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Torture and the CIA: Time to Move On?

When somebody says it is time to move on, it means there is something deeply embarrassing that they don’t want to discuss in public. President Barack Obama said that about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, published on Tuesday, about the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture in the years after 9/11.

He put the best face on it after Senator Dianne Feinstein’s committee released the 528-page report anyway, talking about how “part of what sets us (Americans) apart is that when we do something wrong, we acknowledge it.” But as recently as Friday US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Feinstein not to release the report now on the grounds that the “timing” was wrong. When would it be right, then?

Feinstein ignored him because she knew (as did he) that if the report was not put out now, it never would be. Next month a new Congress will take office, and the majority on the new Senate Intelligence Committee will be Republicans. They would certainly make sure that it never sees the light of day.

But there is one Republican Senator, at least, who thinks differently. John McCain, who ran against Obama in the 2008 presidential election, said bluntly that torture “rarely yields credible information….What might come as a surprise, not just to our enemies, but to many Americans, is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow.”

McCain was severely tortured himself while a prisoner-of-war in North Vietnam in 1968, and eventually made an anti-American propaganda “confession”. As he later said: “I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.” But then, he knows more about this subject than any other American politician, and probably more than any CIA torturer. They were never at the receiving end.

Even McCain, however, confined himself to saying that torture was not a useful instrument of American policy. He avoided talking about the more important fact that it is also a grave crime under international law, because that would mean admitting that senior officials in former president George W Bush’s Republican administrations who authorised the torture in 2002-06 – possibly even including Bush himself – should face prosecution.

Almost every senior American politician will avoid talking about that. The debate in the United States will be between those who insist that the waterboarding, regular beatings, “stress positions”, ice baths, sleep deprivation, “rectal feeding”, and other torture techniques used on captives in the CIA’s “black sites” yielded useful information and saved American lives, and those who say that it was all pointless and useless.

The Senate committee’s report provides fuel for this debate, examining twenty cases of counterterrorism “successes” achieved by torture that the CIA has used to justify its actions. Even now, CIA Director John Brennan defends the torture, claiming that “the intelligence gained from the programme was critical to our understanding of al-Qaeda.” But the committee concludes that not one case produced unique or otherwise unavailable intelligence.

But this is all beside the point. The law doesn’t say that torture is a crime unless it produces useful intelligence, any more than it says that murder is a crime unless it is profitable. It simply says that torture is a crime, always and in any circumstances. As it should.

The American Civil Liberties Union, to its credit, says that the attorney general should appoint a special prosecutor to conduct “an independent and complete investigation of Bush administration officials who created, approved, carried out and covered up the torture programme….In our system, no one should be above the law, yet only a handful of mainly low-level personnel have been criminally prosecuted for abuse. That is a scandal.”

But the discussion about punishing the people who committed these crimes will mostly be conducted outside the United States, and it won’t be conducted by governments. The several dozen American allies that were accomplices in the CIA’s “Rendition, Detention and Interrogation” programme, have all exercised their right to have information about their collaboration removed from the report.

The debate will therefore have to take place in the media and in the international organisations. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism Ben Emmerson, for example, said in Geneva that senior officials from the Bush administration who planned and sanctioned these crimes must be prosecuted, as well as CIA and US government officials responsible for torture such as waterboarding.

“As a matter of international law,” Emmerson said, “the US is legally obliged to bring those responsible to justice.” Well, yes, but you would be wise not to hold your breath while waiting for this to happen. So far, only one former CIA official, John Kyriakou, has been jailed in connection with the torture programme – and he was prosecuted for confirming to reporters that the CIA was waterboarding prisoners.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“The Senate…intelligence”; and “The American…scandal”)

Ukraine: Stupidity in Action

16 April 2014

Ukraine: Stupidity in Action

It’s all too easy to imagine the high-level meeting in Kiev where the Ukrainian government decided on its next move. It probably sounded a bit like this: “Very well, gentlemen, we are agreed on our strategy for dealing with the Russians. First we will figure out exactly what they are trying to force us to do. And then we’ll do it.”

Of course, it sounds stupid when you put it like that, but this does appear to be the Ukrainian strategy in a nutshell. Or as Ukrainian Security Service General Vasyl Krutov put it, “They [separatists] must be warned that if they do not lay down their arms, they will be destroyed.”

As I write this, the first reports are coming in of Ukrainian troops trying to take back control of occupied government buildings in the east of the country by force. This cannot be done without killing people. And that is exactly what the Russians want.

The provisional government of Ukraine does have a serious problem in the east, of course. It is trying to organise a national election in less than six weeks’ time that will produce a government whose legitimacy nobody can question. There may be a referendum on constitutional reform at the same time. It will be harder to do that credibly if government buildings in half a dozen eastern cities are occupied by armed men.

On the other hand, if Russia’s President Vladimir Putin really wants to seize control of eastern Ukraine, or even all the parts of Ukraine where there are significant numbers of Russian-speakers, what he needs is a pretext. It’s already clear from Russian official statements what that pretext would be: that the “fascist puppet government” in Kiev is “killing its own citizens” just because they are Russians or Russian-speakers.

It is doubtful that all or even most of the heavily armed men in the occupied buildings are actually Ukrainian citizens. There was no separatist political organisation in the east before the revolution that was capable of producing hundreds of volunteers with military training, wearing identical uniforms and carrying identical Russian-made weapons, and using them to seize multiple targets in different cities simultaneously.

It looks like Crimea all over again: a lot of the “local militia” there were also really Spetsnaz (Russian special forces). But there is a big difference: the Donbas, the region where Donetsk and the other affected cities are located, does not contain a civilian majority that actually wants to be ruled by Russia. If it did, the pro-Russians could just come out in non-violent crowds, like the protesters did in Kiev, and take control of the region peacefully.

The Crimean tactics won’t work in the Donbas, because most people there see themselves as Ukrainian even though they speak Russian on a daily basis. So there are no peaceful mass protests demanding “unification” with Russia, and the small groups of armed men who have seized buildings in various cities will only provide a usable pretext for a Russian invasion if some of them are killed by Ukrainian government forces.

The truth, mercifully withheld from the soldiers in the occupied buildings, is that they are there to provide some martyrs – and when they die, Spetsnaz or not, they will be portrayed as local people killed by the government in Kiev. Then the Russian forces will move, to “save” the oppressed Russian-speakers of eastern Ukraine from the fascists in Kiev.

So why is the Ukrainian government going to provide Putin with exactly that pretext by attacking the buildings in question? It would be inconvenient, but quite possible, just to blockade them, leave them in Russian hands and carry on the election around them. Or, if the authorities in Kiev find that too embarrassing, then just cut off the water and wait for the occupiers to come out peacefully. A week or two should be enough.

You would think that the government in Kiev, which came to power itself by mainly non-violent means, and finally won when the Yanukovych government discredited itself by the massive use of force, would understand the importance of not killing people. You would, it appears, be wrong to think that.

Maybe this conclusion is premature. Maybe, when the “volunteers” occupying the government buildings don’t flee at the first shots – and they won’t; these guys are professionals – the Ukrainian troops will be ordered to stop. Common sense could yet prevail. But the Kiev government has been doing the wrong things in the east for so long that a last-minute change of heart seems unlikely.

And by the way, could somebody please explain to the Central Intelligence Agency why the optics of sending John Brennan, the director of the CIA, to Kiev last Sunday were so bad? And why swatting the critics away by saying that it was just a “routine” visit made matters worse?

Governments that are “routinely” visited by the head of the CIA are usually puppet governments. Though to be fair, in this case it’s not so much a puppet government as a very stupid government.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 9 and 12. (“Of course…destroyed”; “The truth…Kiev”; and “Maybe…unlikely”)

8 March 2007

8 March 2007

Loose Screws

by Gwynne Dyer

The 9/11 conspiracy theory is back, in a much more virulent form, and normally sane people are being taken in by it: I am getting half a dozen earnest e-mails every day telling me I must see a film called “Loose Change.” It has been around in various versions for almost two years, but it now seems to be gathering converts faster than ever

Well, I have seen it, and I concede that it is a much slicker, more professional product than other 9/11 conspiracy films, and therefore more seductive. But the argument is pure paranoid fantasy, and it is rotting people’s brains.

There have always been two versions of 9/11 conspiracy theory. The lesser version held that the Bush administration had advance intelligence of al-Qaeda’s plans, but chose to ignore the warning because the attacks suited its purposes. The greater version insisted that there was no al-Qaeda involvement, and that the attacks were carried out by the US government.

Until recently, the greater version was largely confined to the Arab world, where many people are in complete denial about any Arab involvement in the atrocity. Very few Americans took that version seriously, though many wondered whether the intelligence lapses had really been accidental.

Even the lesser conspiracy would have required the complicity of half a dozen very senior people who received the intelligence and decided to ignore it: the heads of the CIA and the FBI (George Tenet and Louis Freeh), the national security adviser (Condoleezza Rice), the secretaries of defence and state (Don Rumsfeld and Colin Powell), plus of course Vice-President Cheney and perhaps President Bush. It would also have required the permanent silence (or silencing) of a dozen lower-level intelligence analysts who knew that the senior people had seen the information.

I don’t believe that happened because I don’t think that Tenet, Rice, Powell et al. would have deliberately plotted the deaths of thousands of Americans. I don’t believe even Dick Cheney would have done that. And I note that there has been no inexplicable wave of sudden deaths among junior intelligence analysts in Washington.

I do believe, however, that 9/11 served the purposes of the neo-conservatives and their allies in the Bush administration. They were already planning to attack Iraq, as part of a larger plan, dating back to the late 1990s and the Project for a New American Century, to re-launch Pax America and re-establish American hegemony in the 21st-century world. I agree that they were adroit in seizing on 9/11 as a way of enlisting popular support for their project. But that’s all.

I cannot absolutely refute the lesser conspiracy theory, but I find it extremely implausible. The greater conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is just plain loony — and yet more and more people are falling for it in the West, where it was once the exclusive domain of people with counter-rotating eyeballs and poor personal hygiene. You cannot overstate the impact of a well-made film.

“Loose Change” confidently asserts that the twin towers were brought down by carefully placed demolition charges, not by the fires ignited by the planes that hit them; that the Pentagon was struck by a cruise missile and not by a plane at all; and that the fourth “hijacked” plane, Flight 93, did not crash in a field in Pennsylvania but landed at Cleveland airport, where the passengers were taken into a NASA building and never seen again.

What about all the calls that the passengers on Flight 93 made on their phones? Their voices were cloned by the Los Alamos laboratories and the calls to their relatives were faked. The FBI was in on it, the CIA was in on it, the US Air Force was in on it (except, of course, those USAF personnel who were killed at the Pentagon), and North American Aerospace Defence Command was in on it (but they kept the Canadians in NORAD out of the loop.)

The security companies guarding the World Trade Centre were in on it, Mayor Rudy Giuliani was in on it, the Federal Aviation Administration was in on it, NASA was in on it, and the Pentagon was in on it. At least ten thousand people were in on it. They had to be, or it couldn’t have worked. And more than five years later, not one of them has talked.

Nobody has got drunk and spilled their guts. Nobody has told their spouse, who then blabbed. Not one of these ten thousand accomplices to mass murder has yielded to the temptation for instant fame and great wealth if only they blow the whistle on the greatest conspiracy in history. Even the Mafia code of silence is nothing compared to this.

In normal times you wouldn’t waste breath arguing with people who fall for this kind of rubbish, but the makers of “Loose Change” claim that their film has already been seen by over 100 million people, and looking at my e-mail in-tray I believe them. It is a real problem, because by linking their fantasies about 9/11 to the Bush administration’s deliberate deception of the American people in order to gain support for the invasion of Iraq, they bring discredit on the truth and the nonsense alike.

You almost wonder if they are secretly working for the Bush administration.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“I don’t…that’s all”)

Condoleezza Rice and Count Metternich

5 December 2005

Condoleezza Rice and Count Metternich

By Gwynne Dyer

“Metternich comes close to being a statesman; he lies very well,” Napoleon once said of the Austrian aristocrat who dominated European diplomacy for a generation. By that demanding standard, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice does not come close at all.

Her four-country European tour was originally intended to rebuild US-European relations that have been badly damaged by the Iraq war, and especially to welcome a new German government whose leader, Chancellor

Angela Merkel, wanted to kiss and make up with the Bush administration. But then came the furore about the alleged torture of terrorism suspects and the revelation that the Central Intelligence Agency used the airports of

America’s European allies for the “rendition” of those suspects to places where the torture could be done more conveniently.

Rice’s failure to lie convincingly about the torture accusations –the US, she said, “does not tolerate, permit or condone torture under any circumstances” — was not all her fault, for she is continually undermined by other parts of the administration. Vice-President Dick Cheney publicly insists that the CIA be exempt from the ban on “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment of prisoners, and the CIA goes on using such techniques as  “waterboarding” (strapping a prisoner to a board and immersing his head until he believes he is drowning) even while the State Department condemns other governments that use the same technique.

Since almost all of this activity takes place beyond the borders of the United States, there is not much that its opponents can do about it through the American justice system. Moreover, the CIA and the US military usually outsource the more extreme forms of torture to other governments (the Abu Ghraib abuses were an aberration) in order to evade direct legal responsibility. But that does involve flying detained suspects around the world in planes owned or chartered by the CIA, and the flight logs of these aircraft show that they have landed hundreds of times in European Union countries — which may legally implicate those countries as accomplices to torture.

The flights were presumably carrying Muslim detainees between the US-run prison camps in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan, other secret CIA camps that allegedly existed in Poland, Romania and the Indian Ocean island of

Diego Garcia, and places like Egypt and Syria in the case of those destined for major torture or death. Thousands of detainees may have been carried on these “ghost flights” over the past four years, and Lawrence Wilkerson, a former US army colonel who served as chief of staff to former secretary of state Colin Powell from 2002 until early this year, told the BBC last week  that between 70 and 90 prisoners have died in “questionable circumstances.”

As the revelations about secret CIA prisons in Europe and CIA shuttle flights through EU countries grew — at least 210 stops in Britain, 50 in Ireland and 437 in Germany — EU political leaders were forced to demand explanations from the United States. For two weeks Condoleezza Rice denied US wrongdoing but mostly said nothing, which was certainly the best strategy in the circumstances. The European governments could satisfy their own public opinion by loudly demanding answers, and the US saved everybody embarrassment by not giving any. But then Rice lost her patience and told the truth.

Speaking in Washington just before she left for Europe, she defended the renditions as a necessary part of the US “war on terror.” She made it absolutely clear that the US government had the knowing cooperation of the relevant EU governments, or at least of their intelligence services, in these shuttle flights. It must have felt very satisfying, but she will regret saying it before the end.

What she said was completely true, of course. You can’t have all those flights going through the airports of sovereign states without the knowledge and permission of the host governments, even if they choose not to inquire too closely into what the planes are carrying. By highlighting their complicity in the renditions, Rice made it very likely that there will now be judicial or parliamentary inquiries in these countries to probe the extent to which their governments knew — or chose not to know — what was going on.

The uproar will probably be greatest in Germany, where the former socialist government led by Gerhard Schroeder had publicly broken with the Bush administration over the invasion of Iraq. It’s not all that surprising that it tried to repair some of the damage by turning a blind eye to the ghost flights, but the manifest hypocrisy of its behaviour will create huge pressure in Berlin to uncover the truth, and it may yet break Angela Merkel’s brand new “grand coalition” government.

There will be public inquiries in other countries, too, and a constant flow of new information about the illegality and cruelty of the American gulag that will undermine the already failing authority of the Bush administration. By telling the truth and insisting that European governments share the blame for the policy, Condoleezza Rice has opened a can of worms that her colleagues at home would have preferred to keep shut.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“The flights…circumstances”)