WASHINGTON D.C. — Embarrassment for allies, ammunition for enemies — but no recommendations laid down for the future treatment of alleged terrorists taken prisoner. It would seem that publication by the Senate Intelligence Committee (or at least its Democrats) of its report into the torture of detainees just brought a heap of trouble.
The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, told CNN that publication was “a terrible idea” and said “foreign leaders have approached the government and said, ‘You do this, this will cause violence and deaths.'” He was not alone on fearing a visceral global reaction.
But reaction from overseas has been — for the most part — muted, both among the United States’ allies and its enemies. None of the major al Qaeda affiliates (as of early Wednesday) had sought to exploit the often graphic details of the report. The pan-Arab TV networks focused on a meeting of the Gulf Co-operation Council, rather than acres of live coverage out of Washington.
For sure, social media lit up — and there were plenty of comments from the Muslim world. One of hundreds of similar tweets read, “This is only what the kuffar are acknowledging to the public, after hiding for many years. Can you even imagine what they are still hiding?”
But the dense text and footnotes were not as emotive — nor as easily transportable — as images from Abu Ghraib prison of detainee abuse, cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed or video of the Koran being burnt. And the story of “enhanced interrogation techniques” by the CIA was hardly new, even if some of the techniques were.
Heavily redacted, the report mentions none of the countries — there are thought to have been at least eight — where CIA interrogation took place, nor other forms of co-operation from allies in the rendition program. In Britain, a Conservative Member of Parliament, Andrew Tyrie, told the Daily Telegraph: “It’s impossible to tell how much the report has been redacted or reduced, cut, to take out the extent of the involvement of other countries, in particular America’s closest ally the United Kingdom.”
In a 216-page report published last year, the Open Society Justice Initiative, a New York based human rights organization, said that “Secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations, designed to be conducted outside the United States under cover of secrecy, could not have been implemented without the active participation of foreign governments.”
And publication of the Senate investigation has once more shone a light on the international scope of the CIA rendition program, reviving interest in the role of European governments and others in hosting the so-called “black sites” where interrogation was carried out and in permitting rendition overflights.
One member of the European Parliament, Alyn Smith, tweeted soon after the report was published: “Questions now to ask in EU about what our governments knew, or should have known.”
The Parliament and European Court of Human Rights have already investigated many cases. The Court issued a highly critical judgment against Poland this year, concluding it “for all practical purposes, facilitated the whole process, created the conditions for it to happen, and made no attempt to prevent it from occurring.”
It awarded substantial damages against Poland to two detainees allegedly held there: Abu Zubaydah, suspected of running an al Qaeda facility in Pakistan, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, alleged to have been involved in the attack on the USS Cole. Poland is appealing the verdict.
Cases against Romania and Lithuania, also said to have hosted “black sites,” are pending before the Court.
As damaging to U.S. international standing as the report may seem right now, supporters of publication say it demonstrates that the U.S. examines and owns up to its mistakes — as it did with the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Intelligence Committee and was the driving force for the report’s publication, said it showed the “spirit of a just society [that] functions under law, and that when we make mistakes we admit them, we correct them, and we move on.”
The same sentiment came from the White House and from Downing Street in London, where British Prime Minister, David Cameron said the report’s publication was a reminder that “we won’t succeed if we lose our moral authority, if we lose the things that make or systems work and countries successful.”
But the report’s publication has already become a stick for critics of Cameron’s government. Writing in the Guardian in the UK, columnist Simon Jenkins says: “Citizens must know what is done in their name, even if it takes time. It has taken the U.S. more than a decade. Britain is still waiting for its Chilcot report on Iraq.”
The Chilcot Inquiry, which was due to report three years ago, has been examining the reasons given for Britain joining the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but its publication has been delayed by requests for thousands of classified government documents — including communications between the U.S President, George W. Bush, and Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown of the UK.
A question of leadership
The United States has a long history of opposing torture in any form or for any purpose. President Ronald Reagan sent the U.N. Convention Against Torture to the US Senate in 1988 asking it to outlaw an “abhorrent practice”; it was ratified in the early days of the George H. Bush Administration.
But, years later, during the Administration of his son, President George W. Bush consistently argued that “enhanced interrogation techniques” as they were euphemistically known, did not amount to torture. But the revelations included in the Senate report leave little doubt that at least some of the practices would by all international standards be defined as torture.
Many — on both sides of the aisle — have since spoken of the moral hazard involved in pushing the boundaries of interrogation and the consequences for American leadership.
The Senate Armed Services Committee concluded in 2008 that “U.S. leadership on combating torture helps to build democratic societies and institutions abroad — where often, torture is used to repress and destroy democratic freedoms.”
The Committee added: “U.S. global leadership against torture has serious ramifications for the torture movement and survivors’ healing worldwide.”
When he was Secretary of State, General Colin Powell argued that the Geneva Conventions should be applied in Afghanistan. In 2002 he wrote to the Counsel to President George W. Bush that if the Conventions were ignored, “Europeans and others will likely have legal problems with extradition or other forms of cooperation in law enforcement, including in bringing terrorists to justice.”
There would be “a high cost in terms of negative international reaction, with immediate adverse consequences for our conduct of foreign policy,” he said.
Powell lost the internal debate, but the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission suggested his advice should have been heeded.
The Commission said that “Allegations that the United States abused prisoners in its custody make it harder to build the diplomatic, political and military alliances the government will need” and recommended that the United States “engage its friends to develop a common coalition approach toward the detention and humane treatment of captured terrorists.”
That has not happened, according to the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, whose members included former U.S. Under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering and former FBI Director William Sessions.
It reported last year that the U.S. had failed to take “meaningful, permanent steps” to find a common approach on the humane treatment and detention of suspected terrorists. And it echoed the Commission’s recommendation that the U.S. draw on Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions on the law of armed conflict.
Pickering, whose diplomatic career spanned five decades, said he hoped the report would be a vital chink in opening the door to new legislation in Congress that would reinforce the ban on torture. He dismissed the possibility of violence as a reason for not publishing the report. “If they can influence U.S. policy by threatening U.S. embassies and personnel then we’ve lost the game,” Pickering told CNN.
Pickering, a member of the Constitution Project’s panel, said the report threw up all sorts of issues that needed international attention, such as medical ethics in the treatment of detainees and forced feeding.
The U.N. special rapporteur on counter terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, said there must also be prosecutions. “The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in [the] report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes.
“This applies not only to the actual perpetrators but also to those senior officials within the U.S. government who devised, planned and authorized these crimes,” Emmerson said in a statement.
Amnesty International agreed, saying that prosecution is “not a policy nicety, it is a requirement under international law,” while Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth said that torture would remain a “policy option” for future presidents unless officials were prosecuted.
Pickering has mixed feelings about prosecutions. Federal officials take an oath to uphold the Constitution, but many were assured they were acting legally. And he is no fan of going down what he called “the Latin American route,” whereby one president puts his predecessor in jail.
“Some people do need to be held to account because some of the conduct is so widely at odds with our values,” he said. “But making an example out of a few people would be a disservice.”
Both President Obama and the U.S. Justice Department have made it clear that they oppose prosecutions.
Thomas Pickering wishes the transparency shown by publication of the Senate report had been applied 11 years ago, when the Office of Legal Counsel drew up its controversial memos, one of which concluded “that federal laws against torture, assault and maiming would not apply to the overseas interrogation of terror suspects.”
Had that view been made public and widely discussed, there might have been no need for a 6,000-page Senate report.