High Moral Purpose

Glen Newey · Torture

Western just war theory progressed in lockstep with justifications of slavery. Infidels waging unjust war had put themselves beyond the moral pale and were fair game for enslavement – a humane act, since the alternative was death. We no longer ‘believe’ in slavery (modern-day servitude notwithstanding). But as in the crusades and modern humanitarian bombing, human lives are small fry in the face of high moral purpose.

On Tuesday the US Senate released its report on the torture programme that accompanied the post-9/11 jihad against terror. Over 90 per cent of it remains classified, and some passages in the released version are redacted. Dianne Feinstein’s report is long on redactions and euphemism (page hits for ‘enhanced interrogation’: 361; for ‘torture’, whereof mostly mentions of the UN and other conventions: 71); not much in it is news, in the sense of shifting the benchmark set by American forces in Abu Ghraib or indeed Vietnam. More striking than the report’s truth or novelty is the fact that the CIA torture programme and its failure is set out in plain terms by a Congressional body. On Fox News this week Dick Cheney branded the report as ‘crap’ – as sound an endorsement as you could want.

Feinstein’s committee casts its findings in realpolitical terms. The idea that torture might be bad is little in evidence. The torture programme, green-lit by the assistant attorney general Jay Bybee in a memo of 1 August 2002, yielded little new intelligence (say, for running down Osama bin Laden). CIA officers overplayed its effectiveness, and underplayed its brutality; they blocked legal inquiries into its operation. Administration officials including the secretary of state Colin Powell were kept in the dark on the grounds that otherwise ‘Powell would blow his stack.’ The agency also neglected to monitor interrogations adequately, to clear techniques with the Justice Department, to maintain records of detainees or to disclose overseas detention facilities. The CIA is shown acting as a state within the state, much as Reagan's National Security Council did during the Iran-Contra imbroglio.

So much for the policy and oversight failures. As the report recounts, CIA jailers left prisoners to piss and shit in nappies. One was positioned so that he soiled his own face, a detail reportedly too much even for Bush. Other practices highlighted by Amnesty and other human rights lobbyists include ‘rectal feeding’, the pumping of pureed fruit-and-nut mixture into the anuses of detainees. One man died from exposure after being kept in a concrete-floored cell wearing only a sweatshirt. Two were given mock executions. Two others were waterboarded to the point of near-drowning. A detainee bathed in ice and later forced to stand for 66 hours was released when the CIA discovered it had mistaken his identity. Cheney's response on Fox to all this was that he was fine with the milder bits of torture and knew nothing of the nastier ones, but that anyway the victims had it coming to them.

Redactions notwithstanding, the Senate's openness far outstrips the UK, where the long-trailed Chilcot Inquiry report is mired in Jarndycean delays, while David Cameron this week declared himself happy with the partial and preliminary Gibson Report on UK torture, a stance from which the deputy PM has distanced himself in a bid for pre-polling neck-salvage. Cisatlantic coverage of the report has understandably asked whether US satellites like Britain were complicit in prisoner abuse, though much already lies in the public domain. The murder of the Iraqi hotel receptionist Baha Mousa in British army custody in 2003 is well known. The UK admitted in 2008 that the British Indian Ocean Territory Diego Garcia had been used for extraordinary rendition flights, as had British airspace elsewhere.

After the occupation of Iraq went belly-up, the allies sought pals elsewhere in the Middle East. When courting Colonel Gaddafi, Blair's government facilitated the rendition of the Libyan dissident Abdul Hakim Belhaj and his wife from Kuala Lumpur to Libya, again using Diego Garcia. Sir Mark Allen, MI6’s head of counter-terrorism, set up the transfer with Gaddafi’s intelligence chief Moussa Koussa, whom Allen congratulated on Belhaj’s ‘safe arrival’ in Tripoli; Allen quipped that he hadn't had to ‘pay for the air cargo’. That was in March 2004. The same month, Gaddafi and Blair embraced in the colonel’s tent, a fling that spawned lucrative new contracts for oil firms including BP, with whom Allen landed a consultancy the same year; Allen and Koussa had acted as matchmakers for Blair and the mad dog in a hush-hush meeting at the Traveller’s Club a few months earlier. Contracts to supply British-made arms to Gaddafi’s security services followed; doubtless some of them are still in use in the Libyan civil war. Blair has a consultancy with the UAE investment fund Mubadala, whose mineral-extraction interests include Iraqi and Libyan oilfields.

In a letter found among Gaddafi's papers after his overthrow in 2011, Allen thanked Koussa for 'a very large volume of dates and oranges'. Nobody can say that Bush and Blair's middle eastern crusade didn’t bear fruit.