Nearly two decades ago, the Central Intelligence Agency began its sadistic program of torture and abuse, and the Department of Defense created a prison at Guantanamo to evade U.S. law. We are still learning about the horrors of the Global War on Terror. On July 16, military prosecutors finally asked to erase information obtained through torture and abuse. Several days later, the Biden administration transferred its first detainee out of Gitmo, repatriating a Moroccan man who had been cleared for release five years ago. These two items provide an opportunity to document the inadequacy and the errors of the mainstream media’s coverage of CIA’s unconscionable crimes.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken audaciously claimed that it is difficult to transfer detainees until the United States receives assurances that the “rights of these people will be protected in that country.” In other words, the senior diplomat of the country that tortured and abused hundreds of captives; violated various Geneva Conventions by kidnapping individuals and turning them over to countries such as Syria and Pakistan that conduct torture and abuse; created secret prisons throughout East Europe and Southeast Asia; and used Guantanamo to circumvent U.S. laws is now concerned about the health and safety of these abused individuals.
Over the years, false statements from government officials have been treated as facts by the mainstream media. Perhaps Blinken is unaware that many U.S. captives who were turned over to third countries were actually released by those countries for lack of sufficient evidence of culpability. Blinken should familiarize himself with the Inspector General report on Khalid al-Masri, who was a victim of an erroneous rendition. If it hadn’t been for al-Masri’s German citizenship and the intervention of National Security Adviser Condi Rice, then CIA director George Tenet may never have sanctioned the release of al-Masri who was being held in Afghanistan.
In 2004, the CIA’s Inspector General completed a study of the torture and abuse that was used in CIA’s secret prisons, but various CIA directors have argued against the findings of the report. Former CIA director General Michael Hayden lied about every aspect of the torture program in his briefings to Congress, including the genesis of the program; the number of detainees; the intelligence allegedly obtained from coercive tactics; and the illegal conduct of the interrogators. He asserted that “fewer than 100” detainees were moved through the CIA’s detention program, but that is an understatement.
Moreover, some individuals were moved or rendered from one country to another or to the U.S. military and therefore not counted as part of the CIA program. Hayden also stated publicly that “fewer than a third” of the detainees were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the Orwellian term for torture and abuse. Far more detainees were subjected to elements of the program, including sleeplessness, shackling, and constant light and noise. There were numerous examples of detainees who were rendered by mistake who were tortured. Of course, he was probably comfortable lying to members of the intelligence committee who had been briefed on the program several years earlier and did nothing to stop it.
The entire process was criminal, but the mainstream media failed to highlight what were essentially war crimes. The CIA had legal protection with memoranda from the White House and the Department of Justice, but media failed to note that the torture and abuse began before the memoranda were prepared and that the torture techniques exceeded what the DoJ considered legitimate. CIA officers served as accusers, investigators, renderers, interrogators, judges, juries, and jailers. There was no appeals process, and no oversight by CIA lawyers and managers. Some individuals were rendered on the basis of information from a single source to a single, unvetted asset. Too many innocent people were kept in custody long after there were reasons to do so. We will probably never know how many of these people ended up in Guantanamo.
The decline of congressional oversight of the intelligence community and the weakening of the role of the Inspectors General throughout the intelligence community have enabled the CIA to escape accountability for its role in conceptualizing and implementing an unconscionable program of torture and abuse. President Barack Obama had the best opportunity to address the issue of accountability, but he said that he would “look forward, not back” at the crimes of the Bush administration and its global war on terror. Senior CIA officials pressed the White House to place limits on the role of the CIA IGs, and Obama honored these demands.
CIA director Tenet who approved the torture program left government with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that can be given to a civilian. Whenever Tenet was asked about CIA torture, his standard reply was “We don’t do it and I’m not going to talk about it.” Tenet’s immediate successors, Representative Porter Goss and General Hayden had no interest in accountability. Goss defended the “techniques” as “unique and innovative ways, all of which are legal and none of which are torture.” Hayden lobbied for a CIA exemption in any legislation to ban torture and abuse. (Tenet received his Presidential medal along with Paul Bremer, who probably did more to create chaos and havoc In Iraq than any American other than the war’s sponsors: President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.)
The CIA committed serious crimes in the 1960s and 1970s during the Vietnam War, but at least the Church Committee in the Senate and the Pike Committee in the House exposed the assassination plots and the secret intrusions against U.S. citizens. Laws were written to stop the kinds of assassinations that had been approved by the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, and the Senate and House intelligence oversight committees were created, three decades after the creation of the CIA itself. It took an additional fifteen years and the crimes of Iran-Contra to create a statutory Inspector General at the CIA. The torturers should have been prosecuted, and the crime of torture and abuse should have led to stronger oversight of the CIA.
At its peak, Gitmo held more than 675 men. According to the New York Times, there are currently 39 men in the prison; only 11 have been charged with crimes. There have never been charges against the other 28 individuals, and a federal parole-like panel has approved transfer for ten of them, including a 73-year-old Pakistani with heart disease. President Obama failed in his efforts to close Guantanamo and transfer the detainees to a U.S. prison; the 2022 budget proposal of the Biden administration has restored the proposal to close Gitmo and transfer the detainees. (The Times’ Carol Rosenberg deserves kudos for her outstanding coverage of Guantanamo over a twenty-year period, filling in the vacuum created by the failure of congressional and governmental oversight to do so.)
The only accomplishment of the torture program was the degradation of the United States and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent book is “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing), and he is the author of the forthcoming “The Dangerous National Security State” (2020).” Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.