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13 Dec, 2013 11:48

Torturous debate: US Congress, CIA face-off over interrogations, secret prisons

Torturous debate: US Congress, CIA face-off over interrogations, secret prisons

The US Senate Intelligence Committee is writing up a report highly critical of the CIA’s past use of torture on detainees, including “waterboarding,” even as the Obama administration has ramped up the use of deadly drone strikes.

One of President Barack Obama’s campaign promises was to put an end to torture, euphemistically described as “enhanced interrogation techniques” under the presidency of former US president, George W. Bush.

Led by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the Democrat-majority Senate Intelligence Committee (SSCI) has been tasked with investigating CIA counterterrorism methods, which included so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’. This involved the capture of suspects who were then covertly transported to third country ‘black sites’, believed to be located in a handful of Eastern European countries.

At these facilities, the “unlawful enemy combatants” were subjected to various interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and humiliation.

The report is expected to conclude that the CIA’s interrogation methods, which the Obama administration discontinued in 2009 under considerable pressure from human rights groups, failed to retrieve “critical intelligence” from the detainees.

"Clandestine 'black sites' and coercive interrogation techniques were terrible mistakes that damaged our reputation, angered our allies and did not produce actionable intelligence that was not achievable through non-coercive tactics," Feinstein said.

A slip into darkness

Before the Bush administration opened its so-called War on Terror, following the attacks of 9/11, the United States, as far as anybody could tell, was not in the torture business. However, America’s moral standing suffered a setback when news of the rendition flights and black hole sites first grabbed headlines.

In 2006, an EU committee reported that European countries have been "turning a blind eye" to flights operated by the CIA which, "on some occasions, were being used for extraordinary rendition or the illegal transportation of detainees".

“At least 1,245 flights operated by the CIA flew into European airspace or stopped over at European airports between the end of 2001 and the end of 2005”. The MEPs emphasized, however, that “not all those flights have been used for extraordinary rendition.”

In some cases, the report continues, "temporary secret detention facilities in European countries may have been located at US military bases".

"There may have been a lack of control" over such bases by European host countries, it added.

Another aspect of the SSCI investigation is that no ‘black site’ location has ever been positively identified. However, in January 2012, Poland's Prosecutor General's office initiated investigative proceedings against Zbigniew Siemiątkowski, the former Polish intelligence chief charged with facilitating the alleged CIA detention operation in Poland.

CIA questions the findings

Meanwhile, the CIA is challenging “significant aspects” of the Senate Intelligence Committee draft, alleging that Feinstein’s committee failed to interview “key witnesses”, including CIA agents involved in the handling of the terror suspects, Reuters reported.

This apparent oversight prompted the CIA to present its objections in written form, as well as in meetings with SSCI members.

The CIA has taken the position that the Senate committee is incorrect in its assertion that controversial interrogation techniques, like waterboarding, and the black site detention centers produced no valuable intelligence in the effort to foil future terrorist attacks.

John Brennan, the CIA's current director, was a top agency official when the CIA interrogation techniques were a routine part of intelligence work. In closed-door meetings with Congress, Brennan pointed out that the SSCI report contained “major inaccuracies”, Reuters reported, quoting anonymous officials.

The CIA supported the claim.

"Our response agreed with a number of the study's findings, but also detailed significant errors in the study. Since that time, CIA and Committee staff have had extensive dialogue on this issue and the Agency is prepared to work with the Committee to determine the best way forward on potential declassification," said CIA spokesman Dean Boyd.

Feinstein said she was prepared to include some the agency’s comments in the report.

"We are in the very final stages of incorporating some of the CIA's response into the report, though the key findings and conclusions remain highly critical of the CIA's past detention and interrogation activities," she said in a statement.

The report is expected to be finished by the end of the year, although it is still not known if the public will be permitted to see the final report.

What about drone warfare?

In conclusion, the ongoing deliberations between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA appears to be ignoring a gnawing question regarding Washington’s ongoing war on terror: is it better to whisk a suspected terrorist out of his bed in the dead of night to some ‘black site’ detention facility where torture is routine practice, or just liquidate the suspect in a drone strike?

Or is it a moot question, given that neither option is particularly attractive, especially when it is considered that the perpetrator of these acts regularly refers to itself as the defender of democracy around the world?

The Obama administration, which has resorted to the use of drones with far more frequency than the Bush administration, may be innocent of torture, but it still has a lot of innocent blood on its hands.

On Thursday, 15 people who had been traveling to a wedding in Yemen were mistaken for an Al-Qaeda convoy and killed in a drone strike.

“An air strike missed its target and hit a wedding car convoy; ten people were killed immediately and another five who were injured died after being admitted to the hospital,” a Yemeni security official told Reuters.

Robert Bridge, RT