It may be that the end justifies the means, but citizens are entitled to know what has been done in their name, says Allan Massie
Researching her book on the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 in the Public Record Office, Dame Antonia Fraser was struck by the difference between the signatures of Guy Fawkes before and after he was tortured. “The final pathetic shaky ‘Guido’,”, she writes, “says more than I ever could about the destruction of a man.”
After being discovered beside the barrel of gunpowder in the parliament cellars, Fawkes had been subjected to the rack, a common instrument of torture in Tudor and early Stuart England. In fact, torture was illegal under the Common Law of England, but it was practised by order of the Prerogative Courts. They were abolished in the Revolution of 1640-1, and thereafter torture was outlawed in England – though it remained legal in Scotland far longer, being inflicted on dissident Covenanters by order of the Scottish Privy Council in the 1670s and 1680s.
Of course, torture has never quite gone away – it is too convenient, and it is easy for embattled governments to be persuaded that it is necessary and effective. But for a long time civilised nations reprobated its use, and it is now branded, correctly, as a breach of human rights. So no democratic government will admit to approving of the practice of torture. However, in times of danger or “national crisis”, obtaining information from suspects is deemed, often correctly, to be essential. So a euphemism was found – “enhanced interrogation” – and, since 9/11 this has been widely practised by the CIA, both at Guantanamo Bay and in secret prisons in other countries.
The extent of this has long been suspected. Now it is revealed in a report drawn up by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Not everything has been revealed, not by any means. The original report is said to run to 6,000 pages, but only a summary has been published. The committee has had to fight hard to get this far; the CIA has apparently spied on it, and pressure has been brought to bear, even apparently by the US Secretary of State John Kerry, to stop publication. Meanwhile, former president George W Bush, in office for most of the time covered by the report, has defended the CIA officers as “patriots” who have done great service defending the United States and the American people against their enemies. And no doubt they do indeed regard themselves as patriots.
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It is not only the US that will be embarrassed by the report. It is said that 54 countries – yes, that’s not a misprint – including 25 in Europe, collaborated in the practice of “rendition”; that is the apprehension of suspects (usually without a warrant) and their transportation to other states and secret prisons where they may be subjected to “enhanced interrogation”: waterboarding, deprivation of sleep and probably much worse. Incidentally, one of the report’s conclusions – which is that these practices resulted in little or even no useful information being obtained – has already been challenged by, for instance, a CIA veteran, Jose Rodriguez, writing in the Washington Post. Others will unquestionably back him up.
It should be said first that the Senate Committee’s investigation, and determination to publish the report, is to its credit – a personal triumph for the committee’s chairman, the Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, and an act in the finest tradition of American democracy. The report discloses what she calls “the horrible details of the CIA program which never, never, never should have existed”.
Its findings will be profoundly embarrassing: China has already accused the US of practising double standards. Its publication may even, as its critics have claimed, endanger American citizens, embassies, consulates, non-governmental organisations and businesses abroad. It may make the gathering of information deemed vital to the security of the US more difficult in the future. Nevertheless, the American people are entitled to know what has been done, and may still be being done, in their name. And so, of course, are we and the citizens of the other 53 states said to have collaborated in the rendition of suspects who are subsequently tortured but not brought, in most cases, to trial. Democratic government is, or should be as far as possible, open government. Incidentally, we are still waiting for the publication of the Chilcot report into the Iraq War.
It should also be said, however unwillingly, that the CIA has a case and that George W Bush, the president who either authorised its actions or turned a blind eye to the agency’s excesses, has a point: there has been no major terrorist attack in the US since 9/11, and only the most blinkered can persuade themselves that none has been planned or attempted, and then thwarted. There are many in the US and indeed here, some of them liberals, who will argue that in the present dangerous state of the world, a good end – the security of the homeland and its citizens – justifies the means.
The ethical dilemma is acute. Torture, however disguised by euphemisms, is wrong. It is illegal and it is wicked. Its use is damaging, whatever results it may produce; for if you fight evil with evil, you corrupt yourself and the state you are protecting.
And it is not only the use of torture that has to be questioned today. The Security State has come into being to protect the Free World, and its creeping power of surveillance of the citizens it is supposedly guarding makes that world less free.
There are no easy answers. Every successful act of terrorism, like the murder of Lee Rigby, leads us to ask why the security services were unable to prevent it. At the same time, many of us would prefer not to know what precisely is being done in our name.
The publication of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the actions of the CIA and of those governments and security services elsewhere which collaborated with the agency means that such wilful ignorance is no longer possible.
The questions are in the open: where do you stand on the rule of law? Where do you stand on the use of torture?
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