The shock from the official Senate Intelligence Committee report revealing the torture by the CIA of more than 100 people is reverberating across the country and around the world. The report details sickening torture practices such as waterboarding, rectal feeding, sleep deprivation of up to 180 hours, as well as brutal beatings – sometimes used on completely innocent people. Public anger has been further inflamed by the Obama administration’s refusal to prosecute any of those responsible.
At a time when it appears the police have a license to shoot unarmed black people, the refusal to prosecute any officials involved can only increase the feeling among millions that the authorities are untouchable. This seeming immunity stands in sharp contrast to the harsh penalties working people and the poor face for such “crimes” as selling loose cigarettes, which cost Eric Garner his life. Even when working people sink into debt over student loans, hospital bills or credit cards, they are treated like criminals by debt collectors who threaten to use the courts to garnish their paltry wages.
The idea that torturers can be let off free is rightly felt as repulsive. It is important to demand those responsible are held accountable. Given the current refusal of the Obama administration to act, only the pressure of mass protest and upheaval will force the U.S. government to reverse that decision and prosecute those responsible.
Bush’s Iraq War
The Senate report on torture provides an historical context of the abuse of power by the Bush administration, showing how these brutal practices were developed in the post-9/11 period as the Bush administration and the U.S. elite looked to use anger at the deaths in the Twin Towers attacks to further U.S. imperial interests abroad. (The full report is available by CNN here.)
According to the New York Times, “In the early months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush delegated the detailed oversight of the campaign against Al Qaeda to his vice president, who embraced the task and urged the harshest measures,” (12/14/2014).Yet when former Vice President Dick Cheney recently appeared on Meet the Press, he bluntly defended the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program, saying “I would do it again in a minute.”
Cheney and the neo-conservatives who ran Bush’s foreign policy believed that through a dramatic demonstration of force the U.S. could stamp its power on the world and intimidate all those who might oppose their policies. In fact, these policies were a foreign policy disaster as resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq bogged the U.S. military down in endless wars.
U.S. policy became increasingly brutal towards anyone who resisted. Sections of local Muslim populations across the region rose up against these invasions, and U.S. troops faced an insurgency by Afghan and Iraqi civilians who did not fit the textbook definition of “enemy “combatants,” In response, the CIA was encouraged to take into custody terrorism “suspects” whose identity and supposed crimes were often based on tainted evidence supplied by corrupt informants to extract information. New rules were introduced that were designed to extract more information faster. Methods included “enhanced interrogation” techniques (political speak for water boarding and other torture), as well as forcing captives or their relatives to provide intelligence information to the CIA, or even holding a disabled person captive for leverage with his or her family.
These practices were not only cruel but useless, as decades of research has shown that torture is the least effective method of interrogation or information gathering, behind even gathering the pieces of paper in someone’s pocket. It is “designed to get prisoners to say whatever you want them to say,” which invariably results in made up information by people desperate to stop the torture they are enduring.
Evidence of brutal torture at Abu-Ghraib and other U.S. prisons in Iraq soon surfaced, complete with horrendous pictures of what U.S soldiers were doing with approval from their superior officers. This helped shift public opinion in the U.S. against the war and hardened anger against U.S. occupation across the Middle East. It became clear that this was a war the U.S. could not win. Instead, the U.S. occupation had provoked a growing sectarian civil war in Iraq. Despite supporting an Iraqi government bent on the goal of ethnically cleansing Sunni citizens from Baghdad, it was clear U.S. policy had failed to produce either victory or peace.
With the stature and prestige of the U.S. severely weakened by Bush’s policies, Obama claimed to offer a much less aggressive and unilateral foreign policy while campaigning for President. But once in office, Obama made no substantive strategic military changes in Iraq or Afghanistan, and actually expanded drone attacks in the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, killing hundreds of civilians.
Moreover, in April 2009, despite previous vague statements about investigating war crimes, Obama decreed complete immunity for any official involved in torture provided that it comported with the permission slips issued by the Bush Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyers who had authorized certain techniques. This was a true indication of the real nature of the incoming Obama administration.
The Torture Report
The current study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program was finally published six years after Obama’s election, after sustained attempts to delay or even prevent its release by the CIA, the Obama Administration, and sometimes even the Chair of the Senate Committee herself, California Senator Diane Feinstein (D). Though it confirmed the general outlines of what was already assumed, the 500-plus page “executive summary” of the classified 6,700 page report detailed specific examples of torture that were horrific.
In addition, the report reveals that not only was the “enhanced interrogation” program hidden from the American public, but also that Congress was denied information and lied to. Even Colin Powell, Bush’s Secretary of State, was kept out of the loop. Further, while lying to those Congress members who criticized what they knew of the program, then CIA Director Michael Hayden “told a meeting of foreign ambassadors to the United States that every Committee member was ‘fully briefed,’ and that ‘[t]his is not the CIA’s program. This is not the President’s program. This is America’s program.” (Committee Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, Findings and Conclusions, page 6).
The information in the report is not so much a revelation as a confirmation. As Glen Greenwald wrote in The Intercept: “Gen. Antonio Taguba, who led an official investigation into prisoner abuse, said in 2008: ‘There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account,'” (The Intercept, 12/9/2014).
Predictably, the corporate media has tried to soften the blow the report induces. While right-wing sources have called it a distortion by Senate Democrats, The New York Times shielded President Bush’s legacy by explaining: “Bush Team Approved C.I.A. Tactics, but was Kept in Dark on Details, Report Says.” Yet at the time of the scandals of Abu-Gharib, while the prosecution of individual rank and file soldiers was used to shield senior officers from military justice, the report proves that approval for those crimes led directly to Vice President Dick Cheney’s door. Are we really supposed to believe Cheney kept such information from Bush?
Glen Greenwald shines the light on corporate media’s historical acceptance of torture: “the American media bears much of the blame, as they refused for years even to use the word ‘torture’” to describe any of this (even as they called these same techniques ‘torture’ when used by American adversaries), a shameful and cowardly abdication that continues literally to this day in many of the most influential outlets,” (The Intercept, 12/9/2014).
US Invasions, War and Torture
While this torture report exposes the Bush administration, this was hardly in sharp contrast to the foreign policies of previous administrations. Common practices in the Vietnam War, conducted under Democratic Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and Republican President Richard Nixon included carpet bombing whole villages in South Vietnam with napalm, and handing over prisoners to South Vietnamese and CIA military torturers. Though torture is considered illegal under international law, the brutal strategies used by the U.S. to prosecute its multiple other wars could hardly be called moral.
Post-911, the U.S. developed a particularly militaristic, unilateral and generally arrogant approach to the world. While not copying all Bush’s methods, Obama escalated U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, used drones extensively for summary executions, involved the U.S. in a bloody conflict in Libya and re-involved the U.S. in Syria and Iraq in the fight against ISIS.
The Obama administration has pursued U.S. imperial interests just as relentlessly as President Bush ever did. The difference is that while the Bush administration considered itself above international law, blowback from Bush’s policies forced the Obama administration to use more refined methods to pursue U.S. imperial interests while paying lip service to complying with international standards.
While the release of this report right after the Republicans swept the midterm elections has some elements of a partisan maneuver, the main goal is to end speculation and continued revelations about CIA torture. The release of the report represents an attempt to focus attention on the disastrously unpopular Bush regime and salvage what is left of the U.S.’s reputation throughout the world, and this Administration has tried to pretend that such practices are no longer condoned or approved.
Unfortunately, as part of his attempt to sweep past crimes under the rug, Obama issued pardons as part of a bi-partisan policy of exonerating previous U.S. presidents and officials from any personal legal responsibility for their brutal actions. They are to be legally untouchable whether in the U.S. or overseas, a sharp contrast to the record-breaking relentless pursuit of whistleblowers. It is particularly galling that John Kiriakou, a CIA operative who exposed torture methods, is serving a 30-month sentence for whistleblowing in 2008.
This report reveals a bipartisan ruling elite willing to break any law and cover up any crime in their desperate attempt to maintain a position of worldwide dominance on behalf of U.S-based globalized capitalism. But threatened by a weak U.S. economy and the hegemonic aspirations of China and other emerging world powers, this approach appears increasingly problematic and prone to crisis.
All Americans should be outraged at the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the CIA. Activists have an opportunity to use this anger to rebuild an anti-war movement, to broaden the movement against police brutality and to build a movement that can systematically vote out all politicians who justified or covered for torture.
For it is not just the Bush administration, but the whole political system that is guilty. Both parties approved many of Bush’s policies and actions, and now both parties are working together to shield the Bush administration and the CIA from prosecution. These crimes will not be punished and the politicians who directed them will never be held to account unless we can build a movement that will hold them to account.