The British establishment revels in its certainties, not least its “British values”. Actions, say ministers, are always consistent with international legal obligations and “our values as a nation”. Yet torture led directly to the Iraq war. Wide-ranging hypocrisy is plain for all to see.
Theresa May declares claims of abuse by British troops against former detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan are “an industry of vexatious allegations”. The European Human Rights Convention formally bans torture. So the Tory response is withdrawal from parts of the convention.
President Obama announced the US would not prosecute CIA operatives for ignoring the 1949 Geneva Conventions and carrying out “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EITs) on terror suspects. In 2009 Obama issued an Executive Order to outlaw torture, publicly admitting its use under President Bush. But Shaker Aamer, after his release from Guantanamo Bay in October 2015, said force feeding continued. President-elect Trump has stated he would undo the order on his first day in office.
Israel also violates the UN conventions. In 1996 the Israeli Supreme Court legitimised torture when it gave General Security Service Shin Bet judicial authorisation to use harsh physical force on Palestinians. In 2016 Amnesty accused it of intensifying its measures while “reports of torture increased amid Palestinian mass arrests that began in October 2015”.
Western powers are answerable for a rolling arc of instability across the Muslim world. They continue to bury the Arab revolutions, compete with Russia and Iran for domination in oil-rich countries, and trawl for spheres of influence in the face of China’s growing economic power. The horror of their interventions now includes terror and torture as weapons of war.
In a compelling new book, Torture: Does it Work? Yvonne Ridley asks painful questions about all this. It is a meticulously researched account of the journey to the dark side by the CIA, backed by Britain’s Special Intelligence Service MI6. Ridley is the journalist who, unofficially in Afghanistan, was captured by the ruling Taliban shortly after 9/11. She opens a Pandora’s Box of harsh interrogation techniques used in prison camps Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and overseas “black sites”, sometimes involving joint CIA/MI6 rendition sanctioned by British ministers. Many practices were taken from Shin Bet methods used against Palestinians.
Senior Al Qaeda figure Abu Zubaydah, the CIA’s first big capture in 2002, became the guinea pig for waterboarding. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused 9/11 “mastermind”, was waterboarded 183 times in one month. Journalist Christopher Hitchens, who endured an 11 second trial, wrote that it didn’t simulate drowning — he was drowning.
MI6 was apparently present when Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, director of an Afghanistan Al Qaeda training camp, had his knees and hips drilled. He died in Gadaffi’s notorious Al Salim prison. Former Libyan cellmates told Ridley that after a month “al-Libi told them what they wanted to hear”. Crucially he confessed that “Saddam Hussein was training Al Qaeda in the use of WMD.”
Aamer confirms that MI6 officers earlier interviewed al-Libi in Guantanamo. Al-Libi’s false confession then became the source for secretary of state Colin Powell’s infamous UN call for war. Thus began the Iraq invasion with its devastating consequences. Tony Blair’s memoirs do not mention al-Libi.
Ridley also draws on torture evidence from the French war in Algeria 1955-1962, where French fascist leader Jean Marie Le Pen was a military torturer.
So does torture work as a weapon of war? Did intelligence leading to Osama Bin Laden come from torture? US senator John McCain revealed it was old-fashioned eavesdropping. FBI evidence shows torture deflected and delayed the hunt. It already had the name of Bin Laden’s courier by 2002. The US Senate Intelligence Committee admitted torture resulted in useless confessions and political and military debacles, the sickest example being Iraq.
New Labour was complicit in all this. There is compelling evidence that from 2001 Labour ignored torture and tolerated MI6 complicity in rendition and abuse. Former MI5 chief Eliza Manningham-Buller has publicly criticised MI6 over its role. There is now an ongoing Tory cover-up. The Chilcot Report was rapidly buried, while a public investigation into British complicity in terror has never materialised. In 2012 the Gibson Inquiry, established by Cameron “to ensure Britain was not complicit in any way in the torture of people in Guantanamo or elsewhere”, was shelved. The June 2016 parliamentary debate on UK involvement in rendition acknowledged lack of accountability by MI6 or ministers.
Laws ultimately follow politics, so power realities of class and imperialism define interpretations. It was clearance from US lawyers that classified EITs as meeting legal obligations, giving Bush the cover he needed. Now extra-judicial drone killings provide further insight into imperial brutalities.
Ridley cites the Arab Spring “when the flame of hope shone brightly as ordinary people in the region rose up against their oppressors”. That remains today’s spur for socialists.