President Obama visited the CIA headquarters this week to try to reassure staff that their intelligence-gathering work would not be compromised by the release of the so-called ‘torture’ memos. But the revelations cast a shadow over the work of the US intelligence service and its allies.
Last week's release of four top-secret United States Justice Department memos on torture demonstrates the readiness of the new administration to swap the secrecy and lies that have surrounded the treatment of terrorism suspects by the US Government in the past six years for some transparency and truth. But that should not be the end of it. Truth is no substitute for accountability.
It's true that the memos do not reveal much that is new about the global network of detention and interrogation facilities established by the CIA in the aftermath of 9/11, where terrorism suspects were secretly and routinely subjected to torture for more than six years. The broad outlines, and many of the details, of the Bush administration's torture policy, implemented at "black sites" in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and in former Soviet-era facilities in Eastern Europe, have been known for some time. They have emerged bit by bit from leaked documents, from the testimony of former and current detainees, from military investigations, congressional hearings, and from the investigative reporting of journalists and human rights organisations.
But the torture memos, released by President Obama in response to litigation under the Freedom of Information Act by the American Civil Liberties Union, provide a chilling sense of the immoral arguments and discussions within the Bush administration, which led to the authorisation of techniques of interrogation that violated international and domestic laws and, in some cases, amounted to torture.
Here in cold bureaucratic language are specific legal justifications for each of the approved methods, such as waterboarding, prolonged stress positions, sleep deprivation, confinement of detainees in small dark boxes with insects in them, and the throwing of prisoners against specially constructed flexible walls.
In truth the memos were an exercise in rubber-stamping methods already being used. They were also a cynical effort to square the administration's use of abusive interrogation methods against terrorism suspects, with its lofty claim that the United States does not practise torture.
So what is the next step? Before answering that question it is necessary to address another: just how damaging has US involvement in torture been to the interests of the United States and those of its Western allies, especially the United Kingdom?
It is often stated that a bit of torture is sometimes necessary to save innocent lives. This has been the main justification for the abuse of terrorism suspects by the US and is still wheeled out by senior Bush era officials such as former Vice President Dick Cheney this week, and former CIA director Michael Hayden, to defend the actions of the Bush administration and to attack President Obama. Torture, they say, makes us safe (though, of course, they don't call it torture). Ending torture has made us more vulnerable.
A variant of this argument - which appears both in the latest UK Foreign Office report on human rights and in the recently updated UK Government counter-terrorism strategy, "Contest 2" - is that it is sometimes necessary to use intelligence that has been obtained through torture by the intelligence services of other states in order to thwart terrorist plots.
I am not qualified to say whether torture does or does not sometimes produce actionable intelligence that can save lives. There are some who insist that torture works, but many within the intelligence community believe that the use of so-called coercive interrogation techniques does not lead to reliable information. It's noteworthy that those who say that these "alternative procedures" have thwarted "high-casualty attacks" have not yet provided concrete examples insisting that such information is classified.
But even if torture can be shown, from time to time, to provide life-saving intelligence, one does not have to be an expert in intelligence to argue convincingly that the negative consequences of torture, even in national security terms, far outweigh any realistically conceivable advantage.
Half a century ago, in the middle of the Algerian war of independence against France, Albert Camus, a fierce opponent of the terrorist tactics of the liberation movement, identified two of the most damaging consequences of torture. "Torture," he wrote, "has perhaps saved some, at the expense of honour, by uncovering 30 bombs, but at the same time it aroused 50 more terrorists who, operating in some other way in another place, will cause the deaths of even more innocent people. Even when accepted in the interest of realism and efficacy, such a flouting of honour serves no purpose but to degrade our country in her own eyes and abroad."
The experience of the past six years has demonstrated that opening the door to torture (or in the case of the UK keeping it open to cooperation with known torturers) has a further consequence beyond acting as an effective recruiting sergeant for terrorists and damaging the reputation - and therefore the diplomatic and political influence - of one's country. It creates within the security apparatus of a state, and among the political leaders who are supposed to oversee it, a permissive and corrosive culture, like the culture of poisonous bacteria, that leads inexorably to more and more abuse and the total dehumanisation of the adversary.
In August 2002 the earliest of the four torture memos released last week provided legal justification for the torture by the CIA of a single al-Qaida suspect. Less than a year later torture was being routinely practised not only by the CIA but also by the US military and its contractors. Furthermore torture was being used not only against "high-value" al-Qaeda suspects but, as Human Rights Watch revealed in a series of reports, against large numbers of the thousands of detainees who ended up in US custody on suspicion of involvement in the insurgencies against the US and UK military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a few cases, detainees were tortured to death.
Like a malignant disease, the permissive culture also infected UK military forces in Iraq where British soldiers became involved in several cases of serious detainee abuse both in joint operations with the US and in their own zone of control, including the beating to death of the hotel receptionist Baha Mousa in Basra. A public inquiry into his death led by a senior judge is currently under way.
The best way, perhaps the only way, to repair the damage caused by the use of torture by the US, and the complicity in it by the UK, is through a process of inquiry, investigation and accountability. So far only a few low-ranking US and UK military personnel have been subjected to criminal investigations related to the torture and mistreatment of detainees in the war of terror. Even fewer have been convicted and fewer still have been given custodial sentences. Given what we now know from the torture memos and other sources, this shameful lack of accountability smacks of cynical scapegoatism deliberately designed to uphold the lie that any criminality that occurred was the work of "a few rotten apples".
President Obama last week expressed his desire to turn a new page, saying: "This is a time for reflection, not retribution." His administration would not prosecute those who "carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice". However President Obama's carefully worded statement appeared to leave open the possibility of prosecuting those higher up the chain of command who authorised and implemented the use of torture.
In any case, in the light of the damage caused by US and UK involvement in torture, there is an urgent need not just to expose the truth and to reflect on it but to pursue justice. Securing accountability is not, essentially, about retribution, as President Obama suggests. It's about making sure that political leaders and the security services don't resort to torture again. And it's about securing our democratic institutions and the democratic and moral values we claim to be fighting for.