US torture legacy taints global standing

FILE – A US soldier stands guard at Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay on October 9, 2007. | SHAWN THEW/EPA

FILE – A US soldier stands guard at Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay on October 9, 2007. | SHAWN THEW/EPA

Published Sep 19, 2021


OPINION: The CIA and the US military’s gross abuses of human rights across the world exposed the dark underbelly of human nature and the capacity of a superpower to do the unthinkable with impunity, writes Shannon Ebrahim.

THE US’s legacy of brutal mass torture and abuse that it presided over in the years following the 9/11 attacks did irrevocable damage to its standing in the world.

It made a mockery of the US as a global leader, exposed its willingness to violate international law, and to violate every aspect of the Convention against Torture, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment.

The CIA and its black sites established across the world did more damage to global efforts to enshrine human rights than anything that preceded it, and after the extent of the CIA’s brutality was exposed, the US could never pretend to be a shining light on a hill (not that it ever was).

The CIA and the US military’s gross abuses of human rights across the world exposed the dark underbelly of human nature and the capacity of a superpower to do the unthinkable with impunity.

The US ran secret prisons or black sites in at least eight countries which, according to The Washington Post, were in Thailand, Romania, Poland, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and Diego Garcia.

It is more widely known that there were more than 700 prisoners held at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In June 2005, the UN special rapporteur on terrorism, Manfred Nowak, accused the US of secretly detaining “suspects” in various secret locations across the world, and notably on prison ships in the Indian Ocean.

While the international community was aware of the existence of black sites and the harsh interrogation that went on in the six years after the 9/11 attacks, the details were not made public, and remained largely the subject of rumour. It was only on September 6, 2006, that president George W Bush disclosed the CIA’s secret programme, and due to public pressure in the host countries, the CIA was forced to close down its black sites in every country except one. In December 2014, the US Senate Committee on Intelligence made public its report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme, which was nothing short of damning.

“CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values…” the report read. “CIA detainees were tortured… the conditions of confinement and the use of authorized and unauthorized interrogation and conditioning techniques were cruel, inhuman, and degrading… the evidence of this is overwhelming and incontrovertible.”

The findings, conclusions, and executive summary of the Intelligence Committee report stated that “US policy will never again allow for secret indefinite detention and the use of coercive interrogations. The Committee finds, based on a review of CIA interrogation records, that the use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.”

Just as the US occupation of Afghanistan for 20 years accomplished nothing, its extensive use of torture in black sites across the world yielded little intelligence value, but will forever remain a reprehensible stain on the US’s reputation.

The CIA was fully aware of how unconscionable and illegal its actions were in the context of the black sites, so much so that it hid the existence of certain black sites from its own US ambassadors stationed in some of those countries, and the CIA asked local officials not to inform its head of mission.

While political leaders of the countries which hosted the black sites were generally informed, the CIA had hidden from two US Secretaries of State the locations of its black sites, ensuring there was no accountability for its human rights abuses. But it should be noted that the establishment of the black sites after 9/11 was done after an executive order was signed by president Bush.

The CIA’s web of deceit permeated the rest of US society, with CIA officials providing false information about the value of the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme to selected journalists in order to counter public criticism, and avoid Congress restricting their operations and budget. The Intelligence Committee found in 2014 that much of the information the CIA provided to the media, Congress, the Department of Justice, and the White House was false.

What the committee did acknowledge was true was the extensive use of torture, and it outlined the CIA’s barbarism in detail, stating that their interrogation techniques included: slamming detainees against a wall, sleep deprivation for up to 180 hours, nudity, waterboarding (which caused convulsions and near drownings), rectal feeding for no medical reason, ice baths, standing in stress positions with their hands above their heads, and placing detainees in a confinement box of less than 1m² square while blasting them with loud music day and night in an attempt to break their nervous systems.

CIA records indicate that the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program cost well over $300 million in non-personnel costs, which included funding for the CIA to construct and maintain detention facilities. To encourage governments to clandestinely host CIA detention sites, or to increase support for existing sites, the CIA provided millions of dollars in cash payments to foreign governments.

The legacy is one of shame, and when one evaluates the lessons of the post-9/11 period, it can only be said that the US contributed to making the world a much worse place. The US took the cause of human rights back decades, having spurned a new generation across the world that believed that barbarism, as practised by the global superpower, was acceptable.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media Group Foreign Editor.