Even though the broad outlines have been known for some time, the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on torture was shocking and revolting. The level of lying, brutality and legal impunity remains amazing. While it has been known for years that the CIA operated so-called black sites, engaged in torture, misled the public, falsely detained many individuals and that everyone involved got away scot free, now that Senate staffers have—at least partially—revealed the ugly details, the entire world is in an uproar.
If nothing else, this report has yet again confirmed that the post 9/11 period has become a horror show of clearly illegal and grossly immoral behavior on the part of the United States government. It perhaps is not fair to call this, as many have, “unprecedented” as the United States did of course countenance both slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. In the contemporary context, however the normalization of torture and detention is both disgusting and ominous. During most of the modern era the United States government has sought to hide its most terrible crimes. From illegal surveillance to the use of Agent Orange and the overthrow of numerous governments, there was the sense that these actions were recognized as illegal and needing to be hidden, lest anyone be held responsible.
In the case of the CIA torture and detention regime, not only were these practices legally sanctioned, they were in fact championed by the Bush White House and both parties in Congress. Then, the Obama administration in its earliest days gave a free pass to the serial human rights abusers in the prior administration, and kept on many of those responsible in the military and intelligence communities.
While there is much hemming and hawing about how “America must forever foreswear this sort of activity,” the message is perfectly clear that from now on gross violation of civil and human rights is entirely allowable and will go unpunished as long as you are the U.S. government and you have some sort of “justification” however flimsy or false.
The details revealed in the executive summary of the torture report can be difficult to read. CIA torturers beat detainees and held them in stress positions literally for days, sometimes treating their wounds in such a way as to prolong the pain. Severe psychological strain was placed on detainees, including some who were kept awake for 180 hours—in other words a week. Detainees were placed in tiny boxes and treated in a way that one of their captors described as being like dogs in kennel. One detainee was killed from exposure, while another while being waterboarded became completely non-responsive while bubbles rose “from his full and open mouth.”
Detainees were subjected to the fairly self-explanatory process of “rectal feeding” and “rectal hydration” all approved by CIA doctors, who of course haven’t lost their licenses. In an attempt to leverage information from one prisoner the CIA detained a mentally disabled man. When some detainees who were deprived of sleep begin to experience “disturbing” hallucinations, torturers deliberately continued to withhold sleep, for maximum torturous effect.
In some cases the torturers threatened to kill, rape and torture the family members of detainees in an attempt to get them to talk.
These techniques were so extreme that some CIA personnel raised objections only to be told by their superiors to shut up. While it is clear that the Bush administration allowed some of these terrible methods to continue with full knowledge of what was happening, the CIA recognized that some of its activities went to such extremes that it not only hid but attempted to obfuscate any attempts at full oversight to hide its brutal criminality. It is worth noting that the CIA, with the connivance of the Obama administration, fought tooth and nail to keep the Senate report secret.
Most disgustingly, no one has been held accountable for any of this. The Obama administration decided to allow all of these human rights abusers from the top to the bottom to go entirely free, even though they had clear knowledge that domestic and international laws had been broken and that a conspiracy at the highest level had orchestrated these crimes.
While the New York Times editorial board seems highly confused as to why there was no accountability and laments the “terrible decision” of the Obama administration to close the book on these crimes, the reasoning is entirely clear. Without any doubt the Obama administration itself has been involved in criminal and unconstitutional behavior from drone strikes to NSA spying. The entire “security” regime in the post-9/11 American government rests on a massive complex of mostly secret practices and behaviors. To indict the Bush administration would almost certainly open up the possibility of prosecuting the Obama administration. Ultimately the highest levels of the past two administrations are a rogue’s gallery of war criminals; prosecutions of any of them would open a Pandora ’s Box that could lead to numerous government officials in the dock.
This would be not only personally damaging to those culpable individuals but also massively damaging to the credibility of U.S. imperialism. The entire “moral” framework of world domination based on freedom and democracy would easily crumble if the full scale of torture, illegal war and spying was revealed. It is simply not an option.
Perhaps not unprecedented but clearly a terrible black mark, the regime of torture that was perpetrated by the Bush administration deserves an accounting but one it won’t ever get under a capitalist government.