“The United States of America is awesome”

A report on the CIA’s use of torture between 2001 and 2006 was released on December 9, after five years of investigation, $40 million and heavy redactions.
Cc. image courtesy of The U.S Army

In an act of confession, the government of the United States has released a 500-page report describing torture carried out by the CIA during the War on Terror. But the confession is incomplete, an “executive summary” of a 6700-page study. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the body overseeing the investigation and report, has chosen to keep the full document classified. This is unsurprising, as the Senators involved generally support the War on Terror, and Dianne Feinstein herself, chair of the committee, supports the drone strikes which have killed thousands since the onset of the war. The confession is also unsatisfactory, with little prospect that the guilty will be made to pay. Most insultingly, the pages we do have are heavily redacted, by the perpetrators themselves. The British government has admitted that even MI6 officers were allowed to censor the document, removing all mention of their own complicity in these crimes.

Andrea Tantaros, a commentator on Fox News, sees the publication of this report as an attempt to undermine the perception that the United States is “awesome”.  She argues that American lives were saved as a result of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, even though she has shown considerable enthusiasm for the deaths of some Americans, such as Michael Brown.

Others have seen it as a regrettable episode in US history, but one that is now in the past. Much analysis has focused on the lack of effectiveness of torture, and the possibility that CIA operatives misled their superiors and politicians. They have examined other, gentler methods of interrogation or of waging an intelligence-led war. All of these viewpoints take certain things for granted: that the War on Terror is just; that the United States (and the West in general) is inherently civilised, with such episodes being anomalies; and that this investigation ultimately proves that the system works.

In fact, the War on Terror is terror itself. This report merely furnishes further evidence that the infliction of suffering, fear and death is not a collateral effect of the war but one of its central aims. The use of torture is only ineffective if we really believe that it is used to obtain intelligence. Its real purpose is to spread fear and exact revenge – what happens in CIA dungeons is a small sample of the atrocities carried out during interrogations by spies, soldiers, federal agents, police and indeed agents of states supported by the USA. In this sense, torture is effective. When Janat Gul, tortured on the orders of Condoleeza Rice, begged to be killed, part of the interrogators’ aims were fulfilled. Seen from this perspective, as a tool of imperialism, torture is clearly logical and indispensable. The British Empire exported brutality across the globe, Belgium punched above its weight in savagery, and the American empire is simply following their example, but with greater might and disguised as protector and beacon of democracy.

The number of CIA operatives involved, with full knowledge of their superiors in the Agency and at the highest levels of government, lays waste to the idea that torture is the work of rogues. The narrative is familiar. We were told that the United States Marines who massacred civilians in Haditha were bad apples. We are told, almost every week, that the deaths of civilians in drone strikes are unfortunate (but unavoidable) mistakes. Even now, with this report before us, we are told that war is messy, mistakes are made, and this is the price we pay for freedom. In the civilian world, the American state and its rightwing apologists make the same excuses when police murder unarmed people. The deaths that are not dismissed as tragic errors are framed as the fault of a handful of loose cannons.

These things can no longer be believed. It is impossible to imagine that the endless atrocities committed by the CIA arose at the spur of the moment, products of emotion rather than calculation. Darkly imaginative and full of malice, each “enhanced interrogation technique” has been carefully designed to maximise humiliation and pain, and inflict permanent physical and mental harm. 

By this time, many will have read summaries of the report, lists of tortures lifted from the dark ages and given a modern twist. We know that detainess were waterboarded, beaten, subject to mock execution, threatened with the rape and murder of family members, sleep-deprived, starved, humiliated, and killed. But we did not need the Senate to tell us these things. Survivors have already told us what happens in CIA dungeons. Moazzam Begg, Fouad al-Rabiah, Shaker Aamer, Binyam Mohamed, Murat Kurnaz and Khaled al-Masri have described the depradations they suffered. Judges have rejected their claims, states have targeted them for reprisal, and the media has demonised them.

It is claimed that “jihadists” will respond to the report with reprisals in the form of terrorist attacks. US embassies around the world have been placed on high alert. Some of this is for show, to drive home the point that the release of this document is irresponsible and endangers the lives of Americans. It may well be true that a few more people will recruited to jihadist organisations as a result of this, and that some will try to carry out attacks on their own.

But this is flawed on two counts. First, it isn’t news that the USA uses torture. As John McCain said, “the entire world already knows that we waterboarded prisoners… those practices haven’t been secret for a decade.” Second, “terrorism” does not exist because of US reports of US atrocities, it exists as a response to the entire phenomenon of US imperialism and the violent projects it sponsors, ranging from repressive regimes in the Gulf to Israel’s settler-colonialism. Torture is not a response to barbarism from “the enemy”. Imperialism struck first, with exploitation, conquest and murder. As Osama bin Laden said: “We treat others like they treat us.”

Will anyone be brought to justice for this? Not through the usual channels, and not in any meaningful way. Just as Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson have escaped prosecution for murdering Eric Garner and Michael Brown, most of the CIA operatives involved will never be charged. An FBI agent executed Ibragim Todashev, a friend of one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, during an interrogation, but has faced no punishment. This is typical, and gives an idea of how CIA personnel will be treated.

If some are investigated or even brought to trial, most of them will certainly escape. Worst of all, those with the greatest culpability – people like Cheney and Bush – will not only escape justice altogether but continue to profit from the war. Many excuses are available to the state, the vaguest being “national security”. But behind lies a dark truth: many are proud of the torturers, and grateful for their work. As Tantaros said, “The Bush administration did what the American public wanted, and that was do whatever it takes to keep us safe.” CIA officers are as glamorous as Navy SEALS, and the immense violence they inflict is regarded as patriotic, necessary, and just.

It is easy to justify such savagery if the people against whom it is inflicted are themselves seen as savages. Mainstream Islamophobia has escalated since the War on Terror, and because of the War on Terror. The demonisation of Muslims can be found in nearly every mainstream news source as well as on TV shows glorfying torture and reducing Muslims to caricatures, and in the ceaseless stream of chest-thumping films and books glorifying gung-ho American heroes. Civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq – and now Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Sudan – are perhaps viewed by some with satisfaction, not regret. Now all Muslims are seen as the enemy, as potential terrorists and extremists, a threat whether at home or abroad.

The ultimate aim is dehumanisation of Muslims, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, to allow imperialist forces to wage war in the resource-rich and strategically important region with impunity. The excuse, as always, will be that the security of the free world, and indeed its freedom, is under threat from “radical Islam”, an alien ideology of an alien people. As Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said, “Many can kill people under the name of national security, and to torture people under the name of national security, and detain their children under the name of national security… the president can take someone and throw him in the sea in the name of national security. And so well he can also legislate the killings, assassinations, under the name of national security, for American citizens. My only advice to you that you do not get affected by the crocodile tears. Because your blood is not made of gold and ours made of water. We are all human beings.”

This goes beyond the American state. For many of us, our governments are deeply involved in these crimes. MI6, MI5 and the British military have long been known to participate in and facilitate torture led by the CIA. Other Western governments, especially those most involved in the War on Terror, also have varying degrees of complicity, and all have sought to benefit from the “intelligence” gained through torture, and the terrror inflicted by it, even if they claim to have not been directly involved. There remains a chance that the full report may someday be leaked, but that would most likely only confirm what many already take for granted.

Western governments aren’t the only ones who are guilty – Pakistan has committed widespread repression and slaughter in Balochistan, Tunisia’s ousted president was an enthusiastic supporter of the War on Terror, as was Gaddafi and other now-deposed leaders in the region. Above all, Israel receives every imaginable kind of support to carry out its settler-colonial mission. There is an endless list of regimes that have been given free reign to step up repression in the name of the Global War on Terrorism.

CIA-led torture has been carried out in, or faciliated by Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq, Lithuania, Morocco, Poland, Romania, Thailand, Albania, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Pakistan, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, the UAE, the UK, Uzbekistan, Yemen and Zimbabwe.

It must be remembered that while the Senate report focuses on torture carried out between 2001 and 2006, torture has been standard practice for US intelligence services and the military for as long as can be remembered. “Extraordinary rendition” has been practised for decades. The School of the Americas, an anticommunist project which still exists under a new name, has spread the practice of torture throughout Latin America, teaching some of the regions most violent regimes. CIA training manuals have provided instruction in stress positions, starvation, sensory deprivation and solitary confinement since the 1960s. Project MKUltra, so bizarre that it sounds like an entirely fictional conspiracy theory, relied on non-consensual human experiments to devise more effective methods of interrogation. It found no new ways of obtaining information, but contributed to the CIA’s odious repertoire.

Jose Rodriguez, former senior CIA officer, apologist for the War on Terror, and a leading figure in the expansion and cover-up of torture, learned his trade in prison camps in Latin America. Many interrogators had prior records of violence and sexual assault, and it was Rodriguez who ensured that they were brought into the interrogation programme without being vetted. As an expert in the field, he undoubtedly knew the personal qualities the job demanded. This was never an intelligence programme, but a torture programme from the start.

The War on Terror is the highest stage of terrorism. It has grown so large that its shadow seems to loom over everything. Israel can strike any neighbourhood in Gaza and say “terrorism”, police in Alberqurque can kill unarmed people with assault rifles and cite “security”, and governments across the planet can repress anyone they choose to by simply calling them “extremists”. From the Olympics to NSA surveillance to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, security and freedom and order are defended by means of espionage and the force of arms.

As long as imperialism exists, this will be a world of torture, repression, war and incarceration. The end of imperialist violence cannot be attained through investigations by the Senate, redacted and truncated reports, insincere apologies or meaningless reforms. It can only come about with the end of imperialism itself. As they say in Ferguson: burn this shit down.


  1. Fantastic piece Suhail. It’d be great if you could follow this up with a piece about concepts like ‘security’, ‘extremist’ and ‘terrorism’. It’s social construction and uses. To my eyes the biggest threat to the security of oppressed people, the greatest extremists and the most brutal terrorists are those who commit the same (often worse) acts that popular terrorists do, but do it with the support of ideology that makes their terrorism justifiable to the world. Why do people see suicide bombers in Palestine as terrorists, but Israeli defense army soldiers who bomb a market during ceasefire as ‘defense’? Would be an interesting topic to explore.


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