The CIA's extraordinary rendition programme, detailed in a recent report, helped the spread of terrorism rather than contain it
The title “Globalizing Torture” is arresting and the 216 pages that follow are a chilling account of the CIA’s secret means and methods of fighting the war on terror — almost always extralegal but supported by more than a quarter of the world’s nations. The report by the New York-based Open Society Foundations released on February 5 is the most comprehensive compilation yet of abuses associated with CIA operations. In excruciating detail, it lists the torture techniques and the language of euphemisms created to blunt the effect — torture, for instance, becomes ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. And the meaning of rendition stands forever changed — from one of interpreting music or art to picking up suspects and depositing them in dark cells in faraway prisons.
A total of 54 countries made up the vast network used by the CIA to pluck suspects, bundle them on to chartered planes and “render” them to secret prisons around the world for harsh questioning and, often, torture. From Afghanistan, Pakistan and Egypt — where many suspects were found — to a surprising number of European countries, the web of “black sites” spreads far and wide. Sweden, Finland, Italy, Germany, Britain, Denmark and even Iceland signed up in that post 9/11 ‘today-we-are-all-Americans’ moment.
It should come as a relief that India did not. It sat this one out and one can see the political wisdom behind the absence from the highly charged war on terror. But many Indians silently cheered this war as just desserts, often unaware of the methods.
Interestingly, it is an Indian who compiled the report. Amrit Singh, a fierce civil liberties lawyer based in New York who also happens to be Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s youngest daughter, has meticulously listed the painful history and geography of what can be called government kidnapping. This is her second major effort to bring accountability to the U.S. government by holding up a mirror. She exposed the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by filing a lawsuit and forcing the disclosure in 2009 of thousands of documents related to prisoner abuse, autopsy reports and secret memos on harsh interrogation techniques used by U.S. military personnel.
The report is clear that the U.S. violated both domestic and international law by engaging in torture and secret detentions of terror suspects. It went against its own ideals. But it places equal responsibility on foreign governments for participating in the murky joint venture to undermine human rights protections enshrined in international law.
“Torture is not only illegal and immoral, but also ineffective for producing reliable intelligence,” Ms. Singh writes. Indeed, many U.S. interrogators have testified that rapport-building is more successful in winning prisoner confidence. The Senate Intelligence Committee apparently agrees in a classified report on CIA operations. Senator Diane Feinstein, in the committee’s chair, has been on record to say that torture and secret black sites were “terrible mistakes.”
The big question is this: would it have achieved better results if the Bush administration and the CIA had handled the post-9/11 world differently? And an even bigger one: could they have, given the hysteria and fear that gripped the U.S. at the time? In a democracy, people pressure is a real thing as India most recently discovered with the outrage over the beheading of an Indian soldier by Pakistani forces.
Former CIA officials have dismissed critiques of their extra-judicial operations as “second guessing” by those whose world they made safer by preventing future attacks. Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, remembered that few voices were calling for restraint after 9/11. Indeed, American television channels were in a race of competitive jingoism. “We are often put in a situation where we are bitterly accused of not doing enough to defend America when people feel endangered. And then as soon as we have made people feel safe again, we are accused of doing too much,” he said last week at a panel discussion.
Former CIA officials try to explain away their methods as extraordinary means for extraordinary times. They took their cue from Dick Cheney, former Vice-President, who five days after 9/11 said that “a lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”
What if Mr. Cheney, instead of following the overzealous neoconservatives who wanted a war against Iraq, had followed a radically different and unconventional strategy — that of enlisting Iraq and Syria as partners in the war against terrorism? There was no al-Qaeda presence in either since they were both “secular” Muslim states but today there is, to say nothing of al-Qaeda’s spread across the Islamic Maghreb. The use of blunt instruments with no political handle cannot be a winning strategy.
Incidentally, the justification used by the Bush administration for the Iraq war came partly from information fabricated by Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi under threat of torture in Egypt where he was “rendered” by the U.S. in 2002. According to Ms Singh’s report, he apparently talked of Iraq training al-Qaeda in chemical and biological weapons — a claim that fuelled an unnecessary war with disastrous consequences. Could the butterfly effect have been avoided if torture had been avoided?
(Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based journalist)