It wasn’t that bad, we’ve been told, over and over again, for more than a decade. “We only waterboarded three people” goes the line American officials have been force-feeding the world for years. “We tortured some folks,” Barack Obama admitted recently, still downplaying war crimes committed in America’s name. But we now know those statements do not even begin to do justice to the horrific activities carried out by the CIA for years – atrocities that now have been exposed by the US Senate’s historic report on the CIA’s torture program, finally released on Tuesday after years of delay.
There are stories in the CIA torture report of “rectal rehydration as a means of behavior control”, threats to murder and “threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee” – or cut a mother’s throat. There are details about detainees with broken bones forced to stand for days on end, detainees blindfolded, dragged down hallways while they were beaten. There were even torture sessions that ended in death. The list goes on and on, and on and on.
But beyond all the the depravity, perhaps the most shocking part of this exposed history is the action of US officials who knew these horrors were unfolding – and covered them up.
For years, as the 480-page executive summary of the report documents in meticulous detail, these officials lied to the Senate, the Justice Department, the White House, to the American public and to the world. They prevented CIA officers involved from being disciplined. They investigated and marginalizedthose who were investigating them. They happily leaked classified information to journalists – much of it false – without worry of consequence.
For the past few days, we have seen many of the same resentful politicians and former CIA leaders in charge of the torture-denial regime being handed virtual royalty status by the American media to respond to pre-emptively respond to the report without much of any pushback. Dick Cheney basically got to write his own interview in the New York Times, while Michael Hayden, the former NSA and CIA director in charge of lying to the Senate for years, was handed softball after softball by Bob Schieffer of CBS News to make his case. It is borderline propaganda.
As Schieffer innocently asked Hayden a few days ago: “Do you know of anybody from the CIA, in your view, who lied to Congress about what was going on there?” Hayden’s name appears in the torture report more than 200 times, and most of the references document the various times he knowingly misled one government body or another. As media organizations continue turning to Hayden for comment time and again, they should understand the Senate report indicates that basically every time he’s opened his mouth about “enhanced interrogation” over the past decade, he’s has been lying.
Even if it’s not Hayden, you can bet over the next few days that in almost every newspaper article and on every cable-news network, there will be a former intelligence official – trying to defend the indefensible, refusing “to use the word ‘torture’”. Already, this op-ed published at the Wall Street Journal, where all the complicit former CIA directors in an attempt muddy the waters, gives you a good idea of what they’ll be saying.
The torture defenders from the CIA and the Bush administration probably won’t even make a serious attempt to say they didn’t torture anyone – just that it was effective, that there were “serious mistakes”, but that “countless lives have been saved and our Homeland is more secure” – with a capital H.
This highlights the mistake of the Senate committee, in a way. Instead of focusing on the illegal nature of the torture, Senator Dianne Feinstein’s investigators worked to document torture’s ineffectiveness. The debate, now, is whether torture worked. It clearly didn’t. But the debate should be: Why the hell aren’t these torturous liars in jail?
Worse still, the CIA has still largely succeeded in stripping the landmark report of anything that could lead to accountability. The agents who were not only protected from discipline for their actions but were promoted now have their names completely redacted. So, too, are the names of the dozens of countries that helped the CIA carry out its torture regime. That includes many of the world’s worst dictators – the very men America now claims to hate, including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
But make no mistake: there’s still an extraordinary amount to take away from this report. If there is one tragic story, out of the many, that is emblematic of the CIA program, as its supporters defend it in the days, it’s that of Gul Ruhman. It may be two stories – it’s hard to know, so much has been redacted and the atrocities are so countless – but at least one Gul Ruhman we know was tortured at the notorious CIA black site known as the Salt Pit, chained to the floor and frozen to death. The CIA’s inspector general referred this person’s case to CIA leadership for discipline, but was overruled. Four months after the incident, the officer who gave the order that led to Rahman’s death was recommended for a $2,500 “cash reward” for his “consistently superior work”.
Footnote 32 explains why a dead prisoner ended up in CIA custody in the first place: “Gul Ruhman, another case of mistaken identity.”