When is torture an acceptable tool

By Jay Kuten

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A new report issued by the Open Society Justice Foundation gives the most detailed information yet available regarding the details of American anti-terrorism activities after 9/11.

The report is called Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition. The report focuses on the CIA's use of extraordinary rendition - bureaucratese for kidnapping - of suspected terrorists and "outsourcing" their interrogations to countries with a known reputation for using torture during questioning of prisoners. There have been previous reports of the CIA's use of "black sites" or hidden prisons in countries willing to turn a blind eye and where the rule of law is weak, such as Yemen, Somalia, or (as we learned last year) Gaddafi's Libya.

What is more surprising is the extent of co-operation which this programme received from liberal Western democracies. Belgium, Finland, Denmark, among others, permitted the use of their airports for flights by the CIA used in these kidnappings. Britain, Italy, Germany and Australia have each participated in interrogation of one or more suspects or actively aided in their transfer elsewhere. A total of 54 countries participated in the programme and the report lists the names of 136 people who were subjected to rendition and interrogation by the CIA.

While the Obama administration outlawed torture early in the first term, there has been no accountability for the violations of American or international law. Obama has refused to investigate the Bush administration officials who endorsed or engaged in torture. While the secret CIA prisons were ordered closed, Obama has refused to repudiate rendition, and the report indicates that at least one secret prison, in Somalia, continues to operate with CIA involvement.

Released and presumably innocent suspects, subjected to rendition and torture, have had little recourse for accountability and compensation in US courts. Those courts give deference to the overused governmental claim of "national security". Courts in other countries have not been so reticent. Italy recently sentenced a former Italian intelligence chief to 10 years' prison for helping in rendition of a suspect, and convicted a CIA station chief and three assistants in absentia. If the US government refuses to engage in accountability for such crimes, others may have to step in to fill the breach.

To judge by their relative silence in the US, most citizens are content to accept their government's position that necessity and prevention of future 9/11s is justification enough for torture of suspected terrorists. Some conservative defenders of the actions of George Bush and Dick Cheney have taken delight in claiming that the so-called liberal media have exhibited hypocrisy in failing to take Obama to task for his use of drones as a sort of "tu quoque" (you too) argument. In fact, The New Yorker and The New York Times, among others, have published extensively on the subject of drones as well as torture. The film Zero Dark Thirty became the subject of recent hearings by the Senate Intelligence Committee as the movie seemed to lend credence to the effectiveness of torture in leading to the finding of the courier of Osama Bin Laden and the subsequent locating and killing of Bin Laden. FBI interrogator Ali Soufan strongly disputes this view of the events and of torture's usefulness.

Controversy over past use and efficacy momentarily aside, there is the utilitarian argument about the future of war and prisoners of war. It's an argument that engages the interest of military planners.

The mistreatment of prisoners in WWII was a central element of the Nuremberg Trials and resulted in the 1949 elaboration of the Third Geneva Convention regarding humanitarian treatment that must be accorded prisoners. There is a growing concern among combat-experienced military personnel of the precedent being set regarding possible future prisoners, including Americans. If the US is willing to forego the hard-won conventions, how can it reasonably expect its own troops, taken prisoner, to be treated otherwise?

By turning its back on a past of upholding standards of morality, the US may pay a dear price in the future.

- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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