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Wednesday, December 10, 2014 

Look past the horror.

It's easy, reading the Senate intelligence report and the articles derived from it to be overwhelmed by the horror of the torture programme (because that's what it was, let's drop the euphemisms once and for all) established by the CIA.  With its 26 wrongly detained victims, those with broken limbs put into stress positions and chained to walls regardless of their injuries, the playing of Russian roulette with one victim, and perhaps most chilling of all, the image of Abu Zubaydah, so thoroughly broken and brutalised by his treatment that all it took for him to mount the waterboarding table was a raised eyebrow from his interrogator, to get distracted and not draw the necessary wider conclusions about what it should tell us would be thoroughly human.  Good thing I'm not then, eh?

First, it should tell us that torture affects those charged with implementing it just as much it does those on the receiving end.  With the exception of the few sadists and genuine psychopaths who are likely to find themselves in such roles, the report notes the sickened and disgusted responses of hardened CIA officers to what they both saw and were being asked to do.  Doctors who pledge to do no harm were forced to choose between refusing to treat detainees they were essentially fixing up enough so they were fit to be tortured again, and letting those under their care die, with all the potential consequences the latter option would open up.  How many would have died had it not been for medical intervention we'll never know; at the same time however, doctors were also behind the rectal feeding, as well as the forced feeding of hunger strikers at Guantanamo, itself considered to be a form of torture by the UN and condemned in journals by senior doctors.

Second, the decision by one Western state to use torture inevitably makes its allies complicit, such is the way intelligence agencies cooperate.  This puts those allies in a great quandary: do they blow the whistle, do as much as they can to avoid becoming wholly complicit in the practice, or the opposite and accept it as necessary in extraordinary times?  Our complicity in the CIA's programme can still not be properly quantified for the reasons outlined in yesterday's post.  What we do know is that just like the CIA lied to everyone concerned, including politicians themselves about what they were doing, so too did our spooks.  We know that as early as January 2002 MI6 officers reported back to their superiors that detainees at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan were being abused; this was before the torture regime proper had been established.  Those officers were told, wrongly, they were not required to intervene to prevent the abuse from continuing.  Despite these and subsequent reports, MI6 claimed it wasn't until 2004 and the Abu Ghraib scandal they properly realised the "black sites" they were aware of were being used as torture dungeons.

To believe that you have to believe the intelligence agencies are both unimaginative and lack inquisitiveness, precisely the qualities demanded of them.  We also now know about the renditions of Abdul Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi, both of whom were sent back to Colonel Gaddafi's prisons via the services of MI6 and the CIA.  Belhaj arrived back in Libya two weeks before Tony Blair went to meet his new friendly dictator.  Both he and Jack Straw deny any involvement in the rendition of the Libyans, Straw claiming that he was kept out of the loop.  MI6 respond they operate under ministerial oversight, more than suggesting Straw signed off on the rendition.

Straw though is nothing if not a serial offender.  When the first details of the rendition programme started to be leaked he said that unless he was lying and unless Condoleezza Rice was lying (we know she was; she was directly involved in the process of the setting up of the torture programme) it was little more than conspiracy theories. 

Let's not limit this to just Straw and Blair though, as a whole host of New Labour ministers also told if not lies then half-truths in an attempt to protect both the United States and the intelligence agencies.  Those with long memories for the mundane might recall the furore after the release of the "seven paragraphs", which detailed what the security services knew about the mistreatment of Binyam Mohamed, who was tortured in Morocco for the CIA before he was sent on to Guantanamo.  Alan Johnson, then home secretary, said the idea the security services didn't respect human rights was a "ludicrous lie", while David Miliband fought the courts for months in an eventually futile attempt to prevent the paragraphs being released.  This led directly to the justice and security bill passed this parliament, supposedly meant to prevent the "control principle" of intelligence from an ally being published being violated in such a way again.  That we know thanks to Edward Snowden how tens of thousands of contractors and sub-contractors have access to secret documents obviously doesn't mean the act was in fact meant to prevent ministers and the intelligence agencies being embarrassed again in such a way.

Lastly, the report shows just how quickly practices thought completely abhorrent can be implemented when national emergencies are declared and extraordinary powers handed out.  The CIA may well have lied to politicians about what it was doing and the president may not have been fully briefed, but senior figures in the Bush administration did know about and signed off on similar techniques to those adopted.  It's worth reflecting just how close we came in this country to giving the police powers akin to those of authoritarian states: not just the attempt to ram 90 days detention without charge through parliament, thankfully defeated, but also the struck down indefinite detention without charge of foreign "terrorist suspects", the law lords ruling the life of the nation was not threatened as politicians claimed.  We can argue over the additional powers still being sought which are claimed to be necessary to deal with the renewed threat, yet nothing proposed comes near to the attack on basic civil liberties Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown were behind.  The question remains whether come the next emergency we'll remember any of these lessons.

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