John McTernan: We need the truth about torture

There had long been suspicion about the US use of enhanced techniquesThere had long been suspicion about the US use of enhanced techniques
There had long been suspicion about the US use of enhanced techniques
America has come clean about the CIA’s descent into depravity – now it is Britain’s turn to answer questions, however long it takes, writes John McTernan

Why did we go to war in Afghanistan? Technically, it was the invocation of the mutual self-defence clause in the Nato treaty because of 9/11. But Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) – the allies who fought in Afghanistan – was drawn from a much wider group. For many, the Taleban had to be deprived of control of a country which was an “ungoverned space” within whose borders al-Qaeda could operate with total freedom. There was a moral dimension too – expressed in terms of access to healthcare, women’s rights or the participation of girls in education. This was about the restoration of good governance and the rule of law. A noble project, the noblest of our generation.

Except, it turns out, there was a grubby footnote to our war aims. There was to be a secret, dirty war against enemy combatants. A war so secret that the president was not to be told and Congress was to be lied to. A war so dirty that the CIA routinely tortured detainees – though typically of a modern bureaucracy they branded it euphemistically as “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

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There were suspicions of this activity for a long time. Released detainees gave accounts of their treatment. Information on a network of CIA “black sites” – unofficial, off-the-book centres used for detention – was painstakingly put together by activists. But no-one anticipated the industrial scale of this operation or its utter depravity. The fact we know anything is a tribute to the doggedness of a few journalists, bloggers and public-spirited activists. The fact that we know so much detail is a tribute to the Senate Intelligence Committee and its five-year investigation of the issue.


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It is only the summary of their report which has been published – though it is hefty at 528 pages long. The full report is some 6,000 pages. But the summary has been enough to let the world know what went on. First, the tortures that were used. Prisoners were deprived of sleep for up to a week. They were locked in cells and abandoned – in conditions described variously as a dungeon or a place where you would kennel a dog. Some were raped – what else can you call “rectal feeding” where your food is liquidised and forced into you through an enema? One man was frozen to death after being left unattended, half-naked and soaked with cold water in his cell. Waterboarding was common, and as the writer Christopher Hitchens discovered when he submitted himself to this treatment, it doesn’t just feel like torture – it is torture.

The most chilling story is of one man who was totally broken by his experience. His interrogator just had to raise his eyebrow for the detainee to rise from his chair and lie down ready to be waterboarded. Spirit broken, will destroyed, he was like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (known as KSM) was waterboarded 183 times. The Senate Intelligence Committee report says “KSM’s gastric contents were so diluted by water that the medical officer present was ‘not concerned about regurgitated gastric acid damaging KSM’s oesophagus’. The officer was, however, concerned about water intoxication and dilution of electrolytes and requested that the interrogators use saline in future waterboarding sessions.” What a dark, unforgivable judgment – worried about the consequence of gastric flux, making sure there’s enough salt to replace electrolytes, yet utterly nonplussed by torture being conducted.

The report, despite all the difficulties about reading something that is heavily redacted, should be read. What you observe is the slow and steady descent into evil. The CIA didn’t have secret detention sites – it had to acquire them. It didn’t know how to torture people – because it didn’t do that – so it outsourced torture. It went to two psychologists whose previous expertise had been in teaching US forces how not to succumb to torture themselves. Gamekeepers turned poachers. They cleared $80m (£51m) through their contracts, which is disgusting. But in the end it is the detail that brings home the reality – torturers were paid $1,880 a day, four times what normal interrogators got paid. The dawning knowledge that there was a mark-up for torture chills the reader.

There is, though, also something great – though tarnished – about the US, shown by the fact that they have actually investigated this and published what they safely can – enough to show guilt and complicity, more than enough for those with a normal stomach. As Senator Dianne Feinstein said, this is “a stain on our values and our history”. She, of course, was talking about – and on behalf of – the US. She also said: “History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again’.”

But what about us? Knowing the UK politicians involved – Tony Blair, Jack Straw and David Miliband – I am certain they did not sanction the involvement of the British secret services in torture. And I know that the UK government was clear about its position – torture is illegal and to be prosecuted not executed. Yet if the US can come clean, why can’t we? If this is not done, then a suspicion hangs over our security services. We have a right to know. But the traditional UK parliamentary scrutiny is inadequate – the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is not up to it. Having failed to rise to the occasion after the Snowden leaks and the question of GCHQ’s role in monitoring citizens, the ISC surely has no credibility in looking into this.

Britain does have a process for investigating issues like this – it’s a Royal Commission. They are normally dismissed as taking too long and costing too much. Well so be it; we need the truth and there is no shortcut to that. We went to Afghanistan to establish the rule of law, and fundamental laws were broken by the CIA. We need to know what our people did, or we have no rule of law in the UK.


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