11 December 2014

Senate report being used to whitewash Obama’s rehabilitation of torture

The grizzly details of CIA torture have, finally, been at least partly aired through the release this Tuesday of the executive summary to a landmark Senate intelligence committee report. The extent of the torture has been covered extensively across the media, and is horrifying - unless you’re a FOX News pundit. But much of the media coverage of this issue is missing the crucial bigger picture: the deliberate rehabilitation of torture under the Obama administration, and its systematic use to manufacture false intelligence to justify endless war.

Torture victims, who had been detained by the US national security apparatus entirely outside any sort of recognizable functioning system of due process, endured a litany of extreme abuses normally associated with foreign dictatorships: 180 hour sleep deprivation, forced ‘rectal feeding’, rectal ‘examinations’ using ‘excessive force’, standing for dozens of hours on broken limbs, water-boarding, being submerged in iced baths, and on and on and on.

Yet for the most part, it has been assumed that the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation program’, originated under the Bush administration after 9/11, was a major “aberration” from normal CIA practice – as one US former military prosecutor put it in The Guardian.

On BBC Newsnight, yesterday, presenter Emily Maitlis asked former National Security Adviser under Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, about the problem of “rogue elements in the CIA,” and whether this was inevitable due to the need for secrecy in intelligence.

High-level sanction

Media coverage of the Senate report has largely whitewashed the extent to which torture has always been an integral and systematic intelligence practice since the Second World War, continuing even today under the careful recalibration of Obama and his senior military intelligence officials. The key function of torture, largely overlooked by the pundits, is its role in manufacturing nebulous threats that legitimize the existence and expansion of the national security apparatus.

The CIA’s post-9/11 torture program was formally approved at the highest levels of the civilian administration. We have known for years that torture was officially sanctioned by at least President Bush, Vice President Cheney, former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA directors George Tenet and Michael Hayden, and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Yet the focus on the Bush administration serves a useful purpose. While the UN has called for prosecutions of Bush officials, Obama himself is excused on the pretext that he banned domestic torture in 2009, and reiterated the ban abroad this November.

Even Dan Froomklin of The Intercept congratulated the November move as a “win” for the “good guys.” Indeed, with the release of the Senate report, Obama’s declaration that he has ended “the CIA’s detention and interrogation program” has been largely uncritically reported by both mainstream and progressive media, reinforcing this narrative.

Rehabilitating the torture regime

Yet Obama did not ban torture in 2009, and has not rescinded it now. He instead rehabilitated torture with a carefully crafted Executive Order that has received little scrutiny. He demanded, for instance, that interrogation techniques be made to fit the US Army Field Manual, which complies with the Geneva Convention and has prohibited torture since 1956.

But in 2006, revisions were made to the Army Field Manual, in particular through ‘Appendix M’, which contained interrogation techniques that went far beyond the original Geneva-inspired restrictions of the original version of the manual. This includes 19 methods of interrogation and the practice of extraordinary rendition. As pointed out by US psychologist Jeff Kaye who has worked extensively with torture victims, a new UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) review of the manual shows that a wide-range of torture techniques continue to be deployed by the US government, including isolation, sensory deprivation, stress positions, chemically-induced psychosis, adjustments of environmental and dietary rules, among others.

Indeed, the revelations contained in the Senate report are a mere fraction of the totality of torture techniques deployed by the CIA and other agencies. Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen born and raised in Germany who was detained in Guantanomo for five years, has for instance charged that he had been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, repeated beatings, water-dunking, electric shock treatment, and suspension by his arms, by US forces.

On January 22nd, 2009, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, then Obama’s director of national intelligence, told the Senate intelligence committee that the Army Field Manual would be amended to allow new forms of harsh interrogation, but that these changes would remain classified:

“We have large amounts of unclassified  doctrine for our troops to use, but we don’t put anything in  there that our enemies can use against us. And we’ll figure it out for this manual… there will be some sort of  document that’s widely available in an unclassified form, but  the specific techniques that can provide training value to  adversaries, we will handle much more carefully.”

Obama’s supposed banning of the CIA’s secret rendition programs was also a misnomer. While White House officials insisted that from now on, detainees would not be rendered to “any country that engages in torture,” rendered detainees were already being sent to countries in the EU that purportedly do not sanction torture – where they were then tortured by the CIA.

Obama did not really ban the CIA’s use of secret prisons either, permitting indefinite detention of people without due process “on a short-term transitory basis.

Half a century of torture as a system

What we are seeing now is not the Obama administration putting an end to torture, but rather putting an end to the open acknowledgement of the use of torture as a routine intelligence practice.

But the ways of old illustrate that we should not be shocked by the latest revelations. Declassified CIA training manuals from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, prove that the CIA has consistently practiced torture long before the Bush administration attempted to legitimize the practice publicly.

In his seminal study of the subject, A Question of Torture, US historian Prof Alfred W. McCoy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison proves using official documents and interviews with intelligence sources that the use of torture has been a systematic practice of US and British intelligence agencies, sanctioned at the highest levels, over “the past half century.” Since the Second World War, he writes, a “distinctive US covert-warfare doctrine… in which psychological torture has emerged as a central if clandestine facet of American foreign policy.”

The psychological paradigm deployed the CIA fused two methods in particular, “sensory disorientation” and so-called “self-inflicted pain.” These methods were based on intensive “behavioural research that made psychological torture NATO’s secret weapon against communism and cognitive science the handmaiden of state security.”

“From 1950 to 1962,” found McCoy, “the CIA became involved in torture through a massive mind-control effort, with psychological warfare and secret research into human consciousness that reached a cost of a billion dollars annually.”

The pinnacle of this effort was the CIA’s Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation handbook finalized in 1963, which determined the agency’s interrogation methods around the world. In the ensuing decade, the agency trained over a million police officers across 47 countries in torture. A later incarnation of the CIA torture training doctrine emerged under Freedom of Information in the form of the 1983 Human Resources Training Exploitation Manual.

Power… and propaganda

One of the critical findings of the Senate report is that torture simply doesn’t work, and consistently fails to produce meaningful intelligence. So why insist on its use? For McCoy, the addiction to torture itself is a symptom of a deep-seated psychological disorder, rather than a rational imperative: “In sum, the powerful often turn to torture in times of crisis, not because it works but because it salves their fears and insecurities with the psychic balm of empowerment.”

He is right, but in the post-9/11 era, there is more to the national security apparatus’ chronic torture addiction than this.

It is not a mere accident that torture generates vacuous intelligence, but nevertheless continues to be used and justified for intelligence purposes. For instance, the CIA claimed that its torture of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) led to the discovery and thwarting of a plot to hijack civilian planes at Heathrow and crash them into the airport and buildings in Canary Wharf. The entire plot, however, was an invention provoked by torture that included waterboarding, “facial and abdominal slaps, the facial grab, stress positions, standing sleep deprivation” and “rectal rehydration.”

As one former senior CIA official who had read all KSM’s interrogation reports told Vanity Fair, “90 percent of it was total fucking bullshit.” Another ex-Pentagon analyst said that torturing KSM had produced “no actionable intelligence.”

Torture also played a key role in the much-hyped London ricin plot. Algerian security services alerted British intelligence in January 2003 to the so-called plot after interrogating and torturing a ‘terrorist suspect’, former British resident Mohammed Meguerba. We now know there was no plot. Four of the defendants were acquitted of terrorism and four others had the cases against them abandoned. Only Kamal Bourgass was convicted after he murdered Special Branch Detective Constable Stephen Oake during a raid. Former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has also blown the whistle on how the CIA would render ‘terror suspects’ to the country to be tortured by Uzbek secret police, including being boiled alive. The confessions generated would be sent to the CIA and MI6 to be fed into ‘intelligence’ reports. Murray described the reports as “bollocks,” replete with false information not worth the “bloodstained paper” they are written on.

Many are unaware that the 9/11 Commission report is exactly such a document. Nearly a third of the report’s footnotes reference information obtained from detainees subject to ‘enhanced’ interrogation by the CIA. In 2004, the commission demanded that the CIA conduct “new rounds of interrogations” to get answers to its questions. As investigative reporter Philip Shennon pointed out in Newsweek, this has “troubling implications for the credibility of the commission’s final report” and “its account of the 9/11 plot and al-Qaeda’s history.” Which is why lawyers for the chief 9/11 mastermind suspects now say after the release of the Senate report that the case for prosecution may well unravel. Not surprising if a third of the report is merely ‘bollocks.’

That torture generates false information has long been known to the intelligence community. Much of the CIA’s techniques are derived from reverse engineering Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training, where US troops are briefly exposed in controlled settings to abusive interrogation techniques used by enemy forces, so that they can better resist treatment they might face if they are captured. SERE training, however, adopted tactics used by Chinese Communists against American soldiers during the Korean War for the purpose of eliciting false confessions for propaganda purposes, according to a Senate Armed Services Committee report in 2009.

Torture: core mechanism to legitimize threat projection

By deploying the same techniques against ‘terror suspects,’ the intelligence community was not seeking to identify real threats: it was seeking to manufacture threats for the purpose of justifying war. As David Rose found after interviewing “numerous counterterrorist officials from agencies on both sides of the Atlantic,” their unanimous verdict was that “coercive methods” had squandered massive resources to manufacture “false leads, chimerical plots, and unnecessary safety alerts.” Far from exposing any deadly plots, torture led only to “more torture” of supposed accomplices of ‘terror suspects’ “while also providing some misleading ‘information’ that boosted the administration’s argument for invading Iraq.” But the Iraq War was not about responding to terrorism. According to declassified British Foreign Office files, it was about securing control over Persian Gulf oil and gas resources, and opening them up to global markets to avert a portended energy crisis.

In other words, torture plays a pivotal role in the Pentagon’s posture of permanent global war: generating spurious overblown ‘intelligence’ that can be fed-in to official security narratives of imminent terrorist threats everywhere, in turn requiring evermore empowerment of the security agencies, and legitimizing military expansionism in strategic regions.

The Obama administration is now exploiting the new Senate report to convince the world that the intelligence community’s systematic embroilment in torture was merely a Bush-era aberration that is now safely in the past.

Do not be fooled. Obama has rehabilitated and recalibrated the covert torture apparatus, and is attempting to leverage the torture report’s damning findings to claim moral high ground his administration doesn’t have. The torture regime is alive and well – but it has been put back in the box of classified secrecy to continue without public scrutiny.

Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author and international security scholar. Formerly of The Guardian, he writes the ‘System Shift’ column for VICE’s Motherboard, and is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian work. He is the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), and the scifi thriller novel  ZERO POINT, among other books. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest. If you found this article useful, you can support Nafeez’s journalism via his upcoming project, Insurge.


  1. I think that US Ambassador John Negroponte was a key figure in the transfer of the experiences, organisation planning of the terror from Central & Latin America of the death squads and torture there with help of the "Contras" et al over to the Middle East. For historical perspective Alfred McCoy is important. Read Him !

  2. This is an excellent post.

  3. Excellent article ... thank god someone has the 'bollocks' to tell it as it is .. Obama has turned out to be worse than Bush in many areas not least his fawning sycophancy to those that control US foreign policy whose first alleigance is to Israel.

  4. Thank you for pointing out the limitations of Obama’s orders – and the seemingly intentional loopholes that were left in them. These were, for me, eye-opening revelations and I am glad to be aware of them.

    Now, for a rather long, rambling response:

    I am less comfortable with the rhetoric around “endless war”. It is a phrase I see a lot, but I tend to distrust that analysis. It assumes that the people with power are villains, full of nefarious intent; a conspiracy of the powerful against the rest of us.

    I’m not going to deny that there are genuinely malicious pychopaths who achieve power (Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon, Saddam Hussain, Gaddafi, Ahmedinejad, to name just a few), but I am not convinced that (perpetual) war itself is the objective of most people with power.

    (Let me be very clear here and state that the use of torture is abhorrent, and the people who tortured others, the people who authorised torture, the people who knew of tortures and didn’t whistleblow – they all belong prosecuted and imprisoned)

    Why did Western regimes (comply with) torture? They did it because of that empowerment factor: they feel an imperative to “do something”. As there is no magical solution that will induce a suspect to openly and transparently cooperate with the captors (truth serum and lie detectors being essentially science fiction), they simply do not have any weapon in their arsenal that is sure to work. Bribery and torture are equally likely to generate false leads.

    The real reason why torture happens may be much more mundane than the regime’s needs: imagine the cage in some army base with a handful of terror suspects in it. Imagine the bureaucrat in charge of that prison. He’ll probably have to send a daily report to his bosses. “We asked the suspects to tell us what they knew and they insisted they were innocent” is not going to please anyone. The prisoners have to generate some leads that the bureaucrats can write reports about.

    Torture is not about generating valuable leads. It’s not about saving lives (although everyone involved will claim that’s what they’re trying to do). In reality, it’s about appearing “productive”. It’s about furthering (or continuing) careers.

    I’m not saying torture originates from the bottom up. Clearly, some high level people came up with processes to formalise it, and people at the very top approved it. I’m saying torture happens because it creates an illusion of productivity at all levels of the hierarchy. Never mind the quality of the results: people don’t need to produce good work to have a good career; they just need to appear productive, and appearance can be bought with mediocre or shoddy work.

    The intelligence sector is a bizarre industry. There have probably been some successful, effective operations / disaster preventions in the past. Probably. But most of it is pure placebo, about as effective at saving the world as homeopathic medicine is at fighting cancer. One of the most eye-opening things I’ve read in recent times is this blog post about British spies: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/posts/BUGGER

    So I don’t believe there is a huge conspiracy to create perpetual war to further some sinister (economic) agenda. Instead, I believe that widespread incompetence and impotence are being covered up with activities that generate an appearance of productivity – and these activities happen to include torture, drone attacks and the occasional war.

    If there were evil geniuses behind these things, we’d live in a cosmic comedy. But I think it’s a chain reaction of human failings that have such devastating effects, and we live in a surreal tragedy.

    (Sorry for rambling rather a lot!)

  5. And the U.S. was involved in torture even earlier. The Philippine invasion at the turn of the 20th century had U.S. troops burning entire villages to the ground with their inhabitants and also marking off free-fire zones. Not to mention the treatment of the indigenous peoples the European settlers tried to wipe out when they arrived here. Thanks, Nafeez for putting the Obama administration's feet to the fire.

  6. Unless you have been in the position to interrogate to save your own forces; the above is only SMEAR. Back in Vietnam, enhance tactics worked! My "sorry ass" is alive today because of the diligent work of members of the CIA...who remain nameless and are never able to report their successes...like my being alive! I will NEVER "bad mouth" the CIA or question their methods. Senator Feinstein did the Men and Women of the CIA a GREAT DIS-SERVICE, only because of her warped ego, and distorted sense of "Pay-Back". Her "report" WHERE SHE FAILED TO ACTUALLY INTERVIEW ANYONE FROM THE CIA IS A "LOAD OF HORSE SHIT"; and it put the lives of current operatives IN GRAVE DANGER! But she does not give a damn, except for herself! California SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF PUTTING HER IN THE SENATE! :-( :-(

  7. Nafeez you are a brave and honest man.
    I wish we had more like you.


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