December 15, 2014
Column: US Falls Short on Human Rights
By Barbara Slavin
The date was chosen because on December 10, 1948, the majority of nations then comprising the United Nations, including the U.S., adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Fifth among its 30 provisions is this blanket admonition: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
Yet in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, employees of the George W. Bush administration engaged in waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions and "rectal feeding" of detainees in secret overseas prisons.
U.S. panic at the possibility of additional attacks on U.S. soil led the U.S. government to condone methods that violated the basic tenets of international law and human decency.
Many of these revelations are not new but the report is exceptionally detailed and convincing.
In the aftermath of its release, former CIA officers insisted that some useful intelligence was obtained from the efforts of "psychologists" who used these brutal methods in interrogating 39 of 119 alleged al Qaeda detainees.
John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the agency and later acting CIA director in 2004, asserts, for example, that information obtained from a detainee led to the courier for Osama bin Laden.
But even if such claims were true – something the Senate report vehemently disputes – the "ends justifies the means" argument is hardly going to impress a foreign audience already prone to trumpet American misdeeds and hypocrisy.
How are the rulers of Egypt supposed to respond when next criticized by U.S. officials for brutal treatment of alleged members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood?
How much easier will it be for Iran to defend its prolonged detention of alleged Iranian-American "spies" including the hapless Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, whose health has reportedly deteriorated seriously in recent months?
What a gift these new details of U.S. misdeeds will be for the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) in its already far too successful efforts to attract confused young Muslims to its ranks.
On Twitter, where the hashtag #Torture Report was still trending on Thursday, one sympathizer with IS, referring to the recent execution of American hostages by the group, opined that "getting beheaded is 100 times more humane, more dignified than what these filthy scumbags do to Muslims."
Of course, those detained by the CIA – with the exception of one detainee who died of hypothermia in an Afghan dungeon known as the salt pit -- survived their ill treatment.
Many remain in legal limbo at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba – itself another potent recruiting tool for Islamic extremists and other anti-American groups.
The Obama administration outlawed "enhanced interrogation techniques" early in its tenure and has been trying without success to close Guantanamo in the face of Republican Congressional opposition.
It would be great if the uproar over the use of torture convinced Congress to let President Obama transfer remaining detainees to maximum security U.S. prisons, but unfortunately, the latest defense authorization bill retains the prohibition against such transfers.
President Obama, in a statement reacting to the Senate committee report, balanced support for U.S. intelligence agencies with condemnation of past abuses.
President Obama paid tribute to the "dedicated men and women of our intelligence community" who have worked to destroy al-Qaida and prevent new terrorist attacks on the U.S.
But the excesses perpetrated against detainees under his predecessor "were not only inconsistent with our values as nation, they did not serve our broader counterterrorism efforts or our national security interests," Obama said.
"Moreover, these techniques did significant damage to America's standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners," he said.
The report is prompting new calls to hold Bush administration officials legally accountable for violating U.N. conventions.
Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, called for the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute those who ordered the use of torture against detainees.
Such prosecutions are unlikely given that the Justice Department has already decided against charging the officers and contractors who participated in the program and who had been told that their actions were "legal."
While the U.S. is not a member of the International Criminal Court – a decision made by the Bush administration perhaps with an eye to its post 9-11 behavior – there is the possibility that the ICC could go after Americans implicated in torture who venture abroad.
U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, said in a statement that although he welcomed the intelligence committee report, that does let anyone "off the hook -- neither the torturers themselves, nor the policy-makers, nor the public officials who define the policy or give the orders."
The continued lack of contrition about these abuses on the part of former top CIA officials, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney is likely to compound international anger at U.S. impunity. Cheney, who said he had not read the report, nevertheless called it "crap."
On Twitter, Atiaf Alwazir, whose handle is @WomanfromYemen, wrote on Wednesday: "Unfortunately, the #TortureReport isnt [sic] news for many people. The surprise would be when someone is charged or when these horrifying acts end."
Coming on the heels of police shootings of unarmed African Americans in Missouri, Ohio and New York and the failure of grand juries to indict law enforcement personnel, the latest revelations will further soil the U.S. image around the world as a leader in the fight for human rights.
While it is admirable that these dark matters are being exposed to public scrutiny, it will be more difficult for the U.S. to demand others be held accountable for their misdeeds if U.S. officials are not.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.