The only person to have been put on trial and convicted for any reason relating to America’s use of torture against prisoners is the former CIA analyst John Kiriakou. Kiriakou was the first insider to disclose the use of waterboarding and like many whistleblowers, he paid a heavy price.
Three years ago, in January 2012, just weeks after Obama had signed his name under the now notorious NDAA 2012 with its “indefinite detention” clauses, Kiriakou had been formally charged with violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act as well as the Espionage Act of 1917 – and please note that under Obama’s administration, this act has been used to bring more indictments against whistleblowers than under all other presidents combined. A year later, after a plea deal had been reached with federal prosecutors, Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison. The judge at the trial described Kiriakou’s sentence as “way too light.”1
Kiriakou was recently released from prison, although he remains under house arrest while finishing his two-and-a-half-year sentence. And following his release, he was interviewed from his home on yesterday’s Democracy Now! These are selected excerpts from what he had to say, beginning with the extraordinary case of Abu Zubaydah.
During his capture in Pakistan, Zubaydah was shot three times and gravely wounded. He was then sent to a secret location, where the CIA brought in a trauma surgeon from Johns Hopkins University Medical Center to treat him:
When we first captured him, we took him to a hospital, a military hospital in Pakistan. He had lost so much blood, we needed to transfuse him. And he was initially in a coma. He came out of the coma a couple of times, and we were able, at first, to just exchange an initial comment, later on, in the next couple of days, to have short conversations. For example, when he first came out of his coma, he asked me for a glass of red wine. He was delirious. Later in the evening, he asked me if I would take the pillow and smother him. And then, the next day, we talked about poetry. We talked about Islam. We talked about the fact that he had never supported the attacks on the United States. He wanted to attack Israel.
Well, he was sent from Pakistan to this secret location. And once he was healthy enough to withstand interrogation, a group of CIA interrogators—I’m sorry, a group of FBI interrogators interviewed him, appeared to have been successful in gathering some information, but then were replaced by CIA interrogators, that we’ve now learned were untrained, unprepared, and was subjected to waterboarding in addition to other torture techniques, placed into a cage. He had a fear of bugs, so they put him in a small box and put bugs in the box with him. He was subject to a cold cell, to lights on 24 hours a day, booming music so that he couldn’t sleep. There were several different things that the CIA did to him.
Torture is wrong under any circumstances. You know, we know from the Second World War, when the Justice Department was interrogating Nazi war criminals, we know that the establishment of a rapport, the establishment of a relationship with someone, results in actionable information, if that prisoner has actionable information which he’s willing to give. That wasn’t the case with Abu Zubaydah. He was beaten. He was waterboarded. He was subject to sleep deprivation. He had ice water poured on him in a 50-degree cell every several hours. The man just simply didn’t have any information to give.
I learned initially that he had been waterboarded in the summer of 2002, at the end of the summer of 2002. And as I said in the 2007 interview with Brian Ross, I believed what the CIA was telling us, that he was being waterboarded, it was working, and we were gathering important, actionable intelligence that was saving American lives. It wasn’t until something like 2005 or 2006 that we realized that that just simply wasn’t true—he wasn’t producing any information—and that these techniques were horrific.
It was in 2007, Amy [Goodman], that I decided to go public. President Bush said at the time, categorically, “We do not torture prisoners. We are not waterboarding.” And I knew that that was a lie. And he made it seem as though this was a rogue CIA officer who decided to pour water on people’s faces. And that simply wasn’t true. Torture—the entire torture program was approved by the president himself, and it was a very carefully planned-out program. So to say that it was rogue, it was just a bald-faced lie to the American people.
Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded no less than 83 times and yet we now know that he provided no useful information as a result. He remains imprisoned at Guantánamo without charge.
I will return to Kiriakou’s interview later. But first would like to address the bigger issues here. For instance, why does Guantánamo remain open at all, especially since more than half of its inmates have long since been acquitted of terrorist charges? Leaving aside the logistical and legalistic excuses, one of the unspoken reasons concerns us all. It is the same reason Obama was determined to surreptitiously sign into law the NDAA 2012. And part of the reason why we are seeing no serious repercussions following last December’s release of the long-delayed Senate report which detailed the horrendous catalogue of crimes committed by the CIA (and only those committed by the CIA – which actually lets the Pentagon off the hook): crimes of torture nowadays chillingly redefined as “enhanced interrogation techniques”.
Reading through those horrendous descriptions of what the spy agency has routinely been doing to prisoners in the name of “freedom and democracy” is painful. Not that these “revelations” come as much of a surprise. Other than the most lurid details, we already knew all of this, didn’t we? But then think about it this way, and imagine for a moment the public outcry if an ordinary citizen (a civilian, to use the preferred label attached by today’s news media) confessed to having chained their victims to a wall, repeatedly half-drowned them and also forcibly inserted a variety of objects into their anus (so-called “rectal feeding” is an abuse more straightforwardly described as rape). Such an individual would rightly be publicly judged to be a depraved monster and hurriedly locked away in a very secure facility (somewhere not so very different from Guantánamo, but without the torture regime). Yet instead, these open admissions of crimes committed by an extremely depraved “intelligence” arm of our terribly depraved system are met with little more than a grimace and a whimper. After the obligatory week of media coverage, the news of this systemic cruelty has largely been forgotten, and in spite of the weight of harrowing evidence, it appears that no-one at all will be prosecuted.
With Kiriakou locked away in jail for speaking out of turn, here is what CIA Director John Brennan had to say by way of apology for those most heinous of crimes:
CIA Director John Brennan has defended the agency’s post-9/11 interrogation methods but admitted some techniques were “harsh” and “abhorrent”.
Speaking at CIA headquarters, he said some officers acted beyond their authority but most did their duty.
So begins a report from BBC news entitled “CIA boss John Brennan defends post-9/11 strategy”. The implication being that torture is a “strategy”. Well, yes, if we listen to neo-con voices such as John Brennan, echoed without contradiction thanks to the drones at the BBC. But before returning to the BBC and their article, it is worthwhile reminding ourselves of John Brennan’s prior approval of the CIA’s use of torture. Indeed, it helps to go back two years to his Senate confirmation hearing when he was appointed CIA Director. The following is taken from a Guardian article published in February 2013:
Brennan faced lengthy questioning over the CIA’s abduction and abuse of alleged terrorists at secret “black sites”, following a confidential 6,000-page Senate report that Brennan described as “very concerning and disturbing” in its evidence that the agency misrepresented and lied about the value of “enhanced interrogation techniques”. […]
Brennan defended an interview with CBS in 2007 in which he said that IETs [sic] “saved lives” by gathering valuable intelligence.
“The reports I was getting subsequent to that and in the years after that, it was clearly my impression it was valuable information that was coming out,” he said.2
Click here to read the full article.
Likewise, The Atlantic then reported:
In nominating John Brennan to head the CIA, President Obama has made it more urgent that the report be declassified. It is one of several sources that could help us to answer an important question: Are the American people being asked to entrust our clandestine spy agency and its killing and interrogation apparatuses to a man who was complicit in illegal torture?
There is strong circumstantial evidence that the answer is yes. At minimum, Brennan favored rendition and what he called “enhanced interrogation tactics” other than waterboarding. As Andrew Sullivan put it in 2008, when Obama first considered Brennan as CIA chief, “if Obama picks him, it will be a vindication of the kind of ambivalence and institutional moral cowardice that made America a torturing nation. It would be an unforgivable betrayal of his supporters and his ideals.”3
Incidentally, this latest release is merely a 525-page summary of the aforementioned 6,000-page report. Two years after it was approved by Senate, the full report remains highly classified. In any case, the White House needed time for the torture-happy Hollywood fantasy Zero Dark Thirty to seep deeply into the American collective unconscious before any part of this lesser report could be publicly released. Think I exaggerate…? Well then read how the Huffington Post reported on the story two years ago:
The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 9-6 on Thursday to approve a report on the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation program that could shed light on the debate over torture. But for now, even as the new movie “Zero Dark Thirty” stirs up public debate about the use of harsh interrogation tactics, declassifying the report to prepare for its release to the public could take months, if not longer. […]
While “Zero Dark Thirty” suggests that a critical piece of information in the hunt for Osama bin Laden was extracted from a prisoner by using “enhanced interrogation,” top senators speaking to The Huffington Post dismissed the proposition.
Nevertheless the idea that torture can provide valuable information was very helpfully implanted by the film – and it is still being repeated by Brennan and his ilk. Just as a different meme was being embedded at the very same time, and in this case by neo-con apologist Dianne Feinstein:
“The report uncovers startling details about the CIA detention and interrogation program and raises critical questions about intelligence operations and oversight,” Senate Intelligence Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement after the vote. “I strongly believe that the creation of long-term, clandestine ‘black sites’ and the use of so-called ‘enhanced-interrogation techniques’ were terrible mistakes. The majority of the Committee agrees.”4 [my bold highlight]
So we are supposed to swallow this ludicrous defence that torturing was a terrible mistake. Just an accidental error of judgement. Which it obviously isn’t and never could be. And so let’s come back to the BBC news report already quoted above, because it then continues:
Senator Dianne Feinstein, whose committee produced the report, said torture should now be banned by law. 5
But torture IS banned by law! It is already against the law because it was ‘banned’ (i.e., criminalised) a long time ago. For instance, “cruel and unusual punishments” are in direct violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution. On top of which, torture contravenes the UN Convention against Torture that was signed by President Reagan in 1988 and then ratified by the Senate in October 1990. But more importantly, torture is internationally outlawed under the Geneva Conventions and legally defined as a war crime. So why does the BBC insist on perpetuating this kind of claptrap?
Deliberate or not (I leave the reader to judge), uncritical repetition of this sort of nonsense as if it were impartially reporting facts serves to acclimate readers to accept the unacceptable and to tolerate the intolerable. Torture may or may not be a necessary evil, they imply in this way, but regardless of the ethical concerns it was lawfully sanctionable. As I say, this is absolute rubbish – and patently so.
Incidentally, John Kiriakou describes Senator Feinstein as “one of the CIA’s leading supporters on Capitol Hill”. He adds: “So for Dianne Feinstein to come out with a report as critical as this report was just shows you how wrongheaded the CIA torture program was.”
But now we must come to an even more shocking illustration of how public perceptions are being shifted and reframed. And the author on this occasion happens to be Anthony Romero, who is none other than the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
BEFORE President George W. Bush left office, a group of conservatives lobbied the White House to grant pardons to the officials who had planned and authorized the United States torture program. My organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, found the proposal repugnant. Along with eight other human rights groups, we sent a letter to Mr. Bush arguing that granting pardons would undermine the rule of law and prevent Americans from learning what had been done in their names.
But with the impending release of the report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I have come to think that President Obama should issue pardons, after all — because it may be the only way to establish, once and for all, that torture is illegal. 6
I will not bother to outline the kinds of doublethink which encourage Mr Romero to reach such a startling and illogical conclusion. If you can stomach any more then I direct you read his New York Times op-ed.
So what we have in summary is one extremely shocking although highly redacted text that has been released in such a fashion as to make believe the rule of law is extant. As with child abuse, the offending authorities have taken care to draw an historical line so as to make it appear a problem of past failures. Torture was “a mistake”. And thus, like a fashion that disappeared for no more discernible reason than footballers stopped wearing moustaches and perms, all the torturing has since stopped, or so we are encouraged to believe (in spite of ample evidence to the contrary that the ‘black sites’ never went away), because the perpetrators, who were previously misguided in the actions, have since spontaneously and miraculously come to their senses.
After John Kiriakou had heard about the release of the Senate report whilst in jail, he says that “like most other Americans, [he] was absolutely shocked and appalled at some of the details”:
We need to prosecute some of these cases. I understand that reasonable people can agree to disagree on whether or not case officers who really believed they were carrying out a legal activity should be prosecuted. I understand that. But what about case officers who took the law into their own hands or who flouted the law and raped prisoners with broomsticks or carried out rectal hydration with hummus? Those were not approved interrogation techniques. Why aren’t those officers being prosecuted? I think, at the very least, that’s where we should start the prosecutions.
(Incidentally, I do not agree with everything Kiriakou says in this interview.) 7
The BBC may feel obliged to keep up this pretence that torture is not in itself illegal, and one of the largest civil rights organisations may actually believe that even though torture was and is illegal, for legal reasons it is better to let sleeping dogs lie, but as it happens John Kiriakou begs to differ. Likewise, I believe that the proper response must be to demand criminal prosecutions for those who were most responsible: beginning from the top with Cheney and Bush and working down. Kiriakou also believes that Cheney should now be tried and he makes this perhaps more important point:
We’ve seen Vice President Cheney, we’ve seen former CIA directors, several of them, former senior CIA officers go on the network news programs and defend, defend, defend their actions during the torture regime. The reason that they’re doing that is because torture is their legacy. When their obituaries are written, those obituaries are going to say that they were instrumental in the torture program. And the only thing they can do at this point to save their reputations is to keep repeating this lie that torture worked and hope that the American people eventually believe it.
Yes, torture is still being normalised. Doubtless, for the reason Kiriakou states above, but also because there remains a sinister determination by some at the top to undo the well-established justice process and take us back into the dark ages. So the horror of December’s report is not entirely contained within the text per se, but very much exists within the surrounding subtext too. That under a given pretext (which our never-ending “war on terror” usefully sustains) torture can be inflicted with absolute impunity on whosoever America and her close allies deems an enemy, because might is right and the rule of law be damned.
Click here to watch the interview or read the full transcript on the Democracy Now! website.
If you are wondering in what ways our own authorities in Britain have also been complicit in these torture programmes, then I recommend reading an article by former Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, published in the Daily Mail last December, immediately following the release of the summary of the Senate report. It begins:
In the summer of 2004, I warned Tony Blair’s Foreign Office that Britain was using intelligence material which had been obtained by the CIA under torture. Two months later I was sacked as the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan on the orders of Downing Street, bringing to an end my 20-year diplomatic career.
When I then went public with the news that Uzbek territory was part of a global CIA torture programme, I was dismissed as a fantasist by Mr Blair’s henchmen. Now finally, a decade later, I have been vindicated by last week’s shocking Senate Intelligence Committee report.
Over 500 pages it details the CIA’s brutal abuse of Al Qaeda suspects, who were flown around the world to be tortured in a network of secret prisons. One of these was in Uzbekistan, where the US had an air base.
Murray continues later:
The British Government continues to cover up the truth even today. We should not forget that the climate of public and media opinion which made it possible for this US Senate report to be published at all was generated entirely by the work of whistleblowers. I was the first of these, but at least I remain at liberty: two subsequent whistleblowers – soldier Chelsea Manning and CIA agent John Kiriakou – are serving long stretches in prison. Although it is in no way comparable to the horrifying abuses suffered by the torture victims, we truth-tellers have also been through hell.
It is very strange to now hear Westminster politicians calling for a judicial inquiry into our involvement in rendition. There has already been one, headed by retired judge Sir Peter Gibson. He started to gather evidence, and ordered the Foreign Office to give me full access to all the classified documentation on the subject from my time as Ambassador. Indeed, Gibson gave every appearance of being a man of integrity, appointed to lead an investigation into governmental wrongdoing.
It was therefore no surprise when the Gibson inquiry was cancelled and his duties handed to politicians on the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee. Incredibly, its members include Hazel Blears, one of Tony Blair’s Ministers at a time when the Government had a policy of using intelligence from torture. She is therefore investigating herself.
No wonder a source on the Intelligence and Security Committee told journalists last week that they would only scrutinise members of the security services, not the politicians who instructed them.
He concludes with a call for both Tony Blair and Jack Straw to be put on trial:
Recent scandals, such as the alleged cover-up of an Establishment paedophile ring, highlight the apparent impunity of our political class in the face of the honest forces of law and order.
We don’t need an inquiry into British complicity in torture. We need a trial. And it should be Tony Blair and Jack Straw in the dock.
Click here to read Craig Murray’s full statement.
2 From an article entitled “Brennan rejects CIA torture claims in confident display at Senate hearing” written by Chris McGreal, published by the Guardian on February 7, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/feb/07/john-brennan-cia-torture-claims-senate-hearing
3 From an article entitled “Does It Matter if John Brennan Was Complicit in Illegal Torture?” written by Conor Friedersdorf, published in The Atlantic on January 8, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/01/does-it-matter-if-john-brennan-was-complicit-in-illegal-torture/266918/
4 From an article entitled “CIA Torture Report Approved By Senate Intelligence Committee” published by the Huffington Post on December 13, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/13/cia-torture-report_n_2295083.html
5 From an article entitled “CIA boss John Brennan defends post-9/11 strategy” published by BBC news on December 12, 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-30437804
6 From an article entitled “Pardon Bush and Those Who Tortured” written by Anthony D. Romero, published by the New York Times on December 8, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/09/opinion/pardon-bush-and-those-who-tortured.html?_r=2
7 Kiriakou adds that: “I understand that President Obama is not going to seek the prosecution of the CIA leaders who carried out the torture, the case officers involved in the day-to-day torture program. I understand that. The lawyers at the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, I understand. No problem. But what about the CIA officers who directly violated the law, who carried out interrogations that resulted in death? What about the torturers of Hassan Ghul? Hassan Ghul was killed during an interrogation session.”
I strongly disagree with him on these points. All those in charge must be prosecuted and the lawyers who sanctioned these crimes doubly so.