What’s the Next Step to Stop Torture?

Exclusive: The grim details about the CIA’s torture techniques from waterboarding to “rectal rehydration” have overwhelmed the final defenses of the torture apologists. Now the question is what to do with this evidence and how to make sure this behavior doesn’t happen again, says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

“I want you to listen to me,” said George Tenet lunging forward from his chair, his index finger outstretched and pointed menacingly at CBS’ Scott Pelley, “We don’t torture people; we don’t torture people; we don’t torture people; we don’t torture people; we don’t torture people!”

Appearing on “60 Minutes” on April 29, 2007, to hawk his memoir At the Center of the Storm, former CIA Director Tenet was imperiously definitive on the issue of CIA and torture. Could he have thought that repeating his denial five times, with the appropriate theatrics, would compel credulity? Is this the kind of assertion over reality that worked at CIA Headquarters during his disastrous tenure?

Former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney.

The frequently pliant Pelley seemed unmoved this time since the basic facts about the CIA’s waterboarding and other torture of “war on terror” detainees were well known by then. You would have had to be deaf and dumb to be unaware that Tenet had eagerly embraced the role of overseer in the Bush/Cheney “dark side” torture centers after 9/11.

In the memoir a kind of apologia sans apology Tenet was less self-confident and pugnacious than on “60 Minutes.” While emphasizing the importance of detaining and interrogating al-Qaeda operatives around the world, he betrayed some worry that the chickens might some day come home to roost. Enter the feathered fowl this week with the release of the Senate report on CIA torture and all the mind-numbing details about lengthy sleep deprivations, painful stress positions, waterboarding and “rectal rehydration.”

One remaining question now is whether egg on Tenet’s face will be allowed to suffice as his only punishment, or whether he and his deputy-in-crime John McLaughlin will end up in prison where they, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and several other senior officials properly belong.

The usual suspects are already crying foul over an extraordinarily professional investigation by Senate Intelligence Committee staffers and committee chair, Dianne Feinstein, who refused to chicken out and abandon her investigators despite political pressure to do so.

Possibly dreading this day, Tenet wrote in his memoir: “We raised the importance of being able to detain unilaterally al-Qa’ida operatives around the world. … We were going to pursue al-Qa’ida terrorists in ninety-two countries. … With the right authorities, policy determination, and great officers, we were confident we could get it done. …

“Sure, it was a risky proposition when you looked at it from a policy maker’s point of view. We were asking for and we would be given as many authorities as CIA ever had. Things could blow up. People, me among them, could end up spending some of the worst days of our lives justifying before congressional overseers our new freedom to act.” (At the Center of the Storm, p. 177-178.)

Note, however, that Tenet didn’t anticipate “spending some of the worst days of our lives” in a federal prison.

Now Squirming

Former CIA leaders are now squirming. And while they still enjoy the dubious services of a gruff and aging PR specialist named Dick Cheney, cries are again mounting that the lot of them, together with other former senior officials, be finally held to account in some palpable way.

Many will recall that Cheney champion of the “dark side” techniques was the first senior official to express public approval for waterboarding. On Oct. 24, 2006, he was asked by a friendly interviewer, “Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?”

“It’s a no brainer for me,” answered Cheney, “but for a while there I was criticized as being the Vice President for Torture. We don’t torture. That’s not what we’re involved in.”

Cheney followed up in January 2009, telling AP that he had no qualms about the reliability of intelligence obtained through waterboarding: “It’s been used with great discrimination by people who know what they’re doing and has produced a lot of valuable information and intelligence,” he said.

Thus, it was very much in character for Cheney, on Monday, to protest press reports about torture being a “rogue operation” by the CIA, calling that “all a bunch of hooey” and saying: “The program was authorized. The agency did not want to proceed without authorization, and it was also reviewed legally by the Justice Department before they undertook the program.”

Yet, the trouble with Cheney’s defense is that one can no more “authorize” torture than rape or slavery. Torture inhabits that same moral category, which ethicists label intrinsic evil, always wrong whether it “works” or not.

In other words, torture is not wrong because there are U.S. laws and a UN Convention prohibiting it. It’s the other way around. The legal prohibitions were put in place because it is or used to be, at least widely recognized that humans simply must not do such things to other humans. For instance, after World War II, Japanese commanders were tried for war crimes because they used waterboarding on captured U.S. soldiers.

Sadly though, virtually all of the public discussion on torture focuses on its possible efficacy, even though all but the most sadistic of people have long recognized that torture would be wrong even if it “works”  and it often doesn’t “work” because it induces those being tortured to fabricate answers that they think the torturers want to hear.

The Senate report is simply the latest study showing torture does not produce reliable information. It is, after all, common sense. One need only be aware that almost anyone will say anything true or false to stop being tortured.

It would, I think, be difficult to come up with anyone more authoritative on this issue than Gen. John Kimmons, the head of Army intelligence in 2006, whose long career dealt largely with interrogation. After the cat was out of the bag on CIA torture and the Bush administration’s wordsmiths were working on innocent-sounding euphemisms such as an “alternative set of procedures” or “enhanced interrogation techniques” Kimmons seized the “bull” by the horns by arranging his own press conference.

Sounding the death knell for utilitarian arguments, Kimmons warned: “No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tells us that.”

Then Why Torture?

Kimmons stated definitively that abusive techniques do not yield “good intelligence.” But if it’s bad intelligence you’re after, torture works like a charm. If, for example, you wish to “prove,” post 9/11, that “evil dictator” Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaeda and might arm the terrorists with WMD, bring on the torturers.

It is a highly cynical and extremely sad story, but many Bush administration policymakers wanted to invade Iraq before 9/11 and thus were determined to connect Saddam Hussein to those attacks. The PR push began in September 2002 or as Bush’s chief of staff Andrew Card put it, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”

By March 2003 after months of relentless “marketing” almost 70 percent of Americans had been persuaded that Saddam Hussein was involved in some way with the attacks of 9/11.

The case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, a low-level al-Qaeda operative, is illustrative of how this process worked. Born in Libya in 1963, al-Libi ran an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan from 1995 to 2000. He was detained in Pakistan on Nov. 11, 2001, and then sent to a U.S. detention facility in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He was deemed a prize catch, since it was thought he would know of any Iraqi training of al-Qaeda.

The CIA successfully fought off the FBI for first rights to interrogate al-Libi. FBI’s Dan Coleman, who “lost” al-Libi to the CIA (at whose orders, I wonder?), said, “Administration officials were always pushing us to come up with links” between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

CIA interrogators elicited some “cooperation” from al-Libi through a combination of rough treatment and threats that he would be turned over to Egyptian intelligence with even greater experience in the torture business.

By June 2002, al-Libi had told the CIA that Iraq had “provided” unspecified chemical and biological weapons training for two al-Qaeda operatives, an allegation that soon found its way into other U.S. intelligence reports. Al-Libi’s treatment improved as he expanded on his tales about collaboration between al-Qaeda and Iraq, adding that three al-Qaeda operatives had gone to Iraq “to learn about nuclear weapons.”

Al-Libi’s claim was well received at the White House even though the Defense Intelligence Agency was suspicious.

“He lacks specific details” about the supposed training, the DIA observed. “It is possible he does not know any further details; it is more likely this individual is intentionally misleading the debriefers. Ibn al-Shaykh has been undergoing debriefs for several weeks and may be describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest.”

Meanwhile, at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, Maj. Paul Burney, a psychiatrist sent there in summer 2002, told the Senate, “A large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq and we were not successful. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.”

Just What the Doctor Ordered

President Bush relied on al-Libi’s false Iraq allegation for a major speech in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, just a few days before Congress voted on the Iraq War resolution. Bush declared, “We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and deadly gases.”

And Colin Powell relied on it for his famous speech to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, declaring: “I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these [chemical and biological] weapons to al-Qaeda. Fortunately, this operative is now detained, and he has told his story.”

Al-Libi’s “evidence” helped Powell as he sought support for what he ended up calling a “sinister nexus” between Iraq and al-Qaeda, in the general effort to justify invading Iraq.

For a while, al-Libi was practically the poster boy for the success of the Cheney/Bush torture regime; that is, until he publicly recanted and explained that he only told his interrogators what he thought would stop the torture.

You see, despite his cooperation, al-Libi was still shipped to Egypt where he underwent more abuse, according to a declassified CIA cable from early 2004 when al-Libi recanted his earlier statements. The cable reported that al-Libi said Egyptian interrogators wanted information about al-Qaeda’s connections with Iraq, a subject “about which [al-Libi] said he knew nothing and had difficulty even coming up with a story.”

According to the CIA cable, al-Libi said his interrogators did not like his responses and “placed him in a small box” for about 17 hours. After he was let out of the box, al-Libi was given a last chance to “tell the truth.” When his answers still did not satisfy, al-Libi says he “was knocked over with an arm thrust across his chest and fell on his back” and then was “punched for 15 minutes.”

After Al-Libi recanted, the CIA recalled all intelligence reports based on his statements, a fact recorded in a footnote to the report issued by the 9/11 Commission. By then, however, the Bush administration had gotten its way regarding the invasion of Iraq and the disastrous U.S. occupation was well underway.

In At the Center of the Storm, Tenet sought to defend the CIA’s use of al-Libi’s claims in the run-up to the Iraq war, suggesting that al-Libi’s later recantation may not have been genuine.

“He clearly lied,” Tenet writes in his book. “We just don’t know when. Did he lie when he first said that Al Qaeda members received training in Iraq or did he lie when he said they did not? In my mind, either case might still be true.”

Really, that’s what Tenet writes despite the fact that intensive investigations into these allegations after the U.S. military had conquered Iraq failed to turn up any credible evidence to corroborate these allegations. What we do know is that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were bitter enemies, with al-Qaeda considering the secular Hussein an apostate to Islam.

Al-Libi, who ended up in prison in Libya, reportedly committed suicide shortly after he was discovered there by a human rights organization. Thus, the world never got to hear his own account of the torture that he experienced and the story that he presented and then recanted.

Hafed al-Ghwell, a Libyan-American and a prominent critic of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime at the time of al-Libi’s death, explained to Newsweek, “This idea of committing suicide in your prison cell is an old story in Libya.”

He added that, throughout Gaddafi’s 40-year rule, there had been several instances in which political prisoners were reported to have committed suicide, but that “then the families get the bodies back and discover the prisoners had been shot in the back or tortured to death.”

As Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, once put it during a Senate hearing on torture, with an apparently unintentional hat-tip to the Inquisition, “One of the reasons these techniques have been used for about 500 years is that they work.” Well, they work if what you want is a false confirmation of your false assumption.

The question now is what does the United States do next.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served as an Army Infantry/Intelligence officer and then as a CIA analyst for a total of 30 years, and is now a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

20 comments for “What’s the Next Step to Stop Torture?

  1. Masud Awan
    December 14, 2014 at 15:55

    “Kimmons stated definitively that abusive techniques do not yield “good intelligence.” But if it’s bad intelligence you’re after, torture works like a charm. If, for example, you wish to “prove,” post 9/11, that “evil dictator” Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaeda and might arm the terrorists with WMD, bring on the torturers.”

    If above is true for post-9/11, it should also be true for 9/11 itself. After all, the “evidence” linking “Al-Qaeda to 9/11 is also obtained by torture. In spite of this fact known to everyone, the writers on this site-including Ray McGovern- continue blaming “Al-Qaeda” for 9/11. Can someone explain.

  2. jaydi
    December 14, 2014 at 12:36

    hows about stop worshipping satanic pedophiles like ben “bodies under the floorboards” franklin and George bush as being leaders?

    herp derp

  3. December 14, 2014 at 09:46

    their are clear policies in place by treaty for the treatment of prisoners- waterboarding is a death penalty offense. japanese soldiers were executed for it by the US. bush, cheney, condi, obama and their minions deserve to be hung by the neck until dead. no excuses, no exceptions.

  4. William
    December 13, 2014 at 13:57

    If Guantanamo and Torture are so effective, why are we NOT torturing our FINANCIAL TERRORIST Bankers and Politicians to get some TRUTH out of them? After all, the Al Queda Terrorists destroyed maybe $8 Billion, and murdered about 3,000 Americans. The World Trade Buildings cost the insurance companies $7,000,000,000 … and they had to pay TWICE because Shylock Silverstein got it counted as TWO separate acts.
    “Our” BANKERS have destroyed TRILLIONS of dollars and MURDERED many 10,000s of Americans from lost medical insurance, stolen retirements, increased child abuse, suicidal despair, heart attacks…………… The government has the gall to state that $50,000,000,000 is “EXPECTED to be DEFRAUDED” from the RECOVERY funds. They should go find the FIRST “defrauder” and PUBLICLY HANG him, and any others later. ……If these “esteemed” Politicians who wish to brand American Veterans as terrorists, know HOW to fix the economy ……….. then they knew how it was SUPPOSED to be running as it was LOOTED …….. The American People have lost $14,000,000,000,000+ …….. root these FINANCIAL TERRORISTS out of their cubicles and lofty offices, and send THEM to Guantanamo (Goldman Sachs ….. hint hint hint)
    The BANKERS have done infinitely more damage to the west then any Al-Qeeda inspired plot could ever have hoped to achieve for they have destroyed the economic prospects of whole nations!
    The banks caused the crisis not through greed but through out right fraud, they banked billions in bonuses on the basis of fictitious profits that never existed in reality as losses were hidden off balance sheets. For the truth is there is no free market in banking in europe or even the whole world because what exists today is socialism for the rich, where fictitious tax payer profits are privatised and paid out as bonuses whilst huge losses are nationalised and hidden from the general population by a factor of at least X10 than that reported on, which is why I concluded several years ago that the politicians are virtually ALL corrupt and in the back pockets of the bankster elite whom they funnel tax payer monies.

  5. Peter Loeb
    December 13, 2014 at 06:59


    It is a myth among liberals that US torture will end. One can argue details interminably and pretend that one or another public official was responsible. Cheney and Bush II seem to be current favorites. This report will change nothing at all. Most of its details have long been known, documented, studied. (eg A QUESTION OF TORTURE….by (Prof) Alfred W. McCoy, pp 13-14 and throughout,
    paperback 2007) .

    This report may add to the case against torture but will be shelved.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA

  6. Abe
    December 12, 2014 at 18:44

    While the 2014 torture report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee is very important, it doesn’t address the big scoop regarding torture.

    Instead, it is the 2009 torture report by the Senate Armed Services Committee that dropped the big bombshell:

    The White House started pushing the use of torture not when faced with a “ticking time bomb” scenario from terrorists, but in 2002 were desperately casting about for ways to tie Iraq to the 9/11 attacks — in order to strengthen their public case for invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 at all.

    The CIA torture program was part of a con job.


    • F. G. Sanford
      December 12, 2014 at 19:41

      Yes, and this article gets to the significance of Carl Levin’s battle with John Brennan – that the CIA cable alluded to confirms no link between Iraq and al Qaida. That establishes the nature of the falsehood, but not the operational necessity for creating it in the first place. Presumably, this has permitted Brennan to confess to the crime, but continue to deny the motive. All of this does indeed go back farther than we are being guided to believe. Other than confessions obtained by torture, there is in fact little to connect al Qaida to 9/11, let alone Khalid Sheik Mohammed or Osama bin Laden. That is the frail tissue of credibility upon which the entire Ehrmachtigungesetz of our Middle East policy now rests. In fact, the current “torture report” is serving in many ways as a desirable “limited hangout”. It provides the proverbial ‘left hand of the magician’, distracting the audience while the elephant is removed from the tent. Nobody has been fired. Nobody has been reprimanded. No organizational restructuring is proposed. Nobody’s career has been ruined. The press, usually muzzled, is harping incessantly. The players rather than the strategy have become the ‘media darlings’. The program actually extends back to the CIA KUBARK counterinsurgency manual of 1963…1963…1963…1963…1963…1963…

    • Abe
      December 12, 2014 at 20:36

      So where are the public demands for impeachment, trial and imprisonment of the legions of wrongdoers?

      Where is the immediate rejection of both major political parties for their shameless complicity?

      Where is the vibrant new progressive political party movement committed to the restoration of constitutional law in the United States?

      Where are the massive protests demanding that we bring all the rest of our troops home from the nightmares instigated during in the last decade and a half?

      Oh, yeah, I forgot.

      We are awesome.

    • Joe Tedesky
      December 13, 2014 at 00:20

      Abe & F.G., you guys truly get it.
      Joe Tedesky

  7. Abe
    December 12, 2014 at 13:41

    This is only a report on the CIA interrogation program at the so-called black sites, the nine sites we know about from Thailand to Poland to Romania that we know about.

    The heavily redacted report on torture does not include Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other prisons run by the military around the world.

  8. Abe
    December 12, 2014 at 12:53

    The next step to stop terror and torture:

    1) Detain and interrogate Dick Cheney under oath regarding the events of September 11, 2001.

    2) Suspend all US military operations worldwide during the proceedings.

    3) Live video broadcast with simultaneous translation in 40 languages.

    • Abe
      December 12, 2014 at 13:08

      Interrogation of Cheney under oath will produce actionable intelligence to “catch the bastards who killed 3,000 of us on 9/11” and provide the information we need to “prevent future attacks”.

      “How nice do you want to be to the murderers of 3,000 Americans on 9/11?”

    • F. G. Sanford
      December 12, 2014 at 14:26

      Ah, yes – warm, lovable, adorable Dick Cheney. Jesse Ventura probably said it best: “You give me Dick Cheney, a waterboard and thirty minutes, and I’ll get you a confession to the Sharon Tate murders”. Another comedian, whose name I can’t remember, suggested using “twenty feet of rope and a bag of doorknobs”. I was amused, but I think two or three doorknobs would be more than sufficient. Thankfully, Michael Hayden has redeemed America’s moral standing by revealing that “rectal rehydration” is actually a medical procedure. I can just picture the infection control protocols that would be involved in performing that. The videos destroyed by Jose Rodriguez would give new meaning to the term “Splattervision”. Can you imagine the special prosecutor hearings? “Now, Mr. Brennan, your agency has defended this practice as a ‘medical procedure’. Under current guidelines, does Obamacare list this procedure as fully reimbursable, or merely an elective procedure? I’m wondering if you could clarify”. “Yes, Mr. Chairman, live, from New York, It’s Saturday Night!”

  9. Joe Tedesky
    December 11, 2014 at 22:35

    I would recommend you read about two people who did interrogations in a humane and morale way. One was a WWII German officer by the name of Hanns-Joachim Gettlob Schraff. The other was an American who worked in the Pacific theatre, and his name is Sherwood Ford Moran. Both of these fellows were so good at doing their job, that their captives didn’t even realize they were giving up information.

    Schraff would ask his prisoner 3 questions. Schraff knew the correct answer to the first two questions, then on the 3rd question he would purposely give the wrong answer. Almost always his attentive prisoner would be quick to correct Schraff with the correct answer. Of course Schraff never knew the right answer, but his method of interrogation always got him the right information he was looking to get.

    Moran had lived in Japan, and had a common knowledge of the Japanese cutlture. He actually interrogated his Japanese captives right behind the front lines. . With his way of interacting with the prisoner he gained much needed information. Like Schraff , Moran’s prisoners didn’t realize just what secrets they were giving away.

    Neither Schraff nor Moran tortured anyone. Their method of learning enemy secrets was done in the most clever ways. What’s that about catching more bees with honey? Well, Google these guys names, and read about them.

    Here is a great site to read about how America reversed engineered its SERE torture program which was to teach our troops how to respond to torture.


  10. John Richards
    December 11, 2014 at 19:42

    The opinions and assertions by Dick Cheney and CIA people about the effectiveness of these acts are irrelevant. What is clear is that the US engaged in systematic torture of detainees, which makes them war criminals. Cheney, Bush, and company should be compelled to plead their case in an international court of law. In reality, nothing will happen, except perhaps the scapegoating of some lower level operative – someone who is expendable.

  11. Regina Schulte
    December 11, 2014 at 18:47

    Thank you, Mr. Ray McGovern.
    There seems little doubt about it now; the United States has lost its moral compass.
    We “do unto others” whatever feeds the ego of our tripartite shadow government: the CIA, the FBI, and the Defense/Military establishment. The honoring of human rights is for sissies.

  12. Brendan
    December 11, 2014 at 16:45

    Seen on Twitter today: “2014 taught me that rape, torture, war crimes, racism, & cops abusing power are complicated issues that we can’t assume to be always bad.”

  13. F. G. Sanford
    December 11, 2014 at 15:56

    Pelley: Come on, George, aren’t you evading the truth here?
    Tenet: We’re intelligence officers. We keep faith with the truth. You don’t have to issue a subpoena to drag it out of me, we’re professionals, and we follow guidelines.
    Pelley: What can you tell us about the butt-
    Tenet: That’s classified. I’m not going to tell you about that.
    Pelley: Well, it’s already leaked out. It’s all over the internet. How can you expect anyone to believe that you’re not a bunch of sadistic perverts?
    Tenet: Look, Scott (Pointing finger threateningly), we’re not perverts. I’m going to tell you that again. We’re not perverts. Do you understand that? I’m telling you, we’re not perverts. Let me say that again, Scott, we’re not perverts.
    Pelley: Well, how many operatives does it take to use the…
    Tenet: It takes six guys, Scott. Six dedicated, highly trained professionals who know what they’re doing. They’re all professionals, not perverts.
    Pelley: Well, George, what are their specific tasks?
    Tenet: First, they have to get his pants down. That may require some “attention slaps”, nothing violent or abusive. Then, with the utmost concern for the detainee’s safety, two guys gold his legs and an third guy sits on his back . He’s face down at this point, and a fourth guy very gently, uh…spreads his…
    Pelley: His buttocks?
    Tenet: Yes, of course. What else would he be doing? I thought we destroyed all the videos. Then, a fifth guy carefully and with utmost respect for his human dignity, inserts the uh…the…
    Pelley: The butt-funnel?
    Tenet: Well, yes, but that’s classified. But, yeah, he inserts the butt-funnel. And, the sixth guy pours the refreshments into the detainee, but just enough to prevent dehydration.
    Pelley: Sounds pretty perverted to me, George.
    Tenet: Not at all, Scott, these are trained professionals. The procedure is legal, and they follow all they guidelines laid out in the…the classified CIA manual.
    Pelley: You mean the one called “Butt Fun-damentals”?
    Tentet: You’re not gonna get me to go there, Scott, it’s classified. Do you hear me? CLASSIFIED!

    • Abe
      December 12, 2014 at 12:42

      This explains why, as Cheney has openly admitted, the report is “full of crap”.

  14. Gregory Kruse
    December 11, 2014 at 13:56

    I would guess that people who are committed to a cause and know something that would damage that cause if it were to discovered by its enemies, would give it up quite soon under torture. Those who are not much committed to a cause and don’t know anything are the ones who suffer the longest. I just hope I am never tortured.

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