CIA torture: Regardless of the reasoning, we must be better than this

David Kilgour
David vs. David

Senator Dianne Feinstein noted optimistically as her Intelligence Committee report on the CIA was released: history will judge (Americans) by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again’.”

Her Senate colleague, John McCain, tortured in North Vietnam decades ago, stressed that its victims rarely reveal anything, saying whatever they think their tormentors want to hear.

The use of torture by the CIA became widely known in 2003, when Amnesty International revealed its severe maltreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. To his credit, Barack Obama ended ‘enhanced interrogation’ by the agency in 2009, now admitting that the process “did significant damage to America’s standing in the world ... (making) it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners.”

Whether torture saved lives – as claimed by defenders of the practices  is directly rebutted in the report, which cites the agency’s own documents to conclude that its methods uncovered nothing that disrupted plots or helped capture terrorists. It specifically denies the claim by former president George W. Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney that the CIA interrogations helped locate Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald noted, “Everything that we did ... has ... been viewed as morally vile ... inexcusable and criminal ... [the program] was about dehumanization … exploitation and control … [The U.S. also] ‘rendered’ people to tyrants for torture ... Mubarak in Egypt, Assad in Syria and Gadhafi in Libya....”

Significantly, Jan Wong, a Canadian professor of journalism, reports that Maher Arar, the Canadian “renditioned” from a U.S. airport in 2002 to a torture chamber in Syria for ten months of agony, recently tweeted, “Torture does not tell you anything about the person being tortured, but tells you volumes about the person who’s doing the torture.”

The Vancouver columnist Daphne Bramham describes the report as a “lexicon of horror and inhumanity ... Waterboarding nearly to the point of death … killed by being chained to a concrete floor after a cold shower, 48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness and isolation.”

Since the terrible loss of 2,996 lives from al-Qaeda air attacks on New York and Washington during 9/11 and the beginning of the Bush administration’s war on terror, off-camera brutality seems to have been accepted. Recent opinion surveys by respected pollsters indicate that a majority of Americans believe that the CIA interrogation tactics were warranted. Perhaps those of this view do not realize, as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan put it, “Torture can never be an instrument to fight terror, for torture is an instrument of terror.” It is also a war crime.

Bramham regrets that “Human rights have gone from being an urgent, public priority to being perceived as a barrier rather than a shield. After 9/11, fear drove the agenda in the U.S. and spilled into Canada … [citizens] readily traded away civil rights ... in the belief that it would curb terrorism ...”

Some people reject the notion of extending any rights to suspected terrorists, but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, recognizes the inherent dignity, equality and inalienable rights of all members of the human family ... including enemies. Canadian John Humphrey wrote in its preamble: “Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.”

Words presumably as true now as sixty-six years ago.

Opposing veiwpoint: David Jones

CIA torture: The tactics are not surprising or unreasonable in the wake of 9/11

In our own country, proposed legislation to boost the power of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) to monitor, track and arrest suspected terrorists was recently debated in the House of Commons under the shadow of the grave ISIS threat. Public safety minister Steven Blaney assured MPs that there were “robust” safeguards in place to ensure that the proposed new powers would not infringe on civil rights. In context, this seems doubtful.

Since the murders of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo in Canada, the hostage-taking in Australia, and the murders of 132 school children in Pakistan, careful oversight over the operations of CSIS and our Communications Security Establishment (CSE) seems unlikely to be a major priority of any government. Canada’s Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) does not appear to be providing effective oversight at present

The aim of electronic surveillance is to analyze data so as to identify risks and pre-empt dangerous activity. Related businesses are obliged by law to collect, store and transfer personal data to governments. Such practices pose major challenges to fundamental rights and must be regulated with much care. Democracy can be a shield for those wishing to use our freedoms to destroy us, but robust democratic institutions, enshrined human rights and lessons drawn from the mistakes of others, including neighbours, are the cornerstones of our collective and personal security.

(Photo courtesy Getty Images)

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.