The Torture Report: it isn’t just morally reprehensible, it also doesn’t work

Warning: this piece contains graphic description of torture and reference to self-harm.

The recent report from the US Senate Intelligence Committee (SIC) into the CIA’s post-9/11 torture programme has shocked the world. In the 480 page summary released on Tuesday, the SIC details not only the extent and ineffectiveness of torture carried out by the CIA, but also how it was kept a secret from the US Government and the public.

In response to this appalling report, we need to renew our commitment to the fundamental human rights that have been violated and condemn the atrocities that have been committed in our name. It is only by making those in charge accountable, and by strengthening the human rights laws we can use to challenge these horrific acts, that they can be prevented from happening again.

The Torture Report exposes a wide variety of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that violate human decency. Some detainees were given ice water “baths” and told that they would only leave their detention “in a coffin shaped box”. The report goes on to reveal how “interrogators” threatened to sexually assault the mother of one detainee, while threatening to harm the children of others. There was also widespread use of “rectal nutrition and rehydration”, a euphemism for pumping liquid and pasted food up a person’s anus, which has no medical or scientific basis. It served only to cause the detainees, men imprisoned indefinitely without any proper trial or independent judicial scrutiny, humiliation and pain.

As the report reveals, this torture was continued not only beyond any reasonable limits, but beyond the CIA’s own authorisation. One detainee became so compliant he would walk from his cell to the water-boarding chamber, without any prompting from his “interrogator”, and take position. Despite this, the CIA still determined he was “withholding threat information” and continued to torture him. Another detainee broke down from the torture and began to self-harm by chewing his elbow and cutting himself with a filed toothbrush. According to the report, “additional sessions of rectal feeding and hydration” followed these “non-compliant” acts of self-harm.

While some may still argue that torture is an evil necessary for our security and that we must ruin the lives of these few individuals to save the lives of many, this argument does not hold up practice. Torture is a notoriously unreliable way of getting “threat information”. This report, consistent with so many studies and reports before it, found that the “enhanced interrogation techniques were not effective” and produced “faulty” or “incorrect” information. Torture isn’t just morally reprehensible; it also doesn’t work. These acts were not just appalling and excessive, but tragically pointless too.

Given the inherent secrecy of the CIA, challenging those who have committed these horrors, as well as ensuring they never occur again, will always be a difficult prospect. Ground-breaking reports like this are the first step, but these only politically embarrass the CIA and other security agencies (how involved British and other security agencies were is still to be determined). We need to do more than this; we need to make torture politically impossible.

To achieve this, we first need to build proper systems of supervision and accountability. We must take this potentially brief moment when security services are embarrassed, and people are rightly outraged, and act before this story slips from the news. Giving the cross-party committees that supervise security agencies, as well as allowing greater independent observation, would be a good start. However, without openness and transparency about exactly who was involved, as well the structures that failed, nothing more than these basic proposals can be developed.

Most importantly, we need to defend and fight for human rights. Torture and slavery are the only two human rights that are commonly unqualified and unstipulated, such is the power of their universality. It is this universality that the USA, among others, has often eluded by legal sleights of hand. They claim that the Bill of Rights only applies to their own citizens, while creating “enemy combatants” and “detainees” terms that avoid the scrutiny of the Geneva Convention.

There is successful precedent for this. In the 1990s, Ireland successfully persuaded the UK to explicitly ban five torture techniques, such as sleep-deprivation and “wallstanding,” which had previously been used against the IRA. Numerous senior American officials should face prosecution for these exposed crimes against human rights in the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” programme. When fought and campaigned for by passionate publics and determined lawyers, human rights can be a powerful tool against those who hide abuses of power behind the veil of “national security”.

Ever since the vaguely defined ‘War on Terror’ began human rights have been under attack. Yet the SIC Report demonstrates, more than ever, just how deeply a strong commitment to human rights is needed. The CIA’s torture went far beyond isolated occurrences of waterboarding in a dark room; it was a sustained, institutional assault upon human dignity. Human rights, along with appropriate systems of accountability, need to be defended and applied. This is the only way that we can ensure those responsible for these horrors are brought to justice, and prevent them from ever re-occurring in the future.

PHOTO/ Paul J. Richards