Declassified Skeletons

by: Douglas Grant

Coming to grips with the CIA’s Torture Report….

waterboarding

On Tuesday the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence under Chairman Dianne Feinstein released a controversial report that indicted the Central Intelligence Agency for its program to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects in the years after the September 11 attacks. The details of this report – which covered hundreds of thousands of internal CIA documents – pulled the curtain back on the brutal nature of the CIA’s torture tactics. Since then Feinstein, a California Democrat, has come under heavy fire from the right for presenting the report in what is indisputably a partisan manner. This is unfortunate, because it has once again given rise to the type of political theater that can distract Americans from what is really at issue here: whether or not you believe that both physical and psychological torture were warranted in an endeavor to keep Americans safe. And this is an issue that is sensitive in nature and as polarizing as it gets. An exploration of some of the controversy’s finer points are worth discussing.

One tenet of the report’s release that has Americans divided is the justification of releasing such sensitive information into the public domain. Individuals such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have altered the way in which many Americans qualify what information we should be privy to. Replying to those who claim that putting the report’s details into the hands of the public has in fact endangered American lives, Feinstein countered, “There’s no perfect time to release this report . . . It’s possible that something happens even without this. There have been beheadings. There have been attacks without this report coming out. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t clean our house.” Feinstein is speaking to those who fear that once the report hits the web, incensed Muslim extremists will seek retribution by whatever means necessary. However, war on America has already been declared via Jihad; it doesn’t really follow that the release of the CIA report has the power to escalate the conflict.

It’s no secret that the Bush administration applied a lot of pressure to the CIA in the days that followed 9/11. The White House wanted results and it wanted them fast. Fear ruled in those early days. Those who’ve openly condemned the CIA’s tactics may be aware that those agents were under the mandate to get results by whatever means necessary, which may be why rounding up suspected Al-Qaeda operatives and torturing them for information seemed like a half-baked plan. There was a legitimate discrepancy concerning what agency actions The White House was giving the nod to. So now, over a decade later, those who want to tackle this issue need to ask themselves whether the CIA was operating on a long leash while the administration looked the other way, and if so, is it fair to allow the perception of the CIA as a rogue entity? There are those who feel that The White House is just as complicit as the agency that it tasked with getting the job done.

A problematic consideration when suspected terrorists are rounded up and sent to foreign prisons the likes of Guantanamo Bay is the denial of due process, considering history has shown us that the CIA doesn’t always get the bad guy. There are dozens of accounts out there of incarcerated individuals who may or may not be involved in terrorist designs, and we may never know their stories. But for the sake of this discussion we can focus on the two CIA informants – men risking their lives to provide the agency with intel – who were arrested under suspicion of terrorist activities and then tortured. This embarrassing blunder by the agency serves to illustrate the heart of the matter: due process is at the very foundation of the American justice system. Currently a significant portion of the American population has lost faith in that very system of government, and it has nothing to do with terrorism.

CIA Report

In 2009 naval veteran and former governor Jesse Ventura told Larry King, “You give me a water board, Dick Cheney, and one hour, and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders.” This was the outspoken conspiracy theorist’s way of saying that information extracted from prisoners under duress is useless. This is at the very center of the debate between the CIA and the Senate Select Committee. The former claims that intelligence gathered from enhanced interrogation led to bin Laden’s whereabouts, whereas the latter purports that the torture of detainees resulted in no information of any substance. This verbal fencing has left spectators wondering what quantifies the validity of intelligence gathered from tortured suspects. For one, the prisoner may say anything just to make the pain stop. But something else to consider is the credibility of the testimony of one whose mind has been bent by the lasting effects of torture. Battery, starvation, and sleep deprivation can do irreversible damage to the mind.

John McCain arises as an interesting player in this political drama where the lines have clearly been drawn separating the left from the right. As a former prisoner of war who experienced torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese, this is one topic he knows all too well. It’s interesting that a Republican who used his presidential campaign platform to advocate for the continuation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should side with the Democrats in denouncing torture as a means to an end, but McCain is in the unique position to speak to the folly of brutalizing those who have been effectively taken out of the game.

The report from the CIA documents only confirms what we already knew; it comes as no great shock that its operatives went to extreme measures to produce results. Anyone who’s seen Zero Dark Thirty knows what we were up to during those tumultuous years in the early 2000s. And many of us were just turning a blind eye as long as the Bush administration’s consent and the Obama administration’s equivocation provided us with a false sense of safety. In a sense, this report is no news at all. Those who question whether the report should even have been released should ask themselves whether our covert agencies should have been operating with such impunity in the first place. And let’s not kid ourselves – torture has been part of the U.S.’s arsenal for decades; 9/11 was not the defining call to action. Many are seeing the release of these documents as yet another blemish on the U.S.’s standing in the world. Others are asking themselves whether America has truly lost its way, whether it has undermined the very principles upon which it was founded. Has torture become reflective of American values?

On the morning of December 9 I read numerous reports on the declassification of the CIA documents. I made the mistake of reading the comments section that followed the reports, where passionate individuals under the guise of anonymity lash out at one another with unchecked diatribes. It came as no surprise that such a partisan report was met with an overwhelming conservative response. I went home that night and watched the news, which replayed Tom Brokaw’s interview with Angelina Jolie and Louis Zamperini, the Olympic track star and World War II veteran depicted in the upcoming biopic Unbroken, which is based on the book of the same name. I had read the book and recalled Zamperini’s time as a POW in a Japanese prison camp. He too had suffered from torture at the hands of his Japanese captors, particularly the brutal Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe. I remember the disgust I felt while reading accounts of Watanabe’s torment of Zamperini, and how he escaped conviction of war crimes after the surrender of Japan. It was a strange coincidence that this newscast should find me on the same day that the macabre dealings of the CIA within dungeon-like environments were put under the microscope. Because I recall after reading Unbroken four years ago – while reflecting on the brutality of the Japanese prison administrators – having a thought along the lines of, I’m glad we’re better than that.

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