The release of a summary of the US Senate select committee’s report on widespread torture and inhumane acts committed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during former President George W. Bush’s global “war on terrorism” poses a seminal challenge to the ideal of universal justice.
Is a rogue arm of the American state, as the Senate report portrays the CIA, beyond the purview of international prosecution? Will America’s global influence shield its serial war criminals and abusers from accountability for unspeakable barbarism? Is there a neutral and courageous institution that could summon CIA chiefs and their political bosses to undergo trial for cruel disregard of civil liberties, due process and human dignity?
Such are the questions arising globally ever since the Senate committee dropped the bombshell by shaming the CIA as an out-of-control monster that blithely flouted international laws and conventions. So sensitive and damaging was the Senate committee’s investigation that led to the torture report that the CIA even hacked into the computers of elected American people’s representatives and tried to block the findings from ever seeing the light of day.
Luckily, the partisan politics in Washington DC propelled the truth to emerge. The Democratic Party’s majority members on the investigation committee pushed relentlessly to expose the Republican Bush administration’s misdeeds, while the dissenting Republican minority members defended the CIA’s offences as justified by the exigencies of the post-9/11 armed conflicts.
The cat is now officially out of the bag. Even though the CIA is on a public relations offensive questioning the veracity of the Senate committee’s accusations, Democratic Senator Mark Udall has already mentioned a secret internal review done by the CIA itself which admits that much of the contents of the Senate committee report are true.
With so much incontrovertible evidence damning the CIA now available (the full Senate committee report of over 6,000 pages is still classified), the debate must move beyond recriminations around the accuracy of the committee’s claims and shift to how we can collar the worst offenders in the US’ torture machine.
Ironically, not a day passes without the American government chastising antagonistic countries for their abusive security practices and brutal treatment of innocent civilians. Just as the sensational Senate report was reverberating last week, the Barack Obama administration threatened to impose economic sanctions on Venezuela for human rights violations against anti-government protesters. The White House press secretary Josh Earnest remarked in a typical holier-than-thou tone: “We have not and will not remain silent in the face of Venezuelan government actions that violate human rights and fundamental freedoms and deviate from well-established democratic norms.”
Well, how about some multilateral body like the United Nations or a smaller “coalition of the willing” deciding to slap sanctions on the CIA and its collaborating military and intelligence agencies which killed and dehumanised thousands of innocent civilians? Will some judge somewhere on the planet invoke the concept of universal jurisdiction and issue arrest warrants for George Tenet and Porter Goss, the two CIA chiefs under whose reigns the sadistic atrocities on prisoners were wilfully committed?
The fact that the US military also engaged in numerous egregious crimes during the war on terrorism, over and above the ill treatment of the 100-plus known individuals tortured by the CIA, was always highlighted in the global peace and justice movements. Even before the US Senate began its quest to unravel the CIA’s torture chambers, the anti-war community agitating against George W. Bush’s military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq had declared the former US President, his vice-president Dick Cheney and his defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld as criminals who oversaw an empire of “black sites” (secret prisons), “extraordinary renditions” (transferring captives to torture-friendly countries after illegally abducting them), and massacres of suspected Islamist terrorists who happened to be non-combatants.
Admirers of America’s role in the world dish out propaganda sugarcoating US military and intelligence agencies as relatively respectful of international humanitarian law and international criminal law. But what the Senate committee and dozens of civil society inquiries in Iraq and Afghanistan show is an American security apparatus that is comparable to military and intelligence agencies of authoritarian countries in brutality and uncivilised behaviour towards prisoners and civilians at large.
The cover of American agents bound by a higher moral standard compared to their peers from other countries was blown long ago in 1975, by the US Senate committee chaired by Democratic Senator Frank Church. It was an official acknowledgement of the CIA’s dirty wars of assassinating foreign leaders and overthrowing elected regimes through coups and political destabilisation.
If Senator Church was the whistleblower-in-chief during the Cold War, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who heads the current Senate intelligence committee, must be congratulated for bravely shining a light on America’s murkiest wartime conduct thus far in the 21st century. Ms Feinstein’s foreword to the now declassified committee report boldly stresses that CIA personnel violated not just “our values” but also America’s “treaty obligations”.
As a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture and to the various Geneva Conventions that protect prisoners and obligate occupying militaries to behave humanely, the US cannot just make public what went wrong and hope that the international community will forget or forgive grave crimes. President Obama’s unfortunate choice to “look forward as opposed to backwards” on George W. Bush’s law-breaking spree implies that the US executive is unwilling to hold its war criminals to account in domestic American courts.
The onus, therefore, falls on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute the CIA and its allied brutal enforcers from dozens of countries who set up a vast meat grinder during President Bush’s war on terrorism. The New York Times cites an aide of the ICC’s chief prosecutor as commenting that “picking a fight with the United States could be damaging to the court’s standing in the world.” But if ever there is an open-and-shut case for the ICC that will raise its stature as an unbiased and universal upholder of justice, it is this.
American foreign policy hectoring never tires of reminding other countries that no one should presume to be above international law. It is high time that the prime accuser, whose own litany of crimes has piled up, also stands in the dock.