A soon-to-be released report of the US Senate criticises the CIA under President George W Bush for conducting torture of al Qaeda suspects. However, it does not assess the responsibility of Bush himself nor his vice president, Dick Cheney. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein, the 6,000-page report is “one of the most significant oversight efforts in the history of the US”.
The report shows that the CIA did not provide accurate information to Congress and also provided misleading information. The report concludes that the CIA impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making. While the report was being prepared the CIA penetrated the Senate committee’s computers, arousing the fury of its members.
Bush and Cheney were deeply involved in initiating the torture programme. The administration claimed that the waterboarding 183 times (the dipping of the head in water so that the prisoner feels he is drowning) of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, led to the foiling of a terror plot against Los Angeles’ Library Tower. But the Senate report concludes that the information could have been learnt without using torture. The report’s primary focus is on discerning whether the use of torture gained valuable intelligence. It concluded that it did not.
When President Barack Obama was elected he swiftly moved to ban waterboarding and other torture techniques. However, he refused to authorise a full, in depth, Justice Department investigation that, if it had taken place, would doubtless have pointed a finger at Bush and Cheney.
In the UK it is alleged that Prime Minister Tony Blair — Bush’s principal ally — accepted torture. The UK is not accused of conducting torture on its own soil but of sending those it wanted vigorously interrogated to countries that sanction torture. In 2005, the UK government argued unsuccessfully before the Supreme Court (SC) for the right to use torture. This was the first time in over 200 years that a government had attempted to make it legitimate. Not even when Nazi prisoners were captured was torture used, it being judged that it would not reveal much more than what sophisticated interrogation techniques could.
Ancient Rome tortured the early Christians. The church, repelled by what had happened for more than 1,000 years used its influence to ensure that torture was abolished in Europe. In 1215, the Lateran Council condemned torture as cruel. Tragically, as a tool of the Inquisition, the church brought it back. From the 15th century onwards, the UK set its face against the use of evidence produced under torture (the US shares its common law with the UK). The judges who presided over these decisions pointed to the inherent weakness of the evidence in confessions procured by torture since a person subject to unbearable pain will say anything to stop it. Only the special Court of the Star Chamber could issue torture orders but, in 1640, the court was abolished and since then no torture warrant has been issued in the UK. Voltaire, who lived in London for three years, wrote of how he admired the English attitude.
In his book, The Rule of Law, published four years ago, Tom Bingham, the former senior law lord on the SC, wrote, referring to the Blair government, that “it cannot be said that the UK has shown the implacable hostility to torture that should be expected from a state whose courts led the world in rejecting it.” In Prussia, torture was abolished in 1740, in France in 1789 and in Russia in 1847. In the US, Congress passed the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution that forbade “cruel and unusual punishment”. Torture returned with a vengeance during the 20th century, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Franco’s Spain, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.
In 1972, Amnesty International opened a campaign for a UN Anti-Torture Convention. In 1981, it won the support of Sweden, the first country to take up the cause. In 1984, the UN finally approved a legally binding treaty against torture. Quite soon after, the treaty was ratified by most members of the UN, including the US of President Ronald Reagan and the UK of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In 1999, in the UK SC, for the first time anywhere, a high court decided that sovereign immunity must not become sovereign impunity and that under the UN convention the ex-president of Chile, Augusto Pinochet, then in London, could be prosecuted for torture.
Yet still, says Amnesty, torture continues to be practiced by most countries, although the EU, the US and Russia are now free of it. The US has rightly condemned Russia for breaking international law by snatching Crimea and sending some soldiers into Ukraine. However, the US has broken international law itself with its use of torture against al Qaeda operatives. Maybe the new Senate report will lead the US to face up to its inconsistencies.