Friday, 12 December 2014

US under pressure over damaging torture report

CIA accused of overstepping its boundaries, lying about methods
By Jeremy Au Yong, U.S. Bureau Chief In Washington, The Straits Times, 11 Dec 2014

THE United States government is coming under fire worldwide for using torture tactics on prisoners, even as the White House sought to draw a line between itself and the gruesome methods outlined in a newly declassified report about a controversial Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) interrogation programme.

A 500-page summary released on Tuesday accused the agency, not just of overstepping its boundaries by engaging in torture, but also of subsequently lying about the severity of the methods and how effective they were at producing intelligence.

The report was released by Democrat senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The investigation was conducted by staff working for Democratic senators on the committee.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was among the first foreign leaders to denounce the practices.

"Let us be clear: Torture is wrong. Torture is always wrong," he said at a press conference in Turkey, where he is holding meetings with local officials on how to respond to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group.

China and Russia also seized on the report.

"China has consistently opposed torture. We believe that the US side should reflect on this, correct its ways and earnestly respect and follow the rules of related international conventions," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily briefing yesterday.

China is frequently accused by rights groups of using torture.

North Korea asked the United Nations to censure the US for its use of "inhuman torture".

There have, thus far, been no reports of violence in the Middle East, even if many in the region have taken to social media to criticise the US as well as their own country's complicity in the torture. The Democrat-driven Senate report indicated that 54 countries might have had a hand in the CIA programme.

Few might have guessed the extent of the aggressive tactics used by CIA officers.

A single prisoner - alleged Sept 11, 2001 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - was waterboarded more than 180 times. Waterboarding recreates the sensation of drowning.

Another detainee was locked in a coffin for 11 days and squeezed into an even smaller box for 29 hours. Many others were deprived of sleep or chained naked in a standing position for days. One detainee died of hypothermia while chained naked to a cold concrete floor overnight.

Then, there were the so-called "rectal hydration" or "rectal feeding" procedures, which were done simply as a means to exert total control over the detainees.

And though little, if any, useful intelligence was ever gleaned from the programme, the CIA misrepresented its results to lawmakers to justify its actions.

On Tuesday, CIA director John Brennan refuted the report, stating categorically that the interrogation programme had indeed foiled terror plots and saved lives. Republican leaders also dismissed the report as a partisan attack.

Said incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell: "It doesn't tell us much that we didn't probably already know anyway, but significantly endangers Americans around the world. This particular release, in my judgment, serves no purpose whatsoever."

US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry tried to cast the issue as a chance for the United States to face the mistakes of its past and move on.

"No nation is perfect. But one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better," said Mr Obama.

Similarly, Ms Feinstein stressed that the findings went beyond just the actions of the CIA.

"It's really about American values and morals... These values exist regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. They exist in peacetime and in wartime. And if we cast aside these values when convenient, we have failed to live by the very precepts that make our nation a great one."

'America's greatness is being able to say we made a mistake'
The Straits Times, 11 Dec 2014

WASHINGTON - To senator Dianne Feinstein, the need to make public the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the torture of terrorism detainees in the aftermath of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks was never in question, despite years of determined resistance by intelligence officials and their allies.

"Nobody wants to do something that is going to bring on any kind of attack," Ms Feinstein, the committee's chairman and a Democrat, told reporters after her hour-long speech from the Senate floor on Tuesday, describing the report and its harsh criticism of the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) interrogation programme.

"But I came to the conclusion that America's greatness is being able to say we made a mistake and we are going to correct it and go from there."

Her speech was a signal moment for both the Intelligence Committee and Ms Feinstein herself. At times, she had seemed to waver when pressure mounted against disclosing the report, which was assembled over five years by committee Democrats.

But the 81-year-old from California - who is about to surrender the top role on the committee when the Republicans take control of the Senate next month - made a forceful case for a broad airing of the torture tactics.

"I give her enormous credit," said Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, who sits on the committee. "Given the coordinated efforts to try to keep that report from coming out, you can just see how much strength and backbone she has."

Ms Feinstein acknowledged that she had been given pause again in recent days by the suggestion from Secretary of State John Kerry that releasing the document could provoke unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Her reservations, she said, were erased both by the realisation that conditions in that region were not likely to improve and by a conviction that a relatively small number of CIA workers were guilty of "brutality in stark contrast to our values as a nation".

A turning point for Ms Feinstein also came in March with the disclosure that CIA workers had infiltrated the computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff to write the report.

Top Republicans described the report as a politically charged Democratic document that distorted events. But at least one Republican was on her side.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, followed Ms Feinstein's remarks with a powerful condemnation of torture.

As he walked off the floor, Ms Feinstein called out to him, walked over to his desk and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

Cheney slams report on CIA torture of terror suspects
Former US vice-president defends interrogation tactics
The Straits Times, 12 Dec 2014

WASHINGTON - Former US vice-president Dick Cheney has blasted the Senate report detailing the torture of "war on terror" detainees, calling it "terrible" and "full of crap".

Mr Cheney, who was vice-president under Mr George W. Bush when the brutal "enhanced interrogation techniques" were used, said the programme had been entirely justified.

His comments came as a group of former top CIA officials also disputed the report's findings, saying the interrogations saved lives.

Separately, an unnamed US official told AFP that the US military no longer operates detention facilities in Afghanistan, where torture allegedly occurred in the past.

Mr Cheney told Fox News on Wednesday: "We did exactly what needed to be done in order to catch those who were guilty on 9/11 and to prevent a further attack, and we were successful on both parts."

The scathing 500-page report, released on Tuesday, said the CIA's interrogation of Al-Qaeda suspects - including beatings, "rectal rehydration" and sleep deprivation - was far more brutal than acknowledged and did not produce useful intelligence.

The CIA deliberately misled Congress and the White House about the value of the intelligence its interrogators were gathering, the report concluded.

Mr Cheney did not mince his words in response: "The report's full of crap, excuse me. I said hooey yesterday - let me use the real word."

The Senate investigation was "deeply flawed" and "didn't bother to interview key people involved in the programme", he said.

The report - whose damning findings provoked worldwide condemnation - also said that Mr Bush was given details of the tactics only in 2006, four years after the CIA began using them, and that he had "expressed discomfort".

Mr Cheney denied Mr Bush was kept out of the loop, saying the then president was in fact "an integral part of the programme and he had to approve it".

Mr Cheney's views were echoed by former CIA directors George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden who, along with three ex-deputy directors, wrote in an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal that the Senate Intelligence Committee was wrong in saying the agency had been deceptive.

"The committee has given us... a one-sided study marred by errors of fact and interpretation," they said.

The report concluded that the CIA had failed to disrupt any plots despite torturing captives. But the former CIA officials said the US never would have tracked down and killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011 without information acquired in the interrogation programme.

They said their methods also led to the capture of ranking Al-Qaeda operatives, provided valuable information about the organisation and saved thousands of lives by disrupting Al-Qaeda plots.

While admitting they did not do everything "perfectly", the former officials pointed out that agents had been in an unprecedented daily "ticking time bomb scenario" that required quick action.They said the CIA sought and received confirmation from the White House and the Justice Department for its programmes.

Mr Cheney said that when faced with a key suspect such as self-proclaimed Sept 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, interrogators had to be tough.

"What are we supposed to do - kiss him on both cheeks and say, 'Please, please, tell us what you know?' Of course not."


CIA torture wrong but not so shocking
By Jonathan Eyal, In London, The Sunday Times, 14 Dec 2014

When terrorists struck at New York and Washington in 2001, the United States military initially code-named its response Operation Infinite Justice. For various reasons, the name was subsequently changed.

But in decades to come, people could well end up recalling America's entire post-9/11 counter-terrorist effort as Operation Infinite Injustice. If the latest report from the US Senate Intelligence Committee is to be believed, America's spies and its military resorted to torture and other repugnant methods of squeezing information out of suspects that were more commonly associated with the regimes of Hitler or Stalin, rather than those befitting a nation that still refers to itself as the "world's greatest democracy".

Yet, history is likely to prove kinder to the Americans. Even though Washington's spooks undoubtedly engaged in some horrid interrogation practices that cannot be condoned, the overall picture is not as one-sidedly negative as the torture report indicates; the fight against terrorism has never been just a simple confrontation between saints and sinners.

This is not an argument about the prohibition of torture as such; all the protagonists in the debate accept that torturing people was, is and will remain illegal under both national and international law.

Officials under the George W. Bush administration have tried to argue that their "enhanced interrogation techniques" did not amount to torture. However, as the Senate report rightly points out, there is plenty of evidence Mr Bush's officials knew at the time that such justifications were just weasel words.

But the report fails every other benchmark of impartiality or scholarship. It is not the product of an exhaustive investigation undertaken by experts; instead, it was written almost entirely by Congressional "staffers" - people who might be asked on one day to make coffee for their senators, and told on the next to go away and "do some research". These staffers claim to have examined 6 million intelligence documents and to have included around 6,000 of them in the report. On what basis? We'll never know.

What we do know is that the authors are exclusively Democrats, and that no attempt was made to interview any US intelligence officials. Would anyone have taken seriously a report written exclusively by Republicans, and claiming to exonerate the Bush administration of any errors in, say, the Iraq war?

We also know that Ms Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, released the report in the last week of the current Congress - the very last moment she could do so before relinquishing the post to a new, Republican-controlled Senate. This is a brazen political point-scoring game.

Further, the report ignores the security context in 2001, when the decision to use torture against terrorism suspects was taken. The US had just suffered the bloodiest attack on its soil since Pearl Harbour in World War II. Its intelligence sources knew next to nothing about the attackers, but they suspected that the terrorists were planning to use bacteriological or even nuclear weapons to perpetrate even more extensive mass-murders.

Was Mr Bush supposed to tell his people that the legal rights of the culprits and due process of the law remained his paramount concern? Perhaps, but that was not how politicians chose to act, including Ms Feinstein, who chided the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in early 2002 for failing to realise that it was not "business as usual", and that Americans had "to do some things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves". She and her Democratic supporters pretend that resorting to torture was a move made by a panicky Republican administration in a moment of madness; in fact, the decision was taken consciously by America's entire political elite.

Context is important in weighing the number of those tortured. Yes, even one wronged person is one too many. Still, the number of those subjected to "waterboarding", which involves simulating drowning, was precisely three. The act was reprehensible but hardly widespread, and the figure should be kept in mind when the inevitable wave of Hollywood movies portraying unspeakable horrors in CIA dungeons hits the screen.

The most controversial allegation in the Senate report is the suggestion that none of this yielded operationally useful information in apprehending terrorists. This betrays a misconception about how intelligence services collect and process information.

Nobody expected terrorists, battle-hardened in decades of warfare in Afghanistan, to give their CIA captors a decisive lead to Osama bin Laden along the lines of "you'll find him hiding in the second house on the left in Abbottabad".

Useful leads come in bits and pieces, and often from what people do not say, rather than what they do. For instance, most of the detainees subjected to torture were still eager to deny that a certain Al-Qaeda operative was an important person - it was this fact that led the CIA to conclude he was probably very significant. When that person reappeared years later, he led the investigators directly to bin Laden's hideout. The CIA's assertion that the material it gleaned from its "enhanced interrogation techniques" was operationally useful is, therefore, credible.

Nevertheless, none of this justifies torture as an instrument of state power. Even if one were to put aside moral consideration, the fact remains that the drawbacks of torture far exceed the potential advantages. People subjected to torture tell investigators whatever they want to hear, so most of the information offered is unreliable.

The practice of torture attracts a variety of psychopaths, the sort of people who should never be employed by a state. Politicians who tacitly tolerate such activities also end up losing control over their intelligence services: It is now fairly clear that neither Mr Bush nor secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was aware of the full extent of the CIA's "rendition" activities.

And tolerating torture chips away at a country's reputation, and at the ability of intelligence services to recruit the right personnel. How many bright young people in an open society would risk their lives working for an agency that maintains secret torture chambers and encourages torturers in its midst?

For all these reasons, torture is less frequently used than might be assumed: Even totalitarian governments that practise it do so to punish their opponents rather than as a way to elicit useful information.

It is far-fetched to suggest that America's encounter with torture has destroyed the country's reputation. How many nations on earth are capable of washing their dirty linen in public, and in such an open way?

What happened in the US was wrong - but not as shocking as some of today's moralisers claim.

Tenacious senator who pushed for torture report
By Jeremy Au Yong, US Bureau Chief In Washington, The Straits Times, 15 Dec 2014

SINCE the release of the CIA torture report, senior senator Dianne Feinstein has been lauded for her tenacity in pushing through the scorching critique of the intelligence agency's interrogation methods, despite years of dogged opposition from all quarters.

But that she did not flinch in the face of pressure from Secretary of State John Kerry, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and many Republicans in Congress came as no surprise. If there is one thing the 81-year-old Democratic Senator from California is known for, it is gumption.

Her four-decade-long public service career is littered with tales of her resilience, in the face of both figurative and literal threats. For Mrs Feinstein, the CIA fight is very much a "been there, done that" scenario.

Perhaps the most shocking came right at the very start of her political career in the 1970s when the Jewish leader found herself the target of an anti-Zionist domestic terrorist group known as the New World Liberation Front.

"They put a plastic explosive in a flower box in front of my home," she said in a recent interview, noting that she was lucky the weather had turned unexpectedly cold. "This particular explosive didn't explode if the temperature dropped below freezing."

The Front did not stop there and later shot out the windows of her California beach home, prompting her to get a gun of her own. "I thought if they were going to take me out, I wanted to take a few of them with me," she told an audience in San Francisco last year.

However, a further personal encounter with violence would make her give up her own firearm and champion gun control in the Senate - an issue which, like the torture report, deeply divides American society.

That encounter was the 1978 murder of Mr Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the US. Said Senator Feinstein: "I was the one who found Supervisor Milk's body, and I was the one to put a finger in a bullet hole, trying to get a pulse. Once you have been through one of these episodes, once you see what the crime scene is like - it isn't like the movies - it changes your view of weapons."

Her decades spent fighting for gun regulation have no doubt prepared her for the controversial release of the torture report. Last year, as she was pushing for a renewal of a ban on assault weapons, a petition was submitted to the White House stating that the senator should be tried for treason because she is undermining the right to bear arms in the Constitution.

That a person so ready to joke about owning a gun would ultimately lead a campaign against gun ownership is a reflection of the mixed bag of contrasts that is Senator Feinstein. She is simultaneously known as a tough-as- nails politician and an elegant diplomat; she is a lifelong Democrat with some very Republican views; and she is an uncompromising operator who somehow developed a role as a conciliator who can bring warring factions together. In fact, it was Mrs Feinstein who played host to the reconciliation between Mr Barack Obama and Mrs Hillary Clinton after Mr Obama triumphed in the bruising presidential primary campaign in 2008.

The question now is whether last Tuesday's torture report will be her last hurrah in office. Her political career has seen her move up from being a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors to mayor of the city to one of the country's most respected senators. Mrs Feinstein has been divorced once, widowed once and has been married to her current husband, businessman Richard Blum, since 1980. She has one daughter.

Most people do not expect an 83-year-old to run for re-election - her term is up in 2016 - not that too many would be surprised if she did.

As University of Southern California academic Dan Schnur told CNN, Mrs Feinstein is the rare breed of nearly undefeatable senator. "Dianne Feinstein can serve in the US Senate for as long as she wants. It's hard to imagine her facing a credible challenge if she did decide to run for re-election, which puts her in the relatively rare position of not having to worry about public opinion on this (report)."

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