Just days after Attorney General Holder announced a formal decision of impunity resulting from a probe into 101 documented cases in which CIA agents engaged in acts of torture and abuse in apparent violation of CIA guidelines—including those approving torture—further explosive allegations have emerged that lay bare the scope of CIA cooperation with abusive regimes in the era before the Arab Spring. Drawing on interviews with Libyan prisoners previously held by the CIA in black-site facilities, as well as a large cache of secret documents that turned up when rebels seized Qaddafi’s state security offices last year, Human Rights Watch has issued a 156-page report (PDF) that meticulously documents a George W. Bush–era CIA program of torture, including waterboarding, in careful collaboration with former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. Among the report’s key findings:
- Five Libyans described their captivity in U.S.-run prisons in Afghanistan for between eight months and two years before they were rendered back to Libya. They described having been chained to walls naked—sometimes diapered—in pitch-dark, windowless cells for weeks or months at a time; being restrained in painful stress positions for long periods, being forced into cramped spaces; being beaten and slammed into walls; being kept inside for nearly five months without the right to bathe; being denied food; and being denied sleep by continuous, deafeningly loud Western music.
- One former prisoner described having been waterboarded on repeated occasions during U.S. interrogations in Afghanistan. The report notes that the prisoner never used the phrase “waterboarding,” but described the procedure in detail: his captors put a hood over his head, strapped him onto a wooden board, “then they start with the water pouring. . . . They start to pour water to the point where you feel like you are suffocating.” He added: “[T]hey wouldn’t stop until they got some kind of answer from me.” He said a doctor was present during the waterboarding and that it happened so many times he could not keep count.
- Another prisoner in Afghanistan described being subjected to a water-suffocation practice similar to waterboarding, and said that he was threatened with use of the board. A doctor was present during this abuse as well.
- All fourteen former prisoners who were interviewed described being turned over by the CIA to the Qaddafi regime with the full expectation that they would be tortured and abused after transfer to Libya.
- The report offers further detail on the fate of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, the man whose torture-induced fraudulent claims about the plans of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein were cited by the Bush Administration to justify the invasion of Iraq. The CIA turned al-Libi over to the Qaddafi regime, and he died in prison under mysterious circumstances shortly thereafter. The report notes the discovery of photographs of al-Libi from the morning after his death in which evidence of torture is plainly visible on his body.
Former CIA director and current Romney national-security adviser Michael Hayden and former President Bush have both asserted that only three individuals held in detention by the CIA were ever waterboarded. The report would establish these claims as untruthful.
The report, coupled with recent developments in Libya, also highlights the CIA’s chronic inability to distinguish between violent anti-American Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda and those who simply opposed their own oppressive regime and sought to overturn it. The Bush Administration promoted cordial relations with Qaddafi, while the Bush-era CIA worked intensively to develop a close rapport with Qaddafi’s security forces, much as it did in Egypt, Yemen and a number of other repressive Arab states. In 2011, the Obama Administration reversed course, siding with the rebels opposing Qaddafi and deploying military and intelligence resources to topple his regime. Many of the Libyan groups persecuted and abused by the CIA belonged to the alliance that toppled Qaddafi, and a number of their leaders are now in positions of importance in the new regime. Thus the CIA’s miscalculations could not have been more sweeping or more harmful to long-term U.S. interests.
In an important speech last year at Harvard University, CIA veteran and Obama counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan stressed that the administration’s Middle East policies emphasize the rule of law and respect for human rights. If that’s true, then the cache of evidence disclosed by the Libyan revolution and the comparable evidence that has emerged in Egypt point to the CIA as a rogue institution operating at dangerous cross-purposes with official U.S. policy. The agency aligned itself closely with the most abusive institutions in the countries where it was operating, and enabled the wanton torture of political opponents. Those tight relationships appear to have seriously warped its intelligence posture, leaving it dangerously blind to the developments that swept the Arab world early last year. Moreover, much of the conduct highlighted in the HRW report violated criminal statutes, including the Anti-Torture Act and the prohibition on renditions of persons to countries where they were likely to face torture.
The Justice Department’s systematic whitewashing of these crimes can best be explained by the fact that it was a key actor in the crimes. It cannot be expected to prosecute its own senior staffers, nor can it be expected to take actions that would further stain its already badly soiled reputation. But this very whitewashing raises fundamental doubt about the Obama Administration’s commitment to ending torture by American intelligence operatives. To the contrary, the Obama Administration’s handling of the matter appears to retain torture as a viable option for American foreign policy—one that Mitt Romney, with Michael Hayden at his side, would happily resume.
At its outset, the report quotes Abdul Hakim Belhadj, a man who was imprisoned and abused by the CIA, but who went on to lead the Libyan insurrection, with American backing: “All we seek is justice. . . . We hope the new Libya, freed from its dictator, will have positive relationships with the West. But this relationship must be built on respect and justice. Only by admitting and apologizing for past mistakes . . . can we move forward together as friends.” A hand of friendship has been outstretched, but with it a request that the United States reject its misguided practices of the past. It would be foolish and contrary to our national-security interests to ignore this offer.