America’s Soviet Moment

The US Senate Intelligence Committee has released its summary of the much-anticipated report into the CIA interrogation programs established by US spy chiefs after 9/11. The full report, which many senators wanted classified is 6,000 pages long and only a summary of 525 pages has been unclassified. The report took five years to produce and is based on more than 6 million internal agency documents.

The summary report effectively exposes the CIA and lays blame completely on the spy agency for torturing detainees (not prisoners) in order to gain cooperation. It confirms the agency carried out a program with contractors in secret prisons across the globe in the years after 9/11. It also confirms the horrific and brutal details of torture techniques used by the agency. These included detainees being deprived of sleep for over a hundred hours, including a case where detainee Abu Zubaydah was confined to a coffin-sized box for a total of 266 hours. He was kept in an even smaller box for 29 hours. Techniques such as Waterboarding and rectal hydration were routinely used to break down detainees. Most of these detainees have never been put on trial or been found guilty of any crime.

Whilst much of the world has reacted in shock and horror and as details continue to emerge of some of the most brutal torture imaginable, it is important this is this all placed into context and to not get affected by the political posturing. Former CIA heads and intelligence officers are already attempting to rebut the report and provide answers and justifications for what they did. Much of the blame is being labelled squarely on the CIA and it is likely the classified elements of the report would implicate many others, countries and officials.

The context of these torture programs was the climate after the 9/11 attacks. On the evening of September 11 2001, President George W Bush laid out unequivocally the position of the US and the ideological nature of the attack, he said, “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” Then on the 2006 anniversary of 9/11, Bush confirmed once again the struggle the US was engaged in: “…we are engaged in a global war against an enemy that threatens all civilized nations. And today the civilized world stands together to defend our freedom.” Much of the US public was in shock as the Twin Towers collapsed and the enemy and those that harboured them needed to be pursued to the ends of the world, by any means necessary. The fear and panic was the justification for expanding torture (termed advanced interrogation measures), US administration officials believed the brutal methods were necessary to understand the threat against the US, even though it is a widely regarded fact that torture does not produce reliable intelligence. In fact the Senate report makes it clear that, the torture programme produced negligible results and the means of the programme were not justified by its paltry results.

In 2010 George W Bush, speaking with NBC News reiterated that “using those techniques saved lives. My job was to protect America.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney laid out what really happened. “What I keep hearing out there is they portray this as a rogue operation and the agency was way out of bounds and then they lied about it. I think that’s all a bunch of hooey. The program was authorized. The agency did not want to proceed without authorization, and it was also reviewed legally by the Justice Department before they undertook the program.” Cheney also said the conclusion that the CIA misled the White House about its interrogation techniques “is just a crock.” The Senate report blames the CIA for everything and even paints the picture that the Senate was misled, the report even states the CIA was much harsher than it represented to policymakers. But the reality is America’s global programme of rendition, secret prisons, black prisons, was authorised and justified at the highest levels.

In hindsight the 2004 revelations of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq at the hands of the US military was just the tip of the iceberg.

There are three key arguments US officials have used for the last decade to justify the torture programme, which the Senate report exposed.

Actionable Intelligence – This is any piece of information, by itself or as a factor in analysis that military commanders or policymakers can use in making decisions. As the US was in a global war of terror interrogating actionable intelligence from detainees would stop other pending attacks. The Senate report exposed this and concluded: “none of 20 cases of counterterrorism “successes” attributed to the techniques led to unique or otherwise unavailable intelligence.”

Ticking Time Bomb – This was the widely used justification for torture, especially in the case of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, who the US considered the principal architect of 9/11. As the perpetrator of 9/11 he could disclose information on other imminent attacks, if tortured. On the floor of the US Senate on 9 December, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said that Senate investigators never found a single instance of it happening. “At no time did the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques lead to the collection of intelligence on an imminent threat that many believe was the justification for the use of these techniques. The Committee never found an example of this hypothetical ticking time bomb scenario.” The supposed ‘ticking bomb’ scenarios initially used to justify the use of torture, became sustained and routine torture of detainees in the off chance that some useful intelligence may come to light.

Lives Saved – Whether it was senators, administration officials or intelligence agents, they all justified torture on the basis it saved US lives. The Senate report however highlighted the CIA justified its use of such techniques with inaccurate claims of their effectiveness, including examples of thwarted plots in Britain.

The US Supreme Court has held since at least the 1890s that punishments that involved torture are forbidden under this the Eighth Amendment. The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The 1984 UN Convention against torture that Western states uphold is explicit. It defines torture as “the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering whether physical or mental.” The US only ratified this law 10 years later in 1994, but reigned back on it after 9/11.

Despite US officials describing 9/11 as a clash of civilisations and the ‘war on terror’ as a battle to defend liberty. What we witnessed was the abandonment of the very liberty and values into the dustbin of history which the US was purporting to defend. Values were abandoned when it was found difficult to deal or adapt to the new challenges of the international environment. Whilst many in the West argue that in the interest of national security, certain laws can be suspended and are necessary. The rationale of protecting the nation’s security is the perennial argument used by dictators and tyrants through the ages and is used constantly by regimes from North Korea to Zimbabwe to defend their draconian policies. However these regimes don’t pretend to be something that they are not and nor do they seek to promote their values abroad. It is the active promotion of secular democracy abroad while simultaneously abandoning it at home that is the brazen hypocrisy.

But the suspension of the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial, the right to be aware of the evidence that is being used to imprison you and not being tortured, are not mere footnotes of political life to be altered at will; they are rather supposed to be the bedrock of Western political tradition and history. This violation of its very own values was highlighted by the Senate report, which said the programme, which is now defunct, violated American ideals by torturing suspects.

Barack Obama and the rest of the western world have come out condemning the Bush Government, the CIA and categorically termed the interrogation techniques as torture. They are all trying to wash their hands of this. But the reality is an intricate web of airports around the globe, including at least one in Prestwick, Scotland, were used for the illegal transfer of terror suspects to secret CIA jails in countries outside of US territory and legal protection. Many of America’s European allies were deeply involved in the CIA programme. Under President Bush, the CIA used a web of European airports and bases for its extraordinary rendition flights, secretly transferring terror suspects across borders for interrogation. Some European states helped the CIA to carry out kidnappings. Others hosted CIA “black sites” –, torture chambers – on their territory. After 9/11 the CIA reached out to its European allies as it embarked on its detention and extraordinary rendition operation. The aim was to place detainees beyond the reach of law. The active participation of dozens of foreign governments made both the renditions and interrogations possible. According to information compiled by Open Society Foundations, at least 54 governments cooperated with these CIA activities. Twenty-one of those are European, of which 17 were at the time members – or soon to become members – of the European Union. The UK cooperated closely with the CIA on detention and rendition – as documents found in Libya after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 showed. The use of torture was not just routine, but included the willing participation of much of the west.

It is also extremely difficult to take Obama seriously, whilst he may have brought some of Bush’s programmes to an end, he has however maintained Guantanamo Bay and expanded the US Drone programme across the globe. Similar to Bush’s justification for torture Obama has justified drone strikes as targeted killings and precision strikes based on sound intel. But this has been exposed as what drone strikes really do is signature strikes not precision strikes. This is when the decision to fire is based not on who the targets are but on whether they are exhibiting suspicious patterns of behavior thought to be “signatures” of terrorists. So what’s a signature behavior? “The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and 40,” former ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter told the Daily Beast . The New York Times quoted a senior State Department official as saying that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp. Obama and Bush are in reality two sides of the same coin.

In defence of its values, the US administration, who is tasked with applying the values it is elected for, abandoned them. The justifications for this was accepted by the US public as a necessary evil in light of the 9/11 attacks. Despite this contradicting the US constitution, the US constitution was abandoned – in the name of defending it – a contradiction of epic proportions. In the face of adversity and a people who did not embrace so called universal values of liberty, democracy and justice, these very values were seen as impractical in this post 9/11 environment. The question that arises form this is if this bedrock of western civilisation is impractical, what does this say of other western values. This brings us to the title of this article – America’s Soviet moment.

In 1961 the Soviet Union sought coexistence with the US, the world’s leading Capitalist state. This was in direct contravention of the Communist creed. Communism eschewed all coexistence with Capitalism. By replacing the destruction of Capitalism with its accommodation, many people became aware of the impracticality of Communism in regulating relations with other states. This effectively became the beginning of the end of Communism and accelerated its demise, with its eventual collapse in 1990. With the US, dealing with those who do not espouse your values has highlighted a weakness in its values. Along with the Ferguson riots and other recent cases of racism within US institutions, US torture of those who were never afforded a trial may very well be America’s Soviet moment and the beginning of the end of Capitalism.

Written for the Central Media Office of Hizb ut Tahrir by

Adnan Khan