CIA report makes grim reading, but where’s the accountability?

CIA report makes grim reading, but where’s the accountability?
5 min read
10 Dec, 2014

As Washington reacts to the many questions thrown up by the Senate report into CIA practices under the previous administration, the issue of ultimate responsibility seems to have been swept aside. But Americans must demand accountability. Torture is torture.
Bush and Cheney have both defended CIA interrogation methods under their stewardship (Getty)

Ever since it was revealed last Friday that US Secretary of State John Kerry called on his former Senate colleague and old friend, Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), asking her to delay the release of her committee’s report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture and rendition during the George W. Bush administration, Washington has been in flux.

Not so much because it is morally repugnant to resort to torture, especially for a country like the United States, which ceaselessly preaches about human rights and the necessity to adhere to "internationally accepted standards", while extolling the virtues of the rule of law as the great divide between the civilized and the savage.

     Any society that deems torture acceptable behaviour society cedes much of its freedom.

Depressingly little has been said about who will be held to account.

Rather, the noisy discourse is focused on issues like timing. Is it wise or prudent to release the report now when the US is involved in direct conflict in the Muslim world? Or is it ill-timed and will be used as a tool to enflame anti-American sentiments?

Would it affect US allies like Poland, Romania, the United Kingdom, Latvia, Lithuania, and others for being complicit with the CIA's "rendition, detention and interrogation programme", providing unknown and secret "black prisons" where these "enhanced interrogations" took place.

Much debate has also sprung up around the effectiveness of the use of torture in foiling terrorism in the post September 11, 2001 world. Were these "enhanced interrogation techniques" (the euphemism used by the CIA for it methods of torture) instrumental in obtaining information critical to uncovering or stopping imminent terror attacks?

The torture techniques in question, according to the Senate report, included waterboarding, which causes the individual to experience the sensation of drowning; sleep deprivation; placing the subject inside a confined box to restrict their movement; and most disturbingly, the use of rectal feeding and hydration. All were approved by the Bush administration.

The graphic and troubling findings contained in the SSCI report (of which a 500-page summary of the 6,700 page report was released on Tuesday) were accumulated over five years of crafting and investigating largely by Democratic senate staff members.

The first reaction came from US President Barack Obama.

"As Americans, we owe a profound debt of gratitude to our fellow citizens who serve to keep us safe, among them the dedicated men and women of our intelligence community, including the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Today’s report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence details one element of our nation’s response to 9/11 – the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme, which I formally ended on one of my first days in office… [to] make sure we never resort to those methods again."

Dispelling any notion of any intent to hold anyone accountable, however, Obama added: "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."

Kerry, who had urged Feinstein to delay the release of the report, later echoed that sentiment. "Release of this report affirms again that one of America's strengths is our democratic system’s ability to recognize and wrestle with our own history, acknowledge mistakes, and correct course. This marks a coda to a chapter in our history."

Again, there was no indication that anyone will be taken to task.

Not surprisingly, the Director of the CIA, John Brennan, defended the agency's use of enhanced interrogation techniques. "As a result of these efforts, including the many sacrifices made by CIA officers and their families, countless lives have been saved and our homeland is more secure."

He added: "The most serious problems occurred early on and stemmed from the fact that the Agency was unprepared and lacked the core competencies required to carry out an unprecedented, worldwide programme of detaining and interrogating suspected al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorists."

He reluctantly admitted that, "in carrying out that programme, we did not always live up to the high standards that we set for ourselves and that the American people expect of us."

Bush, the former president who approved these techniques, also defended the programme even though the report gave him a pass by suggesting he had been misled, by the CIA which, "provided inaccurate information to the White House, Congress, the Justice Department, the CIA inspector general, the media and the American public" and that specific questions posed by White House officials "were not answered truthfully or fully".

Dick Cheney, the vice-president under Bush, went even further. He suggested that those responsible for the programme ought to be awarded medals for their bravery and their sacrifice.

In the coming days and weeks, many in the United States and around the world will get their chance to review the published portions of the report, combing through its disgusting details and getting more outraged as they become more familiar with it. The fallout will no doubt further damage US prestige and standing in the world, casting a shadow over its commitment to human rights and democratic values and compromising its influence around the world. And, just as the images of the notorious tortures in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq haunted and will continue to haunt the United States, so will the damning report of forced rectal feeding or waterboarding stalk America's image for decades to come.

But for how long may be a matter of accountability. While the CIA's history ever since its founding is strewn with the wreckage of abusive excesses, from Iran to Chile to Vietnam and dozens of places in-between, it is the American public that must demand accountability for these abuses.

We know what arguments those defending "enhanced interrogation techniques" will use to excuse torturing prisoners. They will claim that the techniques used weren't "really torture", or that they were vital to acquiring valuable intelligence to prevent future terrorist attacks, capture dangerous people and keep Americans safe.

It doesn't matter. Torture is torture and it is always wrong. It is intended to subject people to unbearable pain or intolerable threats in order to break their will and control their behaviour. Any society that deems torture acceptable behaviour society cedes much of its freedom.