The Truth About TORTURE: And the Post-9/11 Moral Quagmire…

Medieval torture, illustration

Torture exists. It goes on in the world. We all know that.

30 years after the UN Convention Against Torture established measures to eradicate the practice, it is in fact still going on in at least 141 countries; including countries that are signatories to the UN convention, according to Amnesty International’s  annual report (the one I’m quoting is from 2014).

The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights is unambiguous: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

That ruling, as well as the Geneva Conventions and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, dictates an absolute ban on torture for any purpose; note that there’s no special allowance for ‘times of war’ or ‘urgent matters of national security’ or any other excuse any governments or agencies might offer for their illegal actions.

Amnesty observed that at least 79 of the nations it investigated in 2014 is still conducting torture – more than half of these states claims to be party to the UN Convention. And the point is also that even nations that haven’t formally adopted the convention against torture (which includes 40 UN states) are still technically considered legally answerable to that law.

President Donald Trump‘s recent pro torture statements have brought the subject of torture – particularly US torture practises – back into mainstream consciousness. Whether Trump himself is genuinely, meaningfully pro torture or whether he is simply parroting the thoughts of some of the psychopathic individuals around him is unclear. But the idea of an openly pro torture President of the United States, accompanied by a number of administration picks who are also pro torture and also heavily pro Guantanamo, may indicate a return to the post-9/11 Cheney/Rumsfeld/Neo-Con environment of cruel and illegal practices.

This potential return to post-9/11 Neo-Conism was something I already anticipated. If it were to go back that way, there would be nothing positive about it.

In some ways what was most disturbing about the torture report conducted by the Democrats and released by the US Senate in 2014 is the CIA’s use – through coercion, no doubt – of foreign locations and collaborators to host the torture, as though engaging in unethical practices in someone else’s country makes it that country’s practice and not the CIA’s.

The whole idea of establishing foreign locations, like Guantanamo Bay, to conduct harsh practices that are illegal on home soil stank of tremendous hypocrisy in the first place. If it’s regarded as an un-American activity or something at odds with American principles then an American agency engaging in it is still the same moral quagmire regardless of whether it does it ‘off-shore’.

 Guantanamo Bay prison 

It’s a child’s way of operating; Daddy says I can’t play with scissors in his house – but I’m not in  the house, I’m in the yard, so it’s okay.

The flourishing of systematic torture by extraordinarily powerful American institutions badly undermines America’s image and its own professed principles and ideologies; it also encourages other countries to continue engaging in immoral and cruel activities all under the banner of ‘fighting terrorism’. When the world’s superpower and self-appointed arbiter of modern values is seen to be itself engaged in illegal and immoral activities, it loses its moral authority and can no longer legitimately preach to other nations and societies; a point borne out by some of the international response to the 2014 CIA torture revelations, such as in China or Russia.

“They claim #humanrights & trample its basics in their prisons, in interactions w nations & even w their own ppl,” Iran’s spiritual leader remarked at the time on Twitter.

Iran has a piss-poor human rights record, by the way; but the point is that perceived US hypocrisy enables everyone else to twist the truth too.

The fact is that there are nations and governments that are engaged in much worse torture and worse cruelty than what the CIA and US military is reported to have engaged in since 9/11, but they can use these CIA activities – and President Donald Trump’s cavalier pro torture statements – as justification for their own torture activities and they will cite the same excuses of ‘national security’ and ‘fighting terrorists’. Egypt is a good example.

This is particularly the case in the numerous countries where the CIA established its ‘Black Sites’ and in so doing clearly demonstrated to their foreign collaborators that torture was permissible and justified in America’s view.

We also know that the NSA participated in some of the torture programs as well.

But this was the tone and environment sought after and created by the Cheney/Rumsfeld Neo-Con regime – one of flourishing illegality and dehumanisation of the ‘enemy’. It was a situation the Obama administration tried to somewhat reverse, expose and consign to the past: but that the new administration may be trying to revive.

 Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld  

CIA collaboration with foreign entities for the purposes of torture isn’t even just a post-9/11 issue either.

Substantial cooperation between states in the methods and coordination of torture has been documented in the past. Through the CIA’s Phoenix Program, for example, the United States helped South Vietnam co-ordinate a system of detention, torture and assassination of suspected members of the Viet Cong, while during the 1980s wars in Central America, the U.S. government provided manuals and training on how to effectively use interrogation and torture (research what went on in El-Salvador, Chile, Argentina, etc).

Those are merely two examples from numerous in the long and bleak history of America’s Central Intelligence Agency.

For the record, it is being suggested that Blackwater mercenary founder, Erik Prince – a man tied to the Trump administration and who was involved in some of the worst controversies of the Iraq War – is pushing for a revival of the CIA’s Phoenix Program.

Not that brutal or repressive regimes and organisations around the world need an ‘excuse’ to engage in base behavior; they’d be doing it anyway. But the point is that America doing it – and doing it in such an extraordinarily complex and systemic way, including the coercion of other countries and governments to facilitate the activities – gives everyone else the green light, so long as they do it behind closed doors.

It also makes it impossible for human rights campaigners and anti-torture activists to accomplish anything anywhere.

Unless those responsible are brought to some kind of account for it, the work of human rights organisations becomes even harder than it already is when it comes to calling other nations and societies to account for their actions.

It also contributes to the broader degradation of common humanity and morality in the world, fueling the view that America is both a hypocritical and cruel entity and therefore fueling terrorism, radicalization, and behavior such as the beheading of American journalists in ISIS-controlled Iraq.

It can’t escape people’s attention that each of Islamic State’s inhuman execution videos features the hostages being made to don Guantanamo Bay style orange garb. That’s a direct reference to CIA/US-Military activity in the passed fifteen years, the illegal long-term detainment of foreign nationals without trial and their cruel and humiliating treatment. When you see videos of the ISIL/Daesh militants executing people in orange garb, be it in Libya, Iraq or elsewhere, you are seeing the explicit legacy of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and the CIA/military torture programs.

Revenge-obsessed monsters like those who operate under the ISIS black banner were literally throwing that imagery and those associations back in America’s faces and communicating this legacy/blowback in obvious terms.

 Islamic State terrorists in Libya

Islamic State execution footage 

In talking about “fighting fire with fire”, Donald Trump – perhaps unknowingly – is actually advocating a return to the practises (and negative propaganda and feedback) that created ‘ISIS’ in the first place.

The CIA and the US military’s activities after 9/11 have already fueled the anger and imaginations of disenfranchised people in Islamic societies, giving fresh ammo to anti-West, anti-American hate preachers and the entire radicalization process.

And because of the things that are demonstrably true, such as Guantanamo Bay or the incidents at Abu Ghraib (images of which were widely disseminated in the Islamic world), it’s so much easier for indoctrinators to convince such people that America does much worse things than that too. In other words, when there are admitted, provable offenses, it’s so much easier to mix lies or exaggerations in there too for the sake of radicalizing the next generation of young minds.

We have to wonder just how many men have been radicalized into extreme ideologies and barbarous behavior due to information (and misinformation) they’ve been fed concerning US military atrocities, CIA torture, Guantanamo Bay, and more. Moazzam Begg, a former British inmate of Guantánamo Bay, makes this point himself, saying that CIA torture had fueled the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

 Torture photos from Abu Ghraib prison

Abu Ghraib torture 

It is unclear to me how much it was reported in the American media the extent to which images of US Army depravity in Abu Ghraib in Iraq were circulated and discussed in the Middle East, turning people who might not have been anti-American in the first instance into radicals and haters of the West.

The US Army may not equate to the CIA, but it could be said to be all part of the same culture of immoral, inhumane activity that was allowed to flourish during the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld administration.


In a civilised society of course all torture is indefensible. Popular TV shows like 24 and Homeland (or propaganda movies like Zero Dark Thirty, which exist to justify torture – even though the entire narrative of the Bin Laden killing was probably false) served to ‘normalise’ the use of controlled violence and cruelty somewhat in people’s minds and make it seem like a necessary evil: but that isn’t how it is regarded in international law. And nor is it how civilised people should see things.

It is also regarded by many, including experts and academics, as an ineffective means of acquiring reliable information. People being tortured, the prevailing wisdom has it, will say whatever their torturers want them to; their information is therefore unreliable.

President Trump’s recent statement on torture (“It works”) is flatly disputed by proper studies, which categorically conclude that torture is generally not an effective means of uncovering useful information. The same view is shared by Trump’s National Security pick, ‘Mad Dog’ James Mattis, who dismisses the effectiveness of torture practices and argues that civilised treatment and establishing trust and rapport is much more effective.

Shane O’Mara’s work, Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation, is regarded by many as a definitive answer to the question of torture’s ineffectiveness as a source of intelligence. The Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College, Dublin, and Director of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, concluded that torture may sometimes be effective in forcing confessions, as in Stalin’s Russia, but not reliable or truthful intelligence.

Trump’s pro torture stance isn’t new information; it was already clear from his campaign statements (“I love it, I love it,” he said of US torture practices a year or so ago), and his statements are either a symptom of his lack of knowledge or experience or a case of him simply repeating things that have been said to him by some of the highly questionable people in his network.

In fairness to him, the president has said he intends to follow the law and heed to the advice from his military and security advisers: however, the law could be challenged or changed.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other rights advocates said in 2014 that prosecutions would follow the Senate’s CIA torture report. “Under the UN convention against torture, no exceptional circumstances whatsoever can be invoked to justify torture, and all those responsible for authorising or carrying out torture or other ill-treatment must be fully investigated,” said a representative of Amnesty International USA two years ago.

Not only has the Obama administration been prevented from shutting down Guantanamo, but the Senate Torture Report been strategically suppressed and undermined by right-wing torture enthusiasts. Instead, the US now has people in government – including its new president – who are entirely gung-ho about torture: the effect of which will be to allow or encourage torture practices to be freshly justified elsewhere in the world too and by foreign regimes that will jump for joy at Trump’s statements.

I noted, however, in this article a week or so ago, that the Trump movement wasn’t really ‘anti establishment’ at all, but simply anti Democrat/Obama and in favor of a return to pre-Obama Republican/Neo-Con operations.

The Bush era, Neo-Con Vice-President and chief oil profiteer Dick Cheney had told the New York Times at the time that any attempt to portray the torture programme as a rogue operation was a “bunch of hooey” and defended its use as “absolutely, totally justified”. While Cheney’s assertion that the torture is “totally justified” is highly debatable, he is probably right in dismissing any notion of the CIA being ‘rogue’; which is an excuse that some embarrassed US commentators might employ to distance the US government from the CIA’s actions.

 Diane Feinstein presenting the Senate Torture Report 

It should be borne in mind too that the report released by the Senate in 2014 is only a portion of the information on the torture program; the rest of the information, like so much of what the CIA has been involved in for decades, is still classified and may never see the light of day. How much worse those details may or may not be can only be guessed at at this stage. The full version of the report – supported by President Obama and led by Senator Dianne Feinstein (pictured above), who was viciously demonised by right-wing Republicans and other American torture enthusiasts for her actions – remains classified; only a 500-page executive summary was released to the public in late 2014.

The techniques and practices revealed in that report are troubling; but torture exists and is conducted by numerous agencies all over the world – the CIA’s techniques are probably soft compared to some of what goes on in some of those other countries.

I don’t suggest for a moment that the US is the worst offender – but rather that the US should, in a proper world, be placing its own ideals and practices on a higher plain than what goes on in numerous other countries. Unfortunately, we have a new administration that appears uninterested in that: more worryingly the ‘ideals’ themselves may be shifting, which will naturally lead to a shift in practices too.

In my view, torture is inexcusable: both morally indefensible and strategically worthless.

The practices of the post-9/11 Neo-Con era were also – and I stress this again because it is so important – absolutely central to the scale of radicalisation in parts of the Muslim world and in particular the rise and nature of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq. We are still experiencing the legacy of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

And, in my view, people like Dianne Feinstein and the others involved in getting the Senate Torture Report out – despite so much opposition – are much greater American ‘patriots’ than those who support or carry out the illegal practices. Or those who now call for a return to those practices.

S. Awan

Independent journalist. Pariah. Believer in human rights, human dignity and liberty. Musician. Substandard Jedi. All-round failure. And future ghost.

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