With CIA ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights stopping off at European airports and British intelligence agencies relying on information extracted by cruel methods, Western governments have embraced torture with terrifying ease.
Neil Mackay from the Sunday Herald investigates
TO ELIZA Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, one of the biggest successes of British intelligence in recent years was the foiling of the so-called ricin plot, which she believes would never have been uncovered if it hadn’t been for vital pieces of information passed to British intelligence by the Algerian Secret Service.
The Algerians were able to alert the British in January 2003 to the existence of the plot after interrogating and torturing a suspected Islamic militant and former British resident called Mohammed Meguerba who said al-Qaeda affiliates in the UK were planning the mass poisoning of Britons.
The only trouble was, there was no plot. Four of the defendants were acquitted of terrorism and four others had the cases against them abandoned. Only one man, Kamal Bourgass, was convicted in relation to the claims after he murdered Special Branch Detective Constable Stephen Oake during a raid.
The Meguerba case provides an almost perfect snapshot of Britain’s complicity in the new global dirty war that the Western powers find themselves sucked into. While Meguerba was almost certainly living on the fringes of Islamic extremism in the UK ‘ and Bourgass was without doubt a dangerous fanatic ‘ Meguerba’s claims were fatally flawed because of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his captors.
The use of torture is again in the full glare of publicity after the European Union demanded information about CIA rendition flights. These rendition flights work like this: a suspect is captured in one country and then taken, or rendered (in CIA-speak), to friendly nations such as Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Uzbekistan which routinely use torture. Often the private CIA jets which transport the captives around the world stop off in the UK ‘ the two favoured airports being Glasgow and Prestwick. After the suspect is tortured, and inevitably confesses, the information is fed back to Western intelligence services like MI6 via the CIA.
As Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, says: torture contaminates the pool of British intelligence. It slips false information into the databanks of the UK’s intelligence services which diverts attention and resources away from real threats to fake ones. Claims extracted under torture also end up in the mouths of British politicians who then pour these false claims into the ears of the British public. A lie beaten out of someone in an Algerian prison, therefore, becomes a fixed fact in the mind of the British people.
But Britain’s complicity in torture is much more than simply receiving information from either the CIA or a friendly nation’s intelligence service which indulges in torture. Take the case of rendered suspect Benyam Mohammed al-Habashi. A British resident, born in Ethiopia, al-Habashi was seized in Pakistan and taken to Morocco where the worst of his torture involved a scalpel being taken to his penis. MI6 visited him in Pakistan and told him he was going to be ‘tortured by Arabs’.
In Morocco, he was told that British intelligence had been working with his Arab interrogators. Questions had been sent to Morocco by UK officers. In effect, says his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, MI6 may as well have been in the torture chamber while al-Habashi was being brutalised.
Then there is the case of another of Stafford Smith’s clients, Omar Deghayes. Deghayes became a British resident after fleeing Libya with his family following persecution at the hands of the Gaddafi regime. He was wrongly identified as appearing as a Chechen fighter in a video. Today, however, Deghayes is still in Guantanamo Bay, and blind in one eye after being tortured.
The US used a CIA rendition plane to fly Libyan agents to Guantanamo where they told Deghayes they would kill him. British intelligence visited Deghayes seven times during his detention. One British officer told Deghayes if he helped the Americans ‘you will be back home in the UK’.
MI6 even happily takes intelligence from regimes which literally boil people alive. Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, said rendered prisoners were tortured by the Uzbek secret police, and the confessions then sent to the CIA who sent the documents to MI6. The intelligence reports, Murray says, were ‘bollocks’ extracted under torture and not worth the ‘blood-stained paper’ they were written on.
The slide towards the kind of torture that men like al-Habashi and Deghayes suffered began within weeks of September 11. One of the first people to publicly advocate a return to the thumbscrews was Alan Dershowitz, the celebrity lawyer and Harvard law professor. With chilling prescience, he said that ‘torture warrants’ signed by a judge would help control ‘the inevitable’ use of torture by the USA.
Dershowitz is an advocate of ‘non-lethal torture’ an example of which, he says, would be slipping ‘a sterilised needle under the fingernails’ of a suspect. While he was mulling over torture publicly, the Bush administration was paving the way behind the scenes for it to become a part of US foreign policy.
The seeds of torture lie within the Bush post-9/11 philosophy of ‘pre-emption’. Just as Bush wanted to take out Saddam before Iraq turned its non-existent weapons of mass destruction on the USA, the thinking within the administration was terrorists needed to be taken out before they pulled off another attack that left thousands dead.
On February 7, 2002, Bush issued a memo to Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, the director of the CIA and the chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff headed Humane Treatment of al-Qaeda and Taliban Detainees. The memo said that Bush had taken a decision based on ‘the opinion of the Department of Justice dated January 22, 2002 and on the legal opinion rendered by the Attorney General’ that ‘none of the provisions of [the] Geneva [Conventions] apply to our conflict with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world’.
The memo spells out that al-Qaeda prisoners are not ‘legally entitled’ to humane treatment. The moral and legal effects of that still ripple through our world today. In August 2002 the Justice Department told the White House that international laws against torture ‘may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations’ of al-Qaeda operatives. A Justice Department memo, written following a CIA request for information on conducting interrogations, also added that a CIA officer who tortured an al-Qaeda terrorist ‘would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al-Qaeda network’ and that such ‘necessity and self-defence could provide justifications that would eliminate criminal liability’. This memo was written by the then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales who is now the US attorney general.
The torture memo goes on to water down its definition, saying that for an act to be torture it ‘must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily functions or even death’. Acts listed as torture included: severe beatings with truncheons, threats of death, burning with cigarettes, electric shocks to the genitals, rape and sexual assault and forcing one prisoner to watch the torture of another.
The memo continued: ‘For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, lasting months or even years.’
Gonzales also told Bush in January 2002 that the ‘new paradigm’ for fighting the war on terror ‘renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations’. He also recommended that the President dump the Geneva Conventions as ‘prosecutors and independent counsels ‘ may in the future decide to pursue unwarranted charges’ of war crimes. In August 2002, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel said that for an act to constitute torture it must be ‘specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain and suffering that is difficult to endure’. Such a loose definition became a torturer’s charter.
It was a short jump from here to the abuses that went on ‘ and still go on ‘ inside Guantanamo Bay and in US holding centres in Afghanistan, such as Bagram airbase. But there was more to come ‘ now torture was to be made a battlefield norm under Bush.
In March 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon conducted a review of torture laws. The report was written by the defence department’s chief lawyer William J Haynes. He found that ‘in order to respect the President’s inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign ‘ [laws forbidding torture] must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander-in-Chief authority.
‘If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al-Qaeda terrorist network. In that case, [Department of Justice] believes that he could argue that the executive branch’s constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions.’
Until December 2002, the US army was only allowed to use 17 approved interrogation techniques with prisoners. These were all verbal. In effect, interrogators could scare the daylights out of the suspect and verbally insult them, but they couldn’t lay a finger on them; in fact, they could barely raise their voice and they were forbidden from lying.
But from December 2002, all that changed. That was when Donald Rumsfeld approved some 16 new interrogation techniques. Not only were yelling and lying allowed, but abusive, violent methods were greenlighted as well. These included: putting prisoners in stress positions ‘ such as being made to squat with your arms behind your head for hours on end ‘ isolation in total darkness in a sound-proof cell, hooding, stripping prisoners naked, using dogs in interrogations, removing religious items and blankets, ‘mild non-injurious contact’ such as grabbing, poking and pushing and forcing prisoners to have beards and hair shaved off. Rumsfeld later authorised sleep deprivation.
This was the start of the slippery slope to the horrors of Abu Ghraib; to a place where disappearances, extra- judicial executions and torture became an acceptable part of the war on terror.
When military commanders were deemed too soft on prisoners they were removed from their posts ‘ just as the first Guantanamo commander, Brigadier General Rick Baccus was because he had given the Koran to prisoners, allowed them special meals during Ramadan and a card explaining their rights. In place of Baccus, Rumsfeld appointed Major General Geoffrey Miller who brought in hooding, stripping and dogs. Miller was later sent to Iraq to oversee prisoner interrogations on Rumsfeld’s command. Miller once told Brigadier General Janis Karpinski that prisoners were ‘dogs and if you allow them to believe at any point that they are more than a dog then you’ve lost control of them’.
The poison of torture has now spread throughout the world’s greatest democracies. The United Nations recently damned Britain, Canada, France and Sweden ‘ as well as the USA ‘ for violating international human rights legislation by deporting suspected terrorists to countries like Egypt, Algeria and Syria. These deportations have been justified on the grounds of ‘diplomatic assurances’ the suspects would not be tortured. Human rights organisations say the promises are worthless.
Poland and Romania are also rumoured to be home to ‘black site’ secret CIA prisons where suspects are held completely incommunicado. At least 26 ‘ghost detainees’ are held in secret sites outside the USA. Vice President Dick Cheney even recently said he wanted the CIA to be exempt from a proposed ban on the torture of terrorist suspects in US custody.
The UN and the Council of Europe recently said that the behaviour of the western powers ‘ principally the USA and the UK ‘ was undermining democracy, making the world a more dangerous place and the way the war on terror has been prosecuted is now the biggest threat to the rule of law and human rights since the rise of Nazi Germany.
Alvaro Gils-Robles, the Council of Europe’s commissioner on human rights, said: ‘We display a lack of confidence in our values before those who are trying to undermine them. Respecting democracy and human rights does not make you vulnerable to terrorism. Democracy cannot be defended by resorting to the barbarism of torture. We can’t violate democracy in the name of democracy.’