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‘Torture is torture’ ignores the complex nature of intelligence gathering

14 December 2014

10:11 AM

14 December 2014

10:11 AM

On Thursday I was on the BBC’s ‘This Week’ to talk about the CIA and torture. It is, for many reasons, perhaps the most gruesome subject possible. And not just because of the hideous allegations involved, but also because it is one of those subjects which people wantonly lose their reason over. Like a small number of other subjects in our society at the moment, it is one which people try wilfully to simplify, usually in order to show the world what a moral person they are and, by contrast, what immoral people their opponents are. I will use this post to set out some of my own views and certain objections to what seems to be the status quo debate on all this.

Didn’t this week’s report showed the CIA to be torturing on an industrial scale?
The Senate Intelligence Committee report which came out this week is gruesome reading. But it also cannot be read in isolation and there are convincing reasons to believe that it is largely or partly untrue. Republicans on the Committee walked out of the process when they realised that the aim of the investigation was not to have a genuine look into allegations of torture but specifically to criticise the last Republican administration and the CIA’s behaviour during the George W Bush Presidency. One sign of how bad this politicisation was is that the Committee did not even speak with – or seek evidence from – the people who headed the CIA during the period in question. In particular, it is worth reading this response piece by former CIA Directors George Tenet, Porter Goss, Michael Hayden and others.

Senator Bob Kerrey, a former Democrat who used to sit on the Intelligence Committee, was one of those who highlighted what a politicised, partisan process this has become. In a striking piece he says:

‘When Congress created the intelligence committees in the 1970’s, the purpose was for people’s representatives to stand above the fray and render balanced judgments about this most sensitive aspect of national security. This committee departed from that high road and slipped into the same partisan mode that marks most of what happens on Capitol Hill these days.’

In addition, the findings of the report are strongly and vehemently countered not only by the Republican members of the committee’s Minority report, but also vehemently denied and countered by the detailed responses of the CIA itself. For anyone interested in the specifics of this, the excellent Lawfare Blog has helpfully compiled the Majority accusations as well as the Minority and official CIA responses to every one of the most serious allegations which have arisen this week. There are four parts so far. Part one is here, part two is here, part three is here and part four is here.

But there are degrees

‘Torture is wrong’ and ‘Torture is torture’ is what a lot of people will say. And then they leave it at that. And while I agree that ‘torture is wrong’, the idea that ‘torture is torture’ and that it is all clear-cut is clearly not the case. There are some things which this country believes are torture which America does not and there are things which most members of the public would not recognise as torture which our governments do.

Immediately after 9/11 (as President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, among others, have already written in their memoirs) as enemy combatants were being caught, US officials requested and were given a range of options by the security services. They asked for legal guidance on each and every one. The administration’s top priority was to prevent another attack on the American homeland – but they were also highly conscious of the law. Rumsfeld, for instance, accepted several of the interrogation techniques suggested, and refused to accept others. Among those he accepted were making people stand for long periods of time.He did not see this as torture. The number of hours was limited, but the number previously deemed to be legal was – as Rumsfeld himself pointed out – fewer hours than he himself spent on his feet on an average day.

Most people would be surprised that ‘slapping’ has been deemed to be ‘torture’ by the Democrats on the committee. Although any such thing should be carefully regulated if it were ever used, it would, I think, surprise people if intelligence services seeking to get information out of an enemy combatant in the most extreme situation were accused of ‘torturing’ a detainee were they to slap them. Let me be clear – I don’t say it is good, and I certainly don’t say it is right. I would rather it did not happen. But up and down the country people are both consensually and violently slapped probably every day. Do we say that when a wife slaps her husband that the wife has ‘tortured’ the husband?

Likewise, techniques of sleep deprivation. Horrible, certainly, but not what most people think of when they think of torture.In 2004 in the UK there was a reality television show called ‘Shattered’ in which contestants volunteered to compete to stay awake for seven days to win a cash prize. It was presented by Dermot O’Leary. Were the contestants on that Channel 4 show ‘tortured’?  It was very unpleasant, certainly.  But are there things which the British public volunteer for and watch as ‘entertainment’ in one context which become not only ‘torture’ but ‘wrong’ when used on enemy combatants?

The most controversial technique was of course ‘waterboarding’. President Bush has already said – and this week’s report confirms – that three people were waterboarded. These included the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [KSM]. There is a dispute between the Republicans, Democrats and the CIA over the utility of the information obtained. The Republicans and the CIA say that information gained from waterboarding KSM prevented major terrorist attacks, including an attack on London.This week’s report disputes this.

Waterboarding was regarded as a legal and acceptable technique for interrogation but the legal advice on it changed.It had been legal, but it became illegal and was not used again.Describing waterboarding as a ‘borderline legal’ interrogation technique is correct.It straddled the border, was acceptable and then unacceptable.That is one reason why there is such a dispute over the matter. As former CIA Director General Michael Hayden pointed out at a public event in London last year:

‘We waterboarded over fifty thousand American airmen: so it’s not inherently torture, otherwise we couldn’t do it in our military training. My deputy when I came to CIA was a Special Forces navy admiral, he had been waterboarded. Two of my lawyers were waterboarded.’

Barbarities like forced rectal feeding and being left in a place so cold that the person died (as is suggested in the case of Gul Rahman) are – if they happened – very obviously not just cases of serious and unacceptable negligence. The CIA and the Minority report dispute the worst cases leading to death described in the Majority report. But if such things did occur then they step far beyond the boundaries and the CIA and the US government must address this. Certainly there are accounts of people who went beyond what was permitted in interrogation but who were not disciplined for it. If this is the case then obviously the CIA must address it and prevent any such repeats as a matter of urgency. But those reading the accounts should keep in mind that there is no reason for the CIA to deliberately kill someone, for in doing so they would not only be killing a person and committing a crime – they would be losing an asset.

But in all this my point is that there is – or ought to be – a distinction between keeping somebody awake for a long time, slapping someone, making someone stand for a long time and so on, and those things which are clearly utterly wrong and undeniably torture.The blurring of these lines creates all sorts of problems. That is why I think saying ‘torture is torture’ is not a serious contribution to what is a far more complex debate.

The CIA behaves worse than anyone myth


On Thursday night’s show Diane Abbott seemed to believe that if all the allegations against the CIA are true – and she seemed to believe that they were – then this showed actions which the British people and state would never involve themselves in. I think matters are more complex than that and said so.

Those of us who have actually studied the Northern Ireland conflict know that that was an exceptionally dirty war, fought in our own lifetimes. I mentioned to Diane the case of one agent in particular: Stakeknife. This was a person who worked his way up to become the head of the internal ‘nutting squad’ in the IRA.  He was the person whose job it was to find, torture and kill people thought to be informers within the IRA.  He was also a British agent.  I go into some of this in my book ‘Bloody Sunday’, but it seems that Stakeknife was, among other things, allowed to torture and kill innocent people (that is: members of the public) in order to deepen and protect his cover within the IRA and embed him at the very top of the organisation.

Now that is a terrible, terrible thing. Far worse than anything which has come out this week about the CIA.But that is just one of the things which the British state was willing to do in order to win the dirty war against the IRA.  It was obviously not right. But nobody will ever know how many bombs were stopped from going off thanks to having such an unimpeachable asset at the very top of the IRA. What is more it was a decision made in Britain.

But we are ashamed of that aren’t we?

When I raised the matter of Stakeknife on the show, Andrew Neil said (and I’m summarising because you can’t hear it on the recording as Diane and I are talking over each other) ‘but that is a matter of national shame isn’t it?’.

This raises a very interesting point.You might argue that this ought to be a matter of national shame. But I do not think that if you stopped people in the streets in Britain (apart from in Northern Ireland) even one person in a hundred thousand, or perhaps one in half a million would know who you were talking about when you talked about Stakeknife. I got the clear impression that Diane had never heard of him. And this is perfectly normal. Most people do not seem to care to know what extreme – and sometimes very wrong – things are done by their intelligence apparatus.

Sure, people talk about the ‘dirty war’ against the IRA, but most seem pretty unbothered about finding out quite how ‘dirty’ it was. Indeed most people don’t seem to care. And it seems to me that it would be quite wrong to expect the American people to be more concerned about what their government and security services may have done after 9/11 to stop another attack there than the British people have been to work out just how the IRA was eventually forced to the negotiating table in Northern Ireland. A case in point: a 2009 poll found that 71% of Americans accepted the use of torture in some circumstances.

Criminalising – and politicising – our intelligence services

One of the things which is most disturbing about the coverage of the majority report released this week is the way in which it hits the CIA at a time when it and other Western intelligence agencies have already been getting a battering from another direction.

The CIA and NSA, like MI5 and GCHQ, are currently under a great deal of often misleading attack and criticism due to the revelations of the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden’s disclosures have already wrecked many of the advantages of signals intelligence which this country and America enjoyed in recent years. Practitioners relate how whole networks of our enemies have ‘gone dark’. Yet public opinion – especially in America – seems to be turning against the intelligence services. And now this comes along.

I don’t say criticism isn’t good, or cannot be good. But I suspect we are going to arrive at a serious pass if this war on the intelligence services continues at this pitch for much longer. It is bad enough that a Senate Inquiry refuses to even speak to the heads of the Agency before damning them. Politicisation and criminalisation of the security services in the US or UK is something which could end up having terrible consequences. And, of course, in our democracies the relationship between the public and those who protect us must be respectful and crucially consensual. Obviously the intelligence services must be held up to very high standards. But they should not be held up to standards which make them effectively incapable of operating.

If we do then there are many foreign agencies and powers who will benefit from this. But the publics in the West will not. This seems to me to be a point of balance that needs to be asserted more often.

But torture doesn’t work?

This is the part of the question which is currently thought to be simplest.  Diane did it again on Thursday. ‘Torture doesn’t work’. I wish it were that simple.  But firstly it depends on what you mean by ‘torture’ (see above). There are things which are so painful that I have no doubt that anybody who was put through them would say anything in order to make it stop. But there may be things among the list of things which the CIA regarded as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ which many people would think would be helpful in getting information out of someone.

Anybody who has been questioned by the police in the UK will know that there are certain perfectly legal ways to intimidate people which are useful in making people feel pressured to answer questions. The techniques which the CIA were legally allowed to use certainly go beyond these. But there may well be a world of technical as well as moral difference between keeping someone standing for a period, or blasting out pop music in their cell in order to make them feel worn down before questioning them, and committing acts which are so painful that the person would say anything.

Actual torture, in which people will say almost anything, is to my mind not only wrong but so wrong that it should not be done whatever the possible cost-benefits. But then that is easy for me – like every other civilian – to say.  There are obviously cases (the infamous ticking bomb scenario) when if we were the person responsible for the interrogation we might change that moral calculus. I would hope not. But the question is made harder by the fact – as Michael Portillo pointed out on the show – that the CIA says that waterboarding KSM brought forth vital and actionable intelligence. For more on whether enhanced interrogation techniques work readers may find this piece interesting.

The Moral landscape

The late American Democrat Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said:

‘The amount of violations of human rights in a country is always an inverse function of the amount of complaints about human rights violations heard. The greater the number of complaints being aired, the better protected are human rights in that country.’

It is obvious why North Korea, Syria or Russia do not have official reports into human rights violations in their countries or by their own security services.  But America (and indeed Britain) carry out far more such inquiries than almost any of our allies.  And while this is indeed a proof of great decency, it comes in a world where our enemies are playing a very clever game of media manipulation. This needs to be approached carefully.

An al-Qaeda training manual found in the North of England some years ago said that people captured by the US or UK should always say they have been tortured.  As a society we are very foolish if we do not keep in mind that this is what our opponents seek to claim.

We need to be far wiser to the fact that our opponents are trying to make it impossible for us to win.  There are people trying to do this abroad, obviously. But just as important – if not more so – are the people who are working to advance this aim at home.

And the strategic problem

All of this seems to me to be very important if very tricky terrain.  But the reason I don’t think it acceptable to simply ignore the debate (thankless as it is) is because it contains problems and challenges that we have to confront.

Since 9/11 we have lived in a world where our primary security threat comes not from a state or from a state’s army but from a stateless, non-uniformed set of combatants. They neither fight by, nor can be fought with, the same rules we would employ against a conventional army. Their aim – to commit mass casualty terrorist attacks – has to be stopped. But it is not easy.  All I would say is that people need to seriously question what to do about this enemy. If anyone doubts it is a problem then consider this.

When President Obama came to office he sped up the winding down (already begun under his predecessor) of the techniques criticised this week. He did so partly because of the huge public pressure. But there is a cost to this. Those people who criticised every single thing done by the Bush administration to (successfully) prevent another 9/11 style attack still had the same enemy opposing them when President Obama came to office.The result is that the most left-wing President in probably the whole of American history has largely skipped rendition, detention, enhanced-interrogation techniques and more and decided to kill people believed to be America’s enemies by the use of unmanned drones in theatres across the world.

And consider this: the weekend before the release of the Senate report, Pakistani forces killed Adnan el-Shukrijumah. As al-Qaeda’s head of external terrorist operations, el-Shukrijumah was being tasked to plan the next major al-Qaeda atrocity against the West. As Marc Thiessen has pointed out, it was the CIA’s interrogations of two of those men who were waterboarded, KSM and Abu Zubaydah, that led to the discovery of el-Shukrijumah’s existence in the first place.

President Obama knows there is a problem, just as his predecessor did.  And he has come to a rather different – one might even say harsher – solution.  But what America – and the world – needs is not a downplaying or denial of the existence of this enemy, nor a type of moral grandstanding over how to deal with them, however personally pleasant. What it needs is a serious and intelligent discussion about how to fight our highly unconventional enemy intelligently.

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