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On September 17 2001, six days after the attack on the Twin Towers, US President George W. Bush signed a “Memorandum of Notification” in which he granted the CIA new powers in the struggle against terrorism. Among these there was the possibility to secretly arrest individuals and to detain them without restrictions. But that specific Memorandum didn’t consider the possible interrogation techniques.

Exporters of Democracy

Six months later, on March 11th 2002, President Bush ordered the opening of a prison camp inside the naval base of Guantanamo, Cuba. To prevent the implementation of the Geneva Convention on the prisoners, the inmates were classified as “outlaws”. After a few months the first news regarding the mistreatment of the prisoners surfaced. Another year went by, it was June 2003. The Iraq war had begun just 3 months earlier when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke out. Pictures and evidence of tortures and abuses towards prisoners hit the news. The setting changed, but not the essence. In Bagram, Afghanistan, in May 2005 two prisoners died because of the tortures inflicted on them in one of the CIA's secret prisons. They were fastened with chains to the ceiling and beaten up over and over again.

After a few days, on May 25th, during a press conference at the White House, a journalist asked: “Amnesty International report today, saying the US is a top offender of human rights. Does the White House dispute that assessment?”. The then White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan replied without a blink: “I think the allegations are ridiculous and unsupported by the facts. The United States is leading the way when it comes to protecting human rights and promoting human dignity. We have liberated 50 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have worked to advance freedom and democracy in the world so that people are governed under a rule of law and that there are protections in place for minority rights, that women's rights are advanced...”

But this is not the end. On May 30th a journalist asked the then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, about FBI rumours regarding the desecration of the Koran in Guantanamo. Rice didn’t get into the details of the episode asserting she didn't know the facts, but then she did make a comment about Guantanamo: “I want to say something about the treatment of people and Islam in Guantanamo. We are a country that respects all religious faiths and differences. American personnel at Guantanamo Bay have shown great respect for detainees' religion, for example providing them with prayer mats and arrows pointing to Mecca, the direction that Muslims turn to pray”.

But the world of the exporters of democracy was filled with black holes. One of them was Iraq. On June 19th 2005 the Los Angeles Times published a report on Iraqi jails, where 12 thousands prisoners suffered from intimidations, beatings, tortures, some of which were lethal. A key fact contained in the article was that in the brand-new Iraq 90% of prisoners admitted they had made a confession under torture. It was surely the legacy from the days of Saddam Hussein, but the abuses took place under the nose of the American troops that controlled the activities of the Ministry of Interior and of Defence and that were involved in the training of the people that ran the detention centers.

A week later, on June 26th 2005, the UN's International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, President Bush stated that freedom from torture is a “inalienable human right”. That same day, from the White House, the US President declared that the United States “"is committed to building a world where human rights are respected and protected by the rule of law”.

bush cheney
George W Bush and Dick Cheney

A thorny relationship

After years of recurring charges and denials, the evidence about tortures in Guantanamo and elsewhere in the world were finally exposed by a report released on December 2, 2014 and prepared by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, led by Democratic congresswoman Dianne Feinstein. This is a complex document (over 6000 pages, with a summary of more than 500 pages, while the rest of it is still protected by secret), written by only the Democratic members of the Committee (the Republicans refused to take part in it) and that examined 6 millions CIA documents over 4 years (2009-2013). A report that costed the US taxpayers some 40 millions dollars.

The finding by the US Senate are somewhat striking. First of all, the “enhanced interrogation techniques”, the tortures, were not effective in collecting the information for which they had been authorized. We can add to this the fact that the CIA lied to politicians, to the Department of Justice, to Congress and to the White House about what they were really doing. And the unlucky ones that ended up in the black hole of the secret CIA jails, were left at the mercy of a system without controls, supervisions and restrictions; nobody oversaw the jail-keepers in stars and stripes, nor the external companies or foreign intelligence services that were contracted to carry out the dirty work.

The report was completed in December 2012 and then given to the CIA, who initially rejected the findings of the Committee, branding them as “inaccurate”. In 2013 the Committee accused Langley of spying its members and of breaking in the computers where they collected their data. CIA chief, John Brennan, had to publicly excuse himself for this breach; at the same time, the redacted version of the report the CIA meant to release was rejected by the Committee because “too many informations have been deleted”. As was predictable, the political instigators of the operation, President George W.Bush and his Vice, Dick Cheney, defended the indefensible. Cheney declared that the interrogations involving torture were “absolutely justified” and that “the men from the CIA should be praised”. Put under scrutiny, former President Bush, after a few days of silence, also opted to defend the Agency's work and declared that CIA agents are “patriots”.

The CIA, on its part, has maintained that its interrogation techniques, even the most brutal ones, did not amount to torture. Despite their playing with words, the accusations contained in the report will not have any legal consequence for any of the officers involved, including those that sat at the White House. The two former CIA chiefs in office at the time of the tortures, John Tenet and the General Michael Hayden, have stated that: “We are not here to defend torture, but to defend history”.

John McCain with Richard Nixon

Let the historians decide

The still ongoing debate is taking place at different levels. The political arguments tend to to justify some measures in the context of the security emergency that followed 911; the juridical debate is arguing on whether these techniques can or cannot be labelled as torture; what is striking though is that the US Senate report argues that the enhanced interrogation techniques failed in extorting information from terrorists and, hence, did not save human lives.

In the background of this entire story lies an ethical issue that is particularly embarrassing for a nation like the United States, the self-proclaimed defenders of the world's civil liberties and human rights. Can the United States be accused of violating the very rights they pretend to defend? Could an emergency and a criminal attack justify the authorization to use torture? If terrorism leads an unconventional war, this could lead us to think that the response should be the same. It's up to each of us, based on our culture and sensibility, to decide the verdict.

The most questionable aspect of the whole affair is that these activities, today unequivocally defined as “illegal”, were denied till it was possible to deny them. According to Cheney tortures didn’t exist, while he now defends the torturers. The same goes for Bush. Lies, disinformation prepared the ground for the war against Saddam Hussein. Those same lies fueled the invasion and the occupation of Iraq and the search of an alleged enemy who was just given a brand-new battleground to fight in.

The best response to the publication of the Senate report was given by Senator John McCain. Captured by the North Vietnamese in 1967 and detained till 1973, he suffered prolonged tortures and beatings while in detention; he was refused treatment, kept in isolation for 2 years and the beatings left him with a series of broken ribs. He was the guest of Hanoi's worst prison, the Hoa Lo, also known as “Hanoi Hilton”, where he attempted to commit suicide to escape from the tortures. During his statement in Senate, and after having recalled that any prisoner would say or do just about anything to stop his suffering, he said: “In the end, the failure of tortures in reaching their purpose isn’t the main reason to adversing them. As I often used to say, and always will, this matter isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we look to be. It’s about how we introduce ourselves to the rest of the world”.

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