Grim report exposes ‘brutal’ US interrogations
American embassies are bracing themselves for attack after revelations that US intelligence services tortured suspected terrorists in the wake of 9/11. Has the Land of the Free shown its true colours?
‘We do not condone torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.’
When George Bush uttered these words in 2004, he was speaking as president of the USA. His denial seemed resolute. But a new report, commissioned by the US Senate and released yesterday, tells a very different story. During Bush’s presidency, the report claims, intelligence services repeatedly used methods of interrogation which amounted to torture.
Under the CIA’s programme of so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’, 119 suspected terrorists were shipped to foreign countries and subjected to an array of physical and mental ordeals. Prisoners were stripped naked, beaten, deprived of sleep, and forced to listen to loud, repetitive noises for hours on end. In one particularly notorious technique, known as ‘waterboarding’, interrogators simulated the experience of drowning.
The report's conclusions are damning. These interrogations were both ‘brutal’ and ‘ineffective’, its authors say, and the resulting information often completely false.
The USA has regularly condemned regimes that use torture, citing the United Nations Convention which labels it a human rights abuse. What drove its leaders to embrace a practice they supposedly deplore?
In short, 9/11. In September 2001, agents of the terrorist group al-Qaeda hijacked two planes and ploughed them into the World Trade Centre, killing almost 3,000 New Yorkers at a blow. After that, as one US intelligence expert put it, ‘the gloves came off’.
Politicians and citizens were united in desire for security, vengeance and justice. The CIA poured vast resources into hunting down anybody linked to al-Qaeda and, at a moment fraught with grief and fury, few were squeamish about their methods.
President Barack Obama ended the programme in 2009. But it still causes outrage and controversy worldwide. Today, US embassies around the world are braced for riots and attacks.
With US or against US
America’s detractors will greet this report as a confirmation of their worst suspicion: behind US appeals to ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’ lies a sinister and overbearing state. The USA preaches to other countries about human rights, they say, but this grim episode shows it is a big part of the problem.
But Obama insists that these ‘troubling’ revelations do not represent the true USA. Indeed, he says, the report is itself evidence of America's more admirable qualities: ‘One of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past,’ he says. ‘The United States of America will remain the greatest force for freedom and human dignity that the world has ever known.’
- Is the USA a force for good in the world?
- Is there any realistic situation in which torture is justified?
- ‘Anything is justifiable if it saves lives.’ Do you agree? Hold a class debate and put the question to a debate.
- Write down a definition of torture, then look up the definitions given in the Become An Expert links. Were they similar? What does this exercise make you think?
Some People Say...
“When we torture we are departing downwards from humanity.’Alexander Solzhenitsyn”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I have no sympathy with terrorists, so why should I care what they suffer?
- The idea of human rights is that they are universal and inalienable: they belong to all people, no matter who they are, what they have done or whether you care about their feelings.
- Then I don’t agree with the idea of human rights.
- Not everybody does. But even if that’s the case, there are other reasons to be concerned when governments start torturing or imprisoning people without trial.
- Why’s that?
- Modern states have an enormous, potentially unlimited amount of power. The reason we can generally feel safe that they won’t arrest or assault us without justification is that they are bound to respect basic civil liberties. When governments ignore those principles, even in exceptional cases, it’s a worrying sign.
- This does not always mean physically harming to obtain information. Official definitions of torture stress that the suffering inflicted may be mental, and it may be used to humiliate or punish rather than for intelligence. Whether the CIA’s methods constituted ‘torture’ is still a hotly debated question in the USA.
- The Central Intelligence Agency is the USA’s main instrument for gathering international intelligence. It is no stranger to controversy, having been involved in everything from political assassinations to mind control experiments.
- United Nations Convention
- The 1975 UN Convention Against Torture prohibits members from either carrying out torture or sending prisoners to places where torture is likely to occur. The USA is one of 156 nations to have signed the agreement.
- As the main representatives of a country in foreign lands, embassies are often the focus of protests against their country’s government.