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CIA torture report: Times of crisis and the grey areas of acceptable conduct

There has to be an alternative mechanism to determine an acceptable code of conduct for intelligence officers within the CIA and other agencies in moments of crisis.

In a 90-page (Central Intelligence Agency) CIA report that was made public recently, the agency has detailed its use of torture during interrogation of terror suspects after 9/11 terror attacks. Apart from techniques like waterboarding and walling, the agency also mentions that it pondered over using drugs that could work as ‘truth serum’, thus forcing suspects to spill out information.

The CIA’s torture techniques have attracted much criticism from human rights organisations. The American Civil Liberties Union has commented that the CIA has left behind a legacy of broken bones and tortured minds. “Just like the government lawyers who tried to give unlawful torture a veneer of legality, the secret history reveals that CIA doctors were indispensable to the effort of legitimising the program,” said ACLU attorney Dror Ladin. “Perhaps the most striking element of the document is the CIA doctors’ willful blindness to the truth of what they were doing.”

It is rather unsurprising that human rights organisations are up in arms against the CIA for its torture techniques. However, they conveniently ignore the context of their actions. The CIA is obviously not a beacon of honesty and their conduct is not something anyone should emulate, given their history of gross human rights violations and toppling governments to install a US-puppet in its place. However, in this particular instance, it is important to understand the context in which they operated.

The intelligence agencies had received a lot of flak for their massive failure to prevent the attacks at the Twin Towers. Hundreds and thousands of lives were murdered that day and it surely weighed heavy on their conscience. Therefore, they had the responsibility to ensure that such a tragedy was never repeated ever again and it is only natural that they were prepared to go to any extent to ensure that.

Before condemning the CIA for employing torture techniques, there are certain dilemmas we need to ponder over. Whose right to life should matter more for intelligence and law enforcement agencies? That of Jihadis or their own countrymen? Torturing terror suspects in return for potential information that could prevent further terror attacks, is it a fair deal? Do terrorists even have ‘human rights’?

Do we really want to tie the hands of the intelligence agencies which could then lead to terrorist attacks that could have been otherwise prevented? These are complicated questions and their answers are not always black or white.

The absolutist stand that human rights organisations tend to adopt in such matters is quite unhelpful. “Torture of terror suspects is bad and should be illegal!” Yes, it is undesirable, we know that and in an ideal world, it should attract the harshest of punishments. But we are not living in an ideal world and harsh circumstances call for harsh measures. The officers who participated in the torture carried the immense burden of protection of innocent lives in their hands. Do we punish people for crossing the line in pursuit of ensuring the safety of innocent civilians?

There are genuine concerns over legitimising torture of course which is often lost during absolutist stands. Legitimising torture could very well lead to the government’s persecution of critics and those it perceives to be political enemies. It could also lead to the persecution of innocent civilians. More importantly, should any government have the power to torture people into submission? These are all very serious concerns which cannot be brushed aside. US intelligence agencies have certainly proved time and again that ethical corruption runs rampant in these institutions. Therefore, a national debate is imperative in this regard, preferably without beginning from absolutist positions.

The United States of America is a beast in its own right. Their forces have committed a range of atrocities all across the globe. But one thing it does very well is to protect its own interests. Human rights organisations, like the ACLU here, for instance, are coming across as extremely hypocritical. Torture techniques are something that bothers the ACLU quite a lot. The organisation has said in light of the CIA report that is important to seek the release of more documents relating to the matter as President Donald Trump during his campaign had stated that he planned to legalise certain methods of torture. And yet, the same organisations support Hillary Clinton who championed U.S. military intervention in Libya that threw the region into chaos. There is certain duplicity at work here. These organisations seem to accord disproportionate attention to the torture of terror suspects, a very limited number of people, and support politicians that destabilise an entire region and plunge it into chaos.

In all honesty, it’s not just the US which has a terrible human rights record. Every country embraces cruelty in some form or another, only to varying degrees. All Islamic countries, many African countries and China above all have terrible human rights record as well. Since the US is the greatest superpower on Earth at the moment, it’s only natural that their greed and selfishness lead to correspondingly more devastating consequences. The US has destabilised the entire Middle East to satisfy its own greed, China has millions in concentration camps.

My larger point is, in the grand scheme of things, the torture of terror suspects post 9/11 is a speck of dust when compared to the conduct of the US in the middle east. It is an open secret that they armed Jihadis in a bid to overthrow the Assad in Syria. If Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and other senior officials in the erstwhile administration are not prosecuted for the ‘human rights violations’ they have committed by aiding and abetting Jihadis, what good will it serve by punishing those who employed controversial techniques to prevent terror attacks? In the case of the latter, the intentions appear to be honest. The same cannot be said of the former. Remarkably, human rights organisations remain tight-lipped about powerful Democrats whose policies have felicitated the rise of slavery in Libya in the second decade of the 21st century.

There is another aspect to the matter as well. Civilisations are built over blood and bones, not fancy claims to abstract concepts such as human rights. It has been the case for the entire duration of human civilisation and it continues to be so. The only reason the US and China can get away with it is that they have the power to do so without any consequences. As I have said before in a previous article, contrary to claims that China will regret its treatment of Uighur Muslims, if the country has to suffer, it will be due to a confrontation with the US for power and domination. In the same manner that Adolf Hitler met his end due to the War that began as a consequence of his imperial ambitions, not due to him committing a genocide.

India gets far more stick than any other country for crimes that it hasn’t even committed. Liberals in India go on and on about the ‘colonial’ nature of the Indian state and how the Indian Army is treating Kashmiri separatists in a very cruel manner deserving of condemnation. The truth of the matter is, India has been treating Kashmiri separatists with kids gloves. No other country will tolerate terrorist sympathisers pelting stones at security forces to help terrorists get away. Despite such benevolent treatment, India receives far more condemnation for defending our own territory against external and internal threats than others do for committing acts of aggression. The message on the wall is clear. Power matters and might is right in the domain of international politics.

Coming back to the CIA, there needs to be greater accountability and intelligence agencies need to be subject to intense scrutiny. The CIA has done itself no favours given its dubious track record. At the same time, I do not believe human rights organisations have the right people to judge the actions of those who have to make choices that could result in life and death. There has to be an alternative mechanism to determine an acceptable code of conduct for intelligence officers in moments of crisis and it has to come from the legislative and executive branches of the government and not from advocates of a pseudo-religion.

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K Bhattacharjee
Black Coffee Enthusiast. Post Graduate in Psychology. Bengali.

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