and the wider world deserve to know the truth.

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