US under pressure over damaging torture report

The lobby of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Headquarters building in Virginia, USA. The US government is coming under fire worldwide for using torture tactics on prisoners, even as the White House sought to draw a line between itself and the g
The lobby of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Headquarters building in Virginia, USA. The US government is coming under fire worldwide for using torture tactics on prisoners, even as the White House sought to draw a line between itself and the gruesome methods outlined in a newly declassified report about a controversial CIA interrogation programme. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

CIA accused of overstepping its boundaries, lying about methods

The United States government is coming under fire worldwide for using torture tactics on prisoners, even as the White House sought to draw a line between itself and the gruesome methods outlined in a newly declassified report about a controversial Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) interrogation programme.

A 500-page summary released on Tuesday accused the agency, not just of overstepping its boundaries by engaging in torture, but also of subsequently lying about the severity of the methods and how effective they were at producing intelligence.

The report was released by Democrat senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The investigation was conducted by staff working for Democratic senators on the committee.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was among the first foreign leaders to denounce the practices.

"Let us be clear: Torture is wrong. Torture is always wrong," he said at a press conference in Turkey, where he is holding meetings with local officials on how to respond to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group.

China and Russia also seized on the report.

"China has consistently opposed torture. We believe that the US side should reflect on this, correct its ways and earnestly respect and follow the rules of related international conventions," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily briefing yesterday.

China is frequently accused by rights groups of using torture.

North Korea asked the United Nations to censure the US for its use of "inhuman torture".

There have, thus far, been no reports of violence in the Middle East, even if many in the region have taken to social media to criticise the US as well as their own country's complicity in the torture. The Democrat-driven Senate report indicated that 54 countries might have had a hand in the CIA programme.

Few might have guessed the extent of the aggressive tactics used by CIA officers.

A single prisoner - alleged Sept 11, 2001 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - was waterboarded more than 180 times. Waterboarding recreates the sensation of drowning.

Another detainee was locked in a coffin for 11 days and squeezed into an even smaller box for 29 hours. Many others were deprived of sleep or chained naked in a standing position for days. One detainee died of hypothermia while chained naked to a cold concrete floor overnight.

Then, there were the so-called "rectal hydration" or "rectal feeding" procedures, which were done simply as a means to exert total control over the detainees.

And though little, if any, useful intelligence was ever gleaned from the programme, the CIA misrepresented its results to lawmakers to justify its actions.

On Tuesday, CIA director John Brennan refuted the report, stating categorically that the interrogation programme had indeed foiled terror plots and saved lives. Republican leaders also dismissed the report as a partisan attack.

Said incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell: "It doesn't tell us much that we didn't probably already know anyway, but significantly endangers Americans around the world. This particular release, in my judgment, serves no purpose whatsoever."

US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry tried to cast the issue as a chance for the United States to face the mistakes of its past and move on.

"No nation is perfect. But one of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better," said Mr Obama.

Similarly, Ms Feinstein stressed that the findings went beyond just the actions of the CIA.

"It's really about American values and morals... These values exist regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. They exist in peacetime and in wartime. And if we cast aside these values when convenient, we have failed to live by the very precepts that make our nation a great one."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

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