Alex Massie

The CIA’s torture regime shames the United States. It will not be forgotten

The CIA's torture regime shames the United States. It will not be forgotten
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We knew and we knew years ago. Anyone who has been paying attention has known for a long time that the CIA committed appalling acts of brutality in the years after 9/11. Anyone who paid attention has also long known that the agency's torture regime - not too strong a way of putting it - produced very little in the way of useful intelligence. It was sadism masquerading as detective work; depravity disguising impotence and, in the end, the kind of programme that shames a nation.

There are still some people who think it fine and dandy, still some people who think it's a lot of fuss over not very much. Still too many people who lack the courage to confront the truth. But we know better than that. We know the truth. The Senate Intelligence Committee's report into the CIA's interrogation programme is damning. In a just world prosecutions would follow. Alas, I am not sure the United States is ready for that.

And we know it is torture because we know how we would react if British or American citizens were subjected to the kind of treatment outlined in the report. We would have no hesitation in deeming it torture. Moreover, if this was a UN report detailing the treatment of prisoners in the Chinese gulag or in an Iranian gaol or a Russian camp we would have no qualms about judging it torture. Because it is torture.

It is a corrupting business, too. The agonies of the victims - however unpleasant they may have been as individuals - are appalling. So too is the impact on the torturers themselves. As one interrogator told a detainee, 'We can never let the world know what I have done to you.' A means of wrecking the prisoner's mind? Sure, but there's a hint of knowing shame within this promise too. If it's a boast it's one containing an admission of guilt. A prelude to downfall.

Those who objected were dismissed as sissies, not man enough to face reality in the face and recognise that extraordinary times merited extraordinary measures. A mentality that justifies anything and everything; a mentality that fosters a kind of madness.

As I say, we've known about this for a decade. It is years since a CIA official acknowledged the agency was torturing its prisoners. "No question. They did disgusting things to people. Their attitude was, 'Laws? Like who the fuck cares?" 

The gap between the American idea and the American reality has always been there, of course. Manifest Destiny comes at a heavy price. There has often been a disconnect between American rhetoric and American action both at home and abroad. Its disgraceful, shameful, criminal justice system is one example of this; so too its insistence on double-standards overseas. Other nations or other players are to be judged on their actions; the United States insists it be judged on its intentions. And you can understand why: good intentions disguise or otherwise justify any number of appalling actions. The ends justify the means, punk.

Not always they don't. Not in this case. The Senate report is clear on this: torture produced negligible quantities of truly useful intelligence. If your morals aren't offended by water-boarding, chaining, sleep deprivation and all the rest of it, you might at least reckon it a pointless waste of time and effort. An effort that comes at great cost for little reward. A pyrrhic sadism, if you will that hampers the United States' attempts to achieve its goals. Stupid as well as wicked, but more wicked than stupid.

Doubtless President Obama will insist, once again, This is not who we are. If only that were true. But it isn't and any attempt to see things as they are must recognise that. It is a numbingly depressing thought, a grim reminder of how easily corruption spreads. It is reality, however, no matter how much we might wish it weren't. A putrid stain upon the reputation - and, yes, honour - of the United States. It can neither be easily washed away nor forgotten.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.