The Guardian view on CIA torture, two decades on: we need the truth


Show caption A photo reportedly of Ammar al Baluchi, who suffered brain damage after he was repeatedly slammed against a wall by trainee CIA interrogators. Photograph: AP Opinion The Guardian view on CIA torture, two decades on: we need the truth Editorial The systematic brutalisation of detainees was pointless as well as cruel. An honest reckoning is long overdue Tue 15 Mar 2022 19.02 GMT Share on Facebook

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Twenty years ago, in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, the CIA established an international torture programme “rendering” people to secret detention facilities around the world. The full horror of what took place in these black sites is still emerging.

We already know of mock executions and sexual violence; of a detainee waterboarded 83 times in a month; of a man dying during an interrogation and another of hypothermia after being left almost naked on a bare concrete floor – on top of the regular use of pain, humiliation and sleep deprivation. This week, we learned that Ammar al-Baluchi suffered brain damage when he was repeatedly slammed against a plywood wall by trainee interrogators using him as a teaching prop. They queued up to hit his head so that the instructor “could certify them on their ability to use the technique”.

The details emerged in a damning report written by the CIA’s own inspector general in 2008, but only now released following a court filing. The “war on terror” became an end that was used to justify any means – but never openly. Torture was rebranded as “enhanced interrogation techniques”. Interrogators sought assurances that a detainee would “remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life” before they started work. The programme was pointless as well as brutal. The inspector general noted that the detainee lied to make the torture stop – in line with the 2014 Senate intelligence committee report that found that interrogations frequently produced false testimony (while non-coercive methods elicited useful information). At least 26 of 119 detainees were wrongly held in the first place.

Mr Baluchi now faces the death penalty as one of five men at Guantanamo Bay charged with participation in the September 11 plot. The case has been in pre-trial hearings for 10 years, largely due to disputes over the admissibility of testimony obtained after torture. Last week, another Guantanamo detainee – Mohammad Ahmad al-Qahtani, who was suspected of planning to join the plot – was repatriated to Saudi Arabia for mental health treatment. The US dropped plans to try him after concluding he had been tortured at the facility.

Despite our growing knowledge, we are still very far from a full acknowledgement of what took place – let alone accountability for it. The supreme court recently blocked two psychologists who designed the programme from being called in a case in Poland, where one of the black sites was located. The 2014 Senate report has never been released in full, though there are now renewed calls for its publication. In the UK, parliament’s intelligence and security committee produced damning reports on British involvement in kidnap and torture in 2018, but the government refused to launch a judge-led inquiry into UK complicity in the programme.

On Tuesday, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism issued a scathing report on the failure to address the atrocities. “Not a single man who was rendered across borders, tortured, arbitrarily detained, separated from family has received an adequate remedy,” Fionnuala Ní Aoláin said. “Many who were returned home continue to live with long-term social and psychological trauma. No one was held accountable for systematic practices of torture and rendition.”

This is not only about an injustice to individuals. The rapporteur suggests that the refusal to acknowledge what happened has helped create an environment in which there appears to be impunity for states conducting mass secret detention. An honest reckoning would help to debunk the dangerous myth that torture works and claims that national security requires unfettered powers used in secrecy. It is an essential part of ensuring such crimes are not committed again.