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As Italy Sentences 23 CIA Agents in Rendition Case, Obama Refuses to Prosecute Anyone for Torture

StorySeptember 21, 2012
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Italy’s high court has upheld the sentences of 23 CIA operatives convicted of kidnapping a Muslim cleric under the U.S. program of “extraordinary rendition.” The cleric, Abu Omar, was seized from the streets of Milan in 2003 and taken to U.S. bases in Italy and Germany before being sent to Egypt, where he was tortured during a four-year imprisonment. The Americans were all convicted in absentia after the United States refused to hand them over. The ruling marks the final appeal in the first trial anywhere in the world involving the CIA’s practice of rendering terror suspects to countries that allow torture. But back in 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama unequivocally denounced torture and extraordinary rendition. Well, according to our guest, four years after Obama made those comments, impunity for torture has now become a bipartisan policy of the U.S. government. For more, we speak with Alfred McCoy, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of the new book, “Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJul 12, 2011A Debate on Human Rights Watch’s Call for Bush Administration Officials to be Tried for Torture
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Madison, Wisconsin. We’ll be in Eau Claire at noon, and tonight we’ll be in Hayward, Wisonsin, tomorrow in Minneapolis. I’ll talk about the details later in the broadcast.

But right now, to the news out of Italy’s high court, which has upheld the sentences of 23 CIA operatives convicted of kidnapping a Muslim cleric under the U.S. program called “extraordinary rendition.” The cleric, Abu Omar, was seized from the streets of Milan in 2003 and taken to U.S. bases in Italy and Germany before being sent to Egypt, where he was tortured during a four-year imprisonment. The Americans were all convicted in absentia after the United States refused to hand them over. The ruling marks the final appeal in the first trial anywhere in the world involving the CIA’s practice of rendering terror suspects to countries that allow torture. The Italian government will now be obliged to make a formal request for the extradition of the Americans; however, it’s all but assured the Obama administration will continue its rejection.

Human Rights Watch praised the Italian court move. Andrea Prasow said, quote, “Since the U.S. Justice Department appears entirely unwilling to investigate and prosecute these very serious crimes, other countries should move forward with their own cases against U.S. officials,” unquote.

So far, the Obama administration has refused to prosecute individuals involved in the U.S. torture and rendition program. But as a candidate four years ago, Obama unequivocally denounced torture and extraordinary rendition.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: We have to be clear and unequivocal: we do not torture, period. We don’t torture. Our government does not torture. That should be our position. That should be our position. That will be my position as president. That includes, by the way, renditions. We don’t farm out torture. We don’t subcontract torture.

AMY GOODMAN: That was then-presidential candidate Obama in 2008 speaking at CNN’s Compassion Forum.

Well, according to our next guest, four years after Obama made those comments, impunity for torture has now become a bipartisan policy of the U.S. government. We’re now joined by Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s the author of several books, including, most recently, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation. His past books include A Question of Torture and Policing America’s Empire.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

ALFRED McCOY: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to be in your neighborhood here in Madison.


AMY GOODMAN: Professor McCoy, the title of your book, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation, what is it?

ALFRED McCOY: The U.S. doctrine of coercive interrogation was developed during the Cold War. The CIA led the U.S. security establishment in a wide-ranging period of research that lasted about a decade, and they developed a new form of psychological torture—really the first revolution in the cruel science of pain in centuries, if not millennia. And it was essentially no-touch torture.

What they discovered through this research, a brilliant psychologist in Canada named Donald O. Hebb found that by putting student volunteers in cubicles with goggles, gloves and ear muffs through this process of sensory deprivation, they would suffer something akin to a psychotic breakdown. And that would also mean that deprived of sensory deprivation when interrogated, they would bond more readily with the interrogator.

The second discovery came through more CIA research into basically KGB Soviet techniques, which found that the—one of the most effective of KGB techniques was not beating the subject but simply making the subject stand immobile for days on an end, something we now call “stress positions.”

And these two techniques—sensory deprivation and stress positions—were articulated in a CIA manual, the ”KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation” manual, in 1963 and disseminated throughout U.S. allies and U.S. security agencies. And that became a distinctive form of American psychological torture. That’s been the basic form we’ve used for the last 60 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Has it mattered whether there’s a Democratic or Republican president?

ALFRED McCOY: Yes, it has, actually, because that’s the sort of default position. This also created a contradiction between the U.S. public commitment to human rights at the U.N. and other international fora and this private doctrine of psychological torture, which seemed to contradict that commitment to human rights.

Under President George W. Bush, the United States resolved this contradiction. President Bush announced to his aides that—right after the 9/11 attacks, he said, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” He then authorized the CIA to create a fleet of two dozen chartered jets for rendition. And, more importantly, during the Cold War, the CIA trained allies in the use of torture, but we never did it ourselves: we outsourced it. We funded prisons. We harvested the intelligence. President Bush resolved this contradiction by authorizing the CIA to open eight black sites from Thailand to Poland, and therefore, American CIA agents actually engaged in waterboarding, wall slamming and forms of psychological torture under President Bush. We did it ourselves.

What’s happened under President Obama is we’ve gone back to that Cold War policy of outsourcing the abuse to our allies, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, by, first of all, turning a blind eye to the abuse of our allies, as we did in Iraq until the time we were there, and we’re doing now in Afghanistan. And then, simultaneously, President Obama authorized the CIA very quietly to conduct extraordinary rendition.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what extraordinary rendition is.

ALFRED McCOY: Under the U.N. Convention Against Torture, you’re not allowed to send somebody to a country where they will be subject to human rights abuse as defined by the Convention Against Torture. And rendition is the process of sending somebody to a country where they are likely to be tortured, in effect.

The contradiction between that segment you played and what Obama did is striking. In April of 2008, President Obama—unprompted—said, you know, “I will ban torture, and that includes rendition.” OK. But then, during his first days in office, when he signed that very dramatic order closing those same CIA black sites that we were just discussing, President Obama got—was under pressure from the CIA. The CIA counsel looked at that draft order and said, “If you issue this as drafted, you’ll put us out of the rendition business.” So, President Obama, being a skillful lawyer, added a footnote, and he defined a CIA prison in a way that exempted a prison for short-term transitory provisions. In other words, the CIA could have holding facilities to effect the rendition of subjects from one country to another on their fleet of executive aircraft. And that’s in the footnote of that dramatic, highly publicized order closing CIA black sites—except allowing rendition. It’s right there in the footnote. It was in black and white, but nobody noticed it, until the New York Times brought it out a few months ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor McCoy, I wanted to go to the first prime-time press conference that President Obama held after taking office. He was asked his opinion about a proposal put forward by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont to start a comprehensive truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the conduct of the Bush administration over that past eight years. This is how President Obama responded.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My administration is going to operate in a way that leaves no doubt that we do not torture, that we abide by the Geneva Conventions, and that we observe our traditions of rule of law and due process as we are vigorously going after terrorists that can do us harm. And I don’t think those are contradictory. I think they are potentially complementary. My view is also that nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama, first prime-time news conference. Professor Alfred McCoy?

ALFRED McCOY: That’s the third stage of impunity. The first stage—and it’s a universal process. It happens in countries emerging from authoritarianism that have had problems with torture. Step one is blame the bad apples. Donald Rumsfeld did that right after the Abu Ghraib scandal was exposed in 2004.

Step two is saying that it was necessary for our national security—unfortunate, perhaps, but necessary to keep us all safe. That was done very articulately by former Vice President Cheney at the time, and he continues to make that argument. He claims that these “enhanced techniques,” as he calls them, i.e. CIA torture, saved thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of lives. OK?

The third step is the step we just witnessed in President Obama, saying that, well, whatever might have happened in the past, we need unity as a nation, we need to move forward together into the future. So, the past isn’t germane. We need to put it behind us, not investigate, not prosecute. And that was the position he was taking there.

The fourth stage is one that we’ve been going through for the past year. That’s been political attack by those implicated, under the Bush administration, in either conducting the torture or authorizing the torture. And that’s a political tack seeking not just exoneration, getting away with it, but seeking vindication, saying that not only, you know, was this legal, but it was necessary, it was imperative for our national security. And that’s an argument that the Bush administration made very forcefully when Osama bin Laden was killed in May of 2011. They argued that the enhanced interrogation under the Bush administration led the Navy SEALs to Osama bin Laden. There’s no evidence for that, but they made that argument. And that put pressure on Attorney General Eric Holder to drop the—most of the investigations of CIA abuse. And then, very recently, the two investigations of detainees who were killed in CIA custody have been dropped, as well.

The fifth and final stage is one that’s ongoing right to the present, and that’s rewriting the history, rewriting the past, ripping it apart, without respect to the truth of the matter, and reconstructing it in a way that justifies the torture. And that happened on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 when Dick Cheney brought out his memoirs saying that the use of enhanced techniques on Abu Zubaydah turned this hardened terrorist into—he called him “a fountain of information” that gave information that saved thousands of lives. OK? Well, you know, that was August 30th, 2011.

OK, on September 12th, 2011, former FBI interrogator, counterintelligence officer, Ali Soufan, came out with his memoirs. It turned out he was the American operative that conducted that interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. He was there in that safe house in Thailand, and there were two teams operating. And it turned out, in retrospect, when you look at what happened, it was the closest you can get to a scientific experiment into the relative effectiveness of empathetic FBI interrogation techniques and CIA coercive interrogation, CIA torture. And through four successive rounds, what happened is, Ali Soufan went in—he’s an Arabic speaker—he established empathy with Abu Zubaydah, and he got the name of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. George Tenet, CIA director, grew angry that the FBI, his rival agency, was getting all this information. He dispatched a team of tough CIA interrogators. They used these coercive techniques. The subject clamped up. No more information. The FBI was brought back in. More information from Abu Zubaydah based on non-coercive techniques.

And by the time this was done through four successive rounds, we established clearly, beyond any reasonable shadow of a doubt, that empathetic FBI techniques, with a skilled interrogator speaking to a subject in his language, OK, gets accurate intelligence. And all these CIA techniques—the sensory deprivation, the temperature modification, the noise blasting, the stress positions—all of that is counterproductive, does not work. OK? And that, that fragile truth, has been kept from us, because if you look at Ali Soufan’s memoirs, there’s 181 pages of CIA excisions that turned those passages about that interrogation of Abu Zubaydah into a rat’s nest of black lines that no regular American reader can possibly understand.

AMY GOODMAN: You write that under President Obama, still we are getting intelligence extracted by surrogates in places like Somalia, in Afghanistan.


AMY GOODMAN: And what does that mean—through torture?

ALFRED McCOY: What it means is that’s part of the outsourcing of this, OK? We now know through the WikiLeaks that after the Abu Ghraib scandal we reduced the number of detainees being held by U.S. forces in Iraq, and we transferred the detainees to Iraqi authorities, where the detainees were tortured. There were orders by the U.S. command, OK, that American soldiers, if they came across our Iraqi allies engaged in human rights abuse, they were not to do anything. And we know that from 2004 to 2009 U.S. forces collected, I think, 1,365 reports of Iraqi human rights abuse about which they did nothing.

In Afghanistan, it’s the same policy. Right after 2004, we started turning over the detainees that needed to be interrogated to the National Directorate of Security. In 2011, the United Nations investigated the Afghan National Security Directorate and found a systematic pattern of absolutely extraordinary human rights abuse, brutal physical tortures. And the United States continues to turn over detainees to the Afghan authorities. Britain and Canada will no longer turn them over, because of their concerns about human rights abuse.

So, in other—and we’re doing the same thing in Somalia. Jeremy Scahill, investigative reporter, did a superb report and found that in Mogadishu, the Somali authorities operate, in their security directorate, a prison called “the Hole” in the basement of their building. And the CIA engages in—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we’re going to continue the conversation and post it online at Thank you so much, Professor Alfred McCoy. His book is called Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation . Go online to see the rest at and to see our Election 2012 Silenced Majority Tour. Today we’ll be in Eau Claire at noon; tonight in Hayward, Wisconsin; tomorrow, Minneapolis.

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A Debate on Human Rights Watch’s Call for Bush Administration Officials to be Tried for Torture

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