Yesterday, after many months of stalling and delays, the Senate intelligence committee released the executive summary of a report on the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation tactics” on suspected terrorists after 9-11. Though much was not new to me, the extreme details revealed in yesterday’s report left me feeling shell-shocked.
For years it has been public knowledge that between 2002 and 2008, the CIA, with the authorization of the president, held more than 100 suspected terrorists at “black sites,” secret prisons outside United States territory. There prisoners were subjected to what the government called “enhanced interrogation tactics,” the most well-known of which is “waterboarding”—simulated drowning designed to make the prisoner believe he is dying.
However, yesterday’s report, based on years of work reviewing thousands of internal CIA documents, reveals that the torture was much worse than the public previously knew.
“Enhanced Interrogation” and Deception
[Warning: the following descriptions should disturb you; read on at your own risk]
According to the report summary, based on CIA documents, some of the techniques used at CIA black sites included the following:
- Holding prisoners in pitch-black cells 24 hours a day.
- Playing an obscene and satanic “death metal” song (“%&#* Your God”) over and over at extremely high volumes, for hours or days at a time.
- “Walling,”—throwing prisoners repeatedly against a wall.
- “Waterboarding,” in which a prisoner is placed on his back with his feet higher than his head, his face is covered with a cloth, and cold water is poured over the cloth, making it impossible to breath and inducing a feeling of drowning. At least one person was reported to have passed out after nearly suffocating during this treatment.
- Depriving prisoners of sleep for up to 180 hours at a time, using loud music, strobe lights, and spraying cold water on their faces when they started to doze.
- Placing prisoners on the floor naked, pouring cold water over them, and wrapping them in plastic with the water inside.
- Forcing prisoners to bathe in tubs of ice water.
- Forcing a prisoner to sit on a cold concrete floor for long periods, wearing only a shirt (the prisoner died of hypothermia, and several months later, the interrogator who was in charge of the prisoner at the time was recommended for a cash bonus for his “consistently superior work.”).
- Cutting the clothes off a prisoner, blindfolding him, binding him with packing tape, and dragging him in the dirt while punching, kicking, and screaming at him.
- Forcing prisoners to stand with their hands shackled above their heads or in other “stress positions,” for as much as 56 hours at a time (Some prisoners were forced to stand this way in spite of having broken feet or prosthetic legs; some were allowed to wear diapers, while at least one was forced to stand in his own waste.).
- Threatening to violate and kill a prisoner’s mother in front of him.
- “Rectal feeding without medical necessity.”
- Then there was the really dark stuff I’d rather not go into here. If you don’t have any particular plans to sleep tonight, you could look it up for yourself.
In addition to this, 19 people turned out to have been detained mistakenly and were released after weeks or months of “enhancement.”
The report also states that the CIA and other officials lied to their congressional supervisors by misrepresenting the treatment of prisoners, as well as by falsely claiming that “enhanced interrogation” was needed to gather intelligence about further terror plots. In fact, the report shows that the CIA’s false claim that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al-Qaeda, used as the chief justification for the Iraq war, was largely based on made-up information given to CIA interrogators by a prisoner under torture.
Republican members of the Senate intelligence committee refused to participate in preparing the report and have issued a minority report disagreeing with it; however, the minority report does not deny that the CIA did the things described; instead, it argues that the techniques helped keep the nation safe, that the majority report is biased, and that while the CIA did misrepresent the “enhanced interrogation” program to its overseers, it did not misrepresent it as badly as the Democratic senators claim.
In interviews about the report, both former vice president Dick Cheney and former CIA director Michael Hayden defended the “enhanced interrogations,” with Cheney saying they were “absolutely, totally justified.” In a public appearance, Cheney said, “It was the right thing to do. If I would have to do it all over again, I would.” He also said, “Some people called it torture. It wasn’t torture.” The people who did it, he says, “deserve a lot of praise” and “ought to be decorated, not criticized.”
Under the international laws of war, which the United States not only has signed, but largely written, these actions would appear to be war crimes, subject to criminal prosecution. Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, has issued a statement saying that those responsible should “face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes.”
It looks unlikely that the United States will take any action to punish those responsible for these activities, some of whom still hold high positions in the administration. Although President Obama finally used the word “torture” publicly for the first time earlier this year in reference to CIA interrogation tactics, he has reiterated the position he took on the matter when he was elected, saying the matter should be left “in the past.”
Look Elsewhere for the Future
Revelations like these should serve as important reminders of why Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” The United States of America is by far the most powerful empire in history, and none of us should be surprised when it acts as all powerful empires have historically acted.
What should surprise us more is that Christian believers, as well as most other people, continue to experience more freedom in the past few years than we have any right to expect under a government as powerful as this one; it’s a rare opportunity to build the kingdom of God, and we will answer to him if we waste it. But waste it we will, unless we allow God’s long-suffering love to shape our thoughts, both toward our staggering government and toward those abroad who may threaten our safety and prosperity.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn,” and when a nation that has long held up its own values as an example of justice and freedom gives its approval to acts of barbaric cruelty, it is surely a time for mourning. When our hearts are overtaken by Jesus’ sorrow for a shattered world, this sorrow becomes the soil from which mercy and hope can grow.
The ministry of reconciliation has been entrusted to us; in the battles between worldly powers, one who has seen the world from God’s perspective will not cheer for any side. Instead, let’s free ourselves from all earthly allegiances, reaching out to our fellow humans—whether brothers and sisters in our church, members of the government, or foreign terrorists—with the Gospel of peace that restores the hearts of men and makes us one.
The Guardian (Liberal)
Fox News (Conservative)
The Atlantic (“Moderate”)