Don't Expect Flags and Champagne in Havana
Yoani Sanchez is one of Cuba’s best-known independent journalists and director of the news site 14ymedio, on which this post was originally published. She is also the author of the book Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today, and received the World Press Freedom Hero award from the International Press Institute in 2010.
Wednesday was one of those days we had imagined a thousand ways, but never as it actually finally happened. We were prepared for a date on which we could celebrate the end, hug our friends who returned home, and wave a flag in the middle of the street. But D-Day is late. Instead, the events arrive in fragments, an advance here, a loss there. With no cries of “Long live free Cuba,” nor uncorked bottles. Life obscures from us this turning point that we would mark forever on our calendars.
The announcement by the governments of Cuba and the United States of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations surprised us in the midst of exhausted hopes and signs that pointed in the opposite direction. Raúl Castro had just postponed the third round of talks with the European Union, scheduled for next month, and this Dec. 10, International Human Rights day, fell heavily on activists, as it does every year.
The first surprise was that, in the midst of all the official bluster and calls by the government to redouble our guard against the enemy, the Plaza of the Revolution and the White House had been in talks for 18 months–clear evidence that all this intransigence was just for show. At the same time they were telling the island’s citizens that even crossing the threshold of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana would make someone a traitor to the homeland, the leaders in their olive-green uniforms were working out agreements with Uncle Sam. The deceits of politics!
Both Obama’s statements, as well as Castro’s, had a hint of capitulation. The U.S. president announced a long list of moderating measures to bring the two nations closer. But he did so before the coveted and greatly demanded goals of democratization and political opening in our country have been achieved. The question of what would come first, a gesture from Havana or flexibility from Washington, has just been answered. The fig leaf of the American embargo remains, preventing the resignation from being complete.
Raul Castro, for his part, limited himself to announcing the new gestures from Obama and referring to the exchange of Alan Gross and an American spy for the long-awaited return of three Cuban agents held in U.S. custody. However, in his address before the national television cameras, he gave no evidence of any agreement or compromise from the Cuban side, aside from the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. The agenda on the far side of the Florida Straits we know in detail, but the internal one remains, as it so often does, hidden and secret.
Still, despite the absence of public commitments on the part of Cuba, today was a political defeat for the government. Under the leadership of Fidel Castro we would have never even reached an outline of an agreement of this nature. Because the Cuban system is supported by–as one of its main pillars–the existence of a permanent rival. David can’t live without Goliath and the ideological apparatus has depended too long on this dispute.
Do I listen to speeches or buy fish?
In the Carlos III market in central Havana, customers were surprised midday that the big TVs were not broadcasting soccer or videoclips, but Castro’s speech and later Obama’s. The first statement caused a certain astonishment, but the second was accompanied by kisses launched toward the face of the U.S. president, particularly when he mentioned relaxing the regulations for sending remittances to Cuba and the delicate topic of telecommunications. Now and again the cry of “I LOVE…” (in English!) could be heard.
It is important to also say that the news had fierce competition—the arrival of fish to the rationed market, after years of absence. However, by mid-afternoon almost everyone was aware of the big news and the shared feelings were of joy, relief, hope.
This, however, is just the beginning. What we have yet to hear is a public timeline that commits the Cuban government to a series of gestures in support of democratization and respect for differences. We must take advantage of these announcements to extract a public promise from the government, which must include, at a minimum four consensus points that civil society has been developing in recent months: The release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience; the end of political repression; the ratification of the United Nations covenants on Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the consequent adjustment of domestic laws; and the recognition of Cuban civil society within and outside the island.
Extracting these commitments would begin the dismantling of totalitarianism.
As long as steps of this magnitude are not taken, many of us will continue to believe that the day we have longed for is still far off. So, we will keep the flags tucked away, keep the corks in the bottles, and continue to press for the final coming of D-Day.
-This post was translated by Mary Jo Porter and lightly edited for publication on Slate.
Why Does Cuba Want to Re-establish Relations With the U.S.?
For the Obama administration, the motivation for today’s moves to normalize relations with Cuba is clear. The embargo against Cuba is increasingly unpopular, even in parts of the Cuban-American community that long supported it, and the president has been eager to find areas of both foreign and domestic policy where he can act without cooperation from Congress. But what’s driving this move on the Cuban side?
For one thing, Wednesday’s prisoner exchange, involving three of the five intelligence officers convicted of espionage in Florida in 2001, was a major propaganda victory. “Getting the rest of the Cuban Five back has been a huge priority for Raúl Castro,” Julia Sweig, director of Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Slate. Underlining the iconic status the Cuban Five have taken on during their captivity, Castro referred to the men by their first names during his speech Wednesday, saying, “As Fidel promised on June 2001, when he said, ‘They shall return!’ Gerardo, Ramon, and Antonio have arrived today to our homeland.”
The Beginning of the End of the Embargo?
In what one longtime Cuba watcher is calling “the biggest day for U.S.-Cuban relations in 50 years,” the two governments announced a prisoner exchange today that removes some of the largest impediments to full diplomatic relations between the longtime adversaries. Both President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro are due to make statements later today, and according to ABC News, “The White House is indicating the beginning of new talks on everything from travel restrictions to eventual lifting of the Cuban embargo in place since John F. Kennedy was president.”
Alan Gross, an American who was arrested and charged with “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state” in 2009 while attempting to deliver communications equipment to religious groups on the island as a subcontractor for USAID, has been released and is now en route back to the U.S. Gross was reportedly in poor health, and Obama had suggested earlier this month that his release would “remove an impediment to more constructive relations.”
(In an interesting coincidence, this development coincides with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah stepping down. In addition to the Gross affair, Shah’s agency has recently been involved in a number of Keystone Kops-ish democracy-promotion efforts in Cuba, including the creation of a Twitter-like social network and a campaign to infiltrate the island’s hip-hop community.)
The U.S., meanwhile, is releasing three members of the so-called Cuban Five—a group of men convicted in 2001 for attempting to spy on exile groups in Miami and who have become a cause célèbre back home. Two of the five have already been released after serving their sentences.
There’s been speculation for a long time now that Obama, who has already eased travel restrictions on Cuban families and rules on remittances and memorably shook hands with Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service last year, would do something dramatic on Cuba in the remaining years of his presidency. His Democratic predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both attempted unsuccessfully to improve U.S.-Cuban relations, but there’s reason to think Obama will be more successful.
For one thing, support for the embargo, even among Florida voters and voters of Cuban descent, has never been lower. Prominent political figures, including Hillary Clinton, are feeling a lot more comfortable going on record against the embargo.
And while we certainly can’t say that Cuba is on the path toward democracy, Raúl Castro’s government has carried out some meaningful reforms, including loosening rules on travel and private property. Even the country’s best-known anti-Castro dissident, Yoani Sanchez, thinks the embargo is now counterproductive.
One thing that isn’t going to change is Congress, and that will limit just how much Obama can do on Cuba. Republicans, as well as Democrats like Cuban-American Sen. Robert Menendez, don’t seem likely to shift on their support for the embargo anytime soon.
The 1996 Helms-Burton Act enshrined the embargo as U.S. law—prior to that, it had been maintained through a series of executive orders. Rep. Dan Burton, one of the sponsors of that bill, predicted it would be the “the last nail in [Castro’s] coffin.” Almost two decades later, Castro is still alive while the bill constrains U.S. foreign policy.
There are, though, a number of things that Obama—who is increasingly conducting his foreign policy as if Congress doesn’t exist—can do on his own.
As a recent Economist column suggested, Obama could instruct the State Department to remove Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list, on which it still anachronistically sits. An Americas Society/Council of the Americas report from last year listed a number of other executive actions the White House could take under existing laws, including allowing U.S. businesses to buy products from non-state-controlled Cuban firms, expanding travel licenses to Cuba to include business travel, allowing American travelers to Cuba to have access to U.S. financial services, allowing the sale of telecommunications hardware to Cuba, and allowing Cuba to request assistance from the IMF and the World Bank. (Helms-Burton requires the U.S. to prevent Cuba from joining these organizations.)
(Update, 12:38 p.m. The measures announced by the White House on Wednesday include many of the steps mentioned above, including more travel licenses, allowing the export of goods to private Cuban enterprises, and the sale of communications equipment and authorizing U.S. credit and debit card use by U.S. travelers to Cuba. The State Department will also be reviewing Cuba’s state terrorism designation. More dramatically, the U.S. is re-establishing an embassy in Havana in the next few months and beginning talks on restoring full diplomatic relations. This was a lot faster and more sweeping than expected.)
After today, it’s clear that Cuba is on Obama’s agenda. The effort could still be derailed, as Bill Clinton’s overtures were after Cuba shot down two U.S. planes in 1996. But more than likely, we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of one of the least effective foreign policy initiatives in American history.
Why We Need the Gory Details About Torture
Since last week’s release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s treatment of detainees, there’s been a renewed debate over the use of the word torture as opposed to Orwellian euphemisms like enhanced interrogation. The report itself wasn’t shy about the t-word, deploying it more than 130 times. President Obama has used it as well, although his CIA director avoided it. The architects of the program were certainly concerned about the word. As I noted yesterday, a 2002 Justice Department memo approvingly cited a European court decision which found that techniques like stress positions and sleep deprivation were “inhuman and degrading,” but not actually torture.
One new poll suggests this fixation on torture semantics may be misplaced. Forty-nine percent of the respondents to a Washington Post-ABC poll released today agreed that “CIA treatment of suspected terrorists amounted to torture,” while 38 percent disagreed and the rest had no opinion. However, 59 percent believe that “CIA treatment of suspected terrorists was justified” with just 31 percent opposed. The only subgroups that opposed the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists: liberal democrats and atheists.
Does it matter if you include the word “torture” in the question itself? While other recent polls haven’t mentioned the word at all, a recent Pew survey that asks flat out whether “torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists can be justified” found a lower but still significant level of support. Americans have only grown more supportive of torture over time, with support increasing since Pew started asking this question in 2004.
Whether you use the word or not, Americans are OK with torture because they believe it’s effective at gaining information that couldn’t be obtained by any other means. The fact that the Senate report knocked down that argument doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction.
If not torture, what do Americans oppose? Things start to change when you get really specific. A recent post on the Washington Post’s Post Everything site by three political scientists notes that when you ask specifically about techniques like “waterboarding,” “sexual humiliation,” and “exposure to extreme heat/cold,” most Americans do oppose them. They’re less bothered by “stress positions” or “sleep deprivation,” which I would imagine is a function of the fact that people don’t understand what they are.
I haven’t seen polling on forced rectal feeding, the most startling interrogation technique discussed in the report, but my guess is that most people would be opposed to that as well. This is how you make the case against torture: Describe exactly what’s being done to detainees in as clear language as possible.
One other intriguing finding in the Post/ABC poll: 54 percent of Americans believe the CIA intentionally misled the White House, Congress, and the public about its activities. Despite this, 52 percent of respondents believe it was wrong to release the report. As with the Edward Snowden revelations, Americans don’t like their intelligence services lying to them, but they also don’t like being told the truth.
So Maybe Putin Wasn’t an Omnipotent Supergenius
Earlier this year, when Russian President Vladimir Putin was racking up an impressive run of geopolitical victories, the conventional wisdom among American pundits was that the president was a shrewd and calculating strategist, outwitting his Western rivals at every turn. This view was always flawed. Putin’s biggest political victory, the now seemingly irreversible seizure of Crimea, was made possible by the chaos following the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian government, which should be counted as a much more significant defeat.
Now that the ruble has gone into a free fall, losing 22 percent of its value against the dollar this month and 11 percent Monday alone despite the government hiking interest rates, a number of commentators are pointing out that Putin isn’t looking so smart today.
Russia now expects a recession and 10 percent inflation this year, and the country’s deputy prime minister said Tuesday that poverty will “inevitably rise” as a result. Putin’s gamble, that Russia could weather the impact of Western sanctions resulting from its military incursions into Ukraine, now doesn’t appear very shrewd. “Talk of a new cold war, comparisons between Putin’s Russia and the USSR, look a bit silly now, don’t they?” writes the New York Times’ Paul Krugman.
But just as Putin’s strategic acumen was overestimated before, there’s a danger of underestimating it now. Putin’s foreign policy strength has never been has ability to look three steps ahead like some sort of geopolitical chessmaster. It’s been his ruthlessness in moving quickly to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves: snatching a territorial consolation prize from the jaws of defeat in Ukraine, swooping in to negotiate a deal over Syria’s chemical weapons when the Obama administration was looking for any excuse not to launch airstrikes, and taking full propaganda advantage of Edward Snowden when he literally appeared on Russia’s doorstep. It’s unlikely that Putin anticipated any of these situations, but he did a great job playing the cards he was dealt.
This time, Putin’s luck ran out. The fundamentals of the Russian economy weren’t strong to begin with and Western sanctions were always going to pose a challenge. But even the almighty Putin couldn’t have anticipated that all of this would coincide with a 40 percent drop in the price of oil, which, along with gas, the Russian government depends on for about half of its budget.
But Putin has survived crises before. So far, the economic crisis hasn’t put too much of a dent in the president’s popularity. His recent annual televised address to the national assembly was heavy on the nationalist themes that have served him well throughout the Ukraine crisis and placed blame for inflation vaguely on “speculators.” With Russia’s state-controlled media taking it as a given that low oil prices are the result of a U.S.-Saudi plot to weaken Russia and Iran, it remains to be seen whether Russians will blame the government for the economic turmoil ahead.
Now that international sanctions—with a big assist from the oil markets—are having the desired effect, Western governments may be hoping that Russia will become more compliant, particularly in Ukraine, which just had its first night without a shooting in months.
This may not be the case. Putin can’t do much of anything about oil prices,and any steps to cooperate with NATO to secure sanctions relief will make him look weak. There’s a fair chance, then, that he may actually escalate tensions to get back the rally-round-the-flag effect that has sustained his popularity through the Ukraine crisis. Russian jets continue to buzz the airspace of NATO countries, and the military recently carried out snap drills in Russia’s westernmost region, Kaliningrad. This doesn’t look like a leader on the verge of de-escalating.
What America Learned About Torture From Israel and Britain
One striking aspect of the debate over Bush-era interrogation methods has been the willingness of the program’s defenders to support methods that are routinely described as torture when employed by other countries. “In [Dick] Cheney’s world, nothing Americans do can be called torture, because we are not al-Qaida and we are not the Japanese in the Second World War (whom we prosecuted for waterboarding) and we are not ISIS,” writes the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson. She continues: “[I]t was not really the Justice Department that ‘blessed,’ or rather transubstantiated, torture; it was our American-ness.”
The United States, though, is not the only democracy to have tortured. In fact, in justifying the interrogation program, its architects drew on the experiences of two of America’s closest allies.
As was widely reported in the Israeli media, last week’s Senate report notes that the CIA used Israel as a precedent to justify its use of coercive interrogation tactics. The Jerusalem Post reports:
On November 26, 2001, soon after the September 11 attacks on the U.S., the CIA general counsel wrote that “the Israeli example” could serve as “a possible basis for arguing ... regarding terrorist detainees that ‘torture was necessary to prevent imminent, significant, physical harm to persons, where there is no other available means to prevent the harm.’ ” The internal memorandum also said that “states may be very unwilling to call the U.S. to task for torture when it resulted in saving thousands of lives.”
The use of torture in fighting terrorism has been a recurring subject of debate in Israel. In 1987, following the deaths of two Palestinian prisoners, an Israeli government commission led by former Supreme Court justice Moshe Landau found that in some extraordinary cases “the exertion of a moderate degree of physical pressure cannot be avoided.”
According to the human rights group B’Tselem, Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, used physical force against at least 850 persons per year in the years following the Landau Commission, usually not in the “ticking bomb” scenarios the report had used to justify such methods. These methods include depriving prisoners of sleep, forcing them into “stress positions,” threatening them, subjecting them to extreme temperatures, and blasting them with loud music—all methods that would later become commonplace in CIA interrogations.
In 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court banned the Shin Bet from using Landau-approved techniques, but still allowed interrogators to invoke the “defense of necessity” if they were later faced with prosecution. The agency returned to coercive interrogations soon after, when the Second Intifada broke out. While such tactics are routinely condemned by human rights groups, most Israelis, like most Americans, believe they are justified to prevent terrorist attacks.
But even some who defend Israel’s interrogation practices argue that the U.S. drew the wrong lessons from the country's experience. John Schindler, a former NSA employee and historian whose take on the Senate report was cited by my colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley last week, argues that while Shin Bet employs “what outsiders would term torture on occasion, those conditions are tightly controlled by legal authorities.” Interrogators are also highly trained and fluent in Arabic.
In contrast, Schindler writes, the U.S. intelligence community “opted for an ad hoc, somewhat fly-by-night interrogation program, lacking in expertise or language skills, and botched the job—to the surprise only of those who have never seen U.S. intelligence in action.”
Israel isn’t the only country whose experience was examined by the Bush administration’s lawyers. In a post on the Irish political blog Slugger O’Toole, Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland program director for Amnesty International, writes that in the now infamous 2002 “torture memos” which advised the CIA and the administration on the legality of “enhanced” interrogation, assistant attorney general Jay Bybee quoted from a European Court of Human Rights decision on Britain’s treatment of prisoners in Northern Ireland during the 1970s.
During the Troubles, British security forces developed what became known as the “five techniques” for interrogations of IRA suspects: hooding, “wall-standing” (a kind of stress position), subjection to noise, sleep deprivation, and denial of food and water. When the techniques were made public in 1972, they were banned for future interrogations by Prime Minister Edward Heath. Shortly afterward, the Irish government filed a case against Britain in international court against Britain alleging torture in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. In 1978, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the interrogation methods amounted to “inhuman and degrading” treatment, but not torture.
Following a recent Irish TV documentary which alleged that the British government had misled the investigation, the Irish government recently announced plans to ask the European Court of Human Rights to revise its judgment.
The 2002 memos used this case to bolster the argument that U.S. interrogations did not constitute torture. Variations on all of the five techniques were employed by the CIA during the period covered by the Senate’s report. Bybee apparently ignored the fact that though the British government denied “torture,” it still found the techniques illegal under British law.
Proponents of the U.S. interrogation program took from these examples that government can get away with an awful lot of mistreatment without having to call it “torture.” Israel’s experience is also a reminder that security forces will find ways to exploit the loopholes left open in legal judgments. This is concerning given that the Obama administration is reluctant to launch any prosecutions program and that its legal position on torture leaves some troubling ambiguity on the topic of “black site” prisons. And the British interrogations, still being argued in court four decades later, suggest that even if the U.S. is completely finished with torture, the controversy over the program is far from over.
Australia’s Terrorism Problem
Police have now stormed the downtown Sydney café where a lone gunman took more than a dozen hostages. We still don’t know much about the identities or motivations of the attacker beyond the fact that he forced his hostages to display a black flag with white Arabic script resembling those used by al-Qaida and ISIS.
Given the prominent role Australians have played in the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria, it seems reasonable to speculate that there may be a link. In June it was reported that there were 150 Australians fighting with extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, making it the largest per-capita contributor of foreign fighters. In August an Australian jihadist in Syria with a history of mental illness received international attention for posting a photo online showing his 7-year-old son holding a severed head.
Australia has already seen two instances of confirmed ISIS-related violence—one attempted, one successful. In September, Mohammad Ali Baryalei, a former nightclub bouncer from Sydney who had moved to Syria to fight with the Islamic State, phoned a friend back home asking him to carry out a beheading on camera as a “demonstration.” The call was intercepted, and the friend was arrested. Several days later, an 18-year-old “known terror suspect” who had been spotted carrying the ISIS flag at a shopping center stabbed two counterterrorism officers in Melbourne before he was shot and killed. Following the latter attack, hundreds of police officers raided dozens of homes in Sydney and Brisbane, arresting 15 people in the largest counterterrorism raids in the country’s history. Allegations of police abuses during the raids lead to protests in the Muslim community.
Australia has been a part of the international military coalition fighting ISIS since October, and federal police have warned the country’s citizens to stay out of the conflict. Echoing the concerns other Western governments, Australian officials have warned of radicalized fighters returning home from Syria to carry out attacks in their own country. So far, though, we haven’t seen many signs of this. The Baryalei plot, which never got very far, was an exception to the rule in that someone in Syria was in contact with a potential attacker back home. The Melbourne stabber, the two men who carried out attacks in Canada in October, and Mehdi Nemmouche, the ISIS vet who shot three people at the Jewish museum in Brussels last May, are all believed to have acted on their own with little to no coordination from ISIS central.
The suspect in this case was an Iranian-born self-styled cleric and “spiritual healer” named Man Haron Monis who was apparently well-known to police for having sent offensive letters to the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. He was on bail for being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife and was facing multiple sexual assault charges. Monis, who according to his website used to be Shia but converted, had no known ties to terrorist groups and seems to have acted alone.
Adam Dolnik, a terrorism researcher at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, speculated to the New York Times that the attacker is likely “a lone wolf sympathetic to the issues of the Islamic State and the goal of jihad more generally” or represents a case of “psychopathology in search of a cause.”
A reasonable case could be made that this describes most terrorists, but the point here is that this appears to be a solo effort and not a very well-planned one. The good news is that these lone-wolf attackers are generally much less effective that organized plots. The bad news is that they are much harder to suss out and prevent in advance.
Al-Qaida Is No Longer the Worldwide Leader in Terror
There were 664 lethal jihadist terrorist attacks resulting in 5,042 deaths this November. That’s according to a report released today by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London, in conjunction with the BBC.
Confirming the findings of other surveys, the report found that the vast majority of attacks take place in just a handful countries—namely Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. A little more than half the victims are civilians. The vast majority of those civilians are Muslims.
The report doesn’t provide much context regarding whether November was an unusual month—the choice was “determined by convenience and BBC scheduling.” Rather, it aims to provide a “global snapshot” of the current level of jihadist activity.
Just as terrorism is concentrated in a few countries, a very small number of groups are responsible for the vast majority of these deaths. Only 17 groups out of the 50 the authors were monitoring had any activity during this period, and just eight of them carried out 97 percent of the attacks.
One of the report’s key findings is that, as the report's author, Peter Neumann of ICSR, puts it, “al-Qaida and jihadism are no longer synonymous (if they ever were).” Attacks by the two deadliest groups during this period, ISIS and Nigeria’s Boko Haram, accounted for 44 and 16 percent of all deaths respectively. This means that 60 percent of the deaths (and 51 percent of the attacks) were the work of groups with no formal ties to al-Qaida. Neumann writes, “They represent a new breed of jihadist groups which thrive on religious and sectarian fault lines, are state builders, and seem to have fewer restraints in using excessive forms of violence.”
The Taliban, allied with al-Qaida but separate from it, was third on the list. Al-Qaida’s affiliates aren’t out of the picture entirely—al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab, and Jabhat al-Nusra accounted for a fifth of the deaths—but they don’t have the central role in international terrorism that they once did.
This ought to be another indication that a 13-year-old document aimed at punishing the perpetrators of 9/11 is no longer the best framework for America’s global counterterrorism efforts. Back in 2001, it made sense to think of al-Qaida as the central hub of global terrorism. That’s not the case in 2014.
Why Hasn’t the Torture Report Sparked Anti-American Protests?
Prior to the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s CIA torture report this week, there were widespread fears that it would incite violence. “Foreign leaders have approached the government and said, ‘You do this, this will cause violence and deaths.’ Our own intelligence community has assessed that this will cause violence and deaths,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers said on CNN. Embassies around the world warned U.S. citizens to prepare for anti-American protests.
But two days after the report’s release, the anticipated violent protests across the Muslim world don’t seem to have materialized. It may be, as the Obama administration argued prior to the report’s release, that deadly protests like those seen after the burning of a Koran in Florida in 2011 or upon the release of the “Innocence of Muslims” video in 2012 “tend to be fueled more by perceived attacks against Islam as a religion than by violence against individual Muslims.”
Or, coming after a decade of revelations about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the CIA’s black sites, it may be that nothing in the report was really that surprising. As Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid tells the Associated Press, discussing reaction in the Middle East, “Arabs were angry about U.S. torture in Iraq 10 years ago, so if anything this seems rather quaint, that the Americans are having a real public debate about this 10 years after the fact. … This seems like run-of-the-mill stuff in the sense that this is what people expect of the U.S. They would be surprised if it wasn’t the case, and that’s a product of years of deep anti-American sentiment.”
Jihadist message boards have apparently lit up with calls for retaliation against the United States, but ISIS and al-Qaida sympathizers didn’t lack for anti-American grievances before Tuesday.
As I noted yesterday, a number of governments, particularly those usually on the receiving end of human rights complaints, have been playing up the news. The Russian government and media, who were surprisingly quiet in the immediate wake of the report, have since joined in to condemn the “gross, systemic human rights violations by the American authorities.”
Some critics have used these denunciations by Russia, China, and other countries to accuse the committee of handing America’s rivals a propaganda victory. But again, it’s not as if the Russian media would be playing footsie with the U.S. if the report hadn’t come out.
While there are some new revelations in the report, the specific information it revealed is less important than what it signified: a government coming to grips with its past conduct. One big reason that the charges of hypocrisy coming from the world’s dictatorships don’t stick is that unlike those governments, the U.S.—albeit grudgingly—admits its past misdeeds.
The World Reacts to the Torture Report
Following Tuesday’s release of a long-awaited Senate report on Bush-era interrogation practices, countries that are usually on the receiving end of human rights criticism were quick to pounce.
“China has consistently opposed torture. We think the U.S. should reflect on that and correct related practices, to earnestly abide by and honor the regulations of international conventions,” said foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei. There are frequent allegations of torture in Chinese jails and according to Amnesty International, the country is one of the leading manufacturers and exporters of torture devices.
KCNA, the official news agency of the North Korean government, which was accused of systematic crimes against humanity earlier this year, asked “why the UNSC is turning its face from the inhuman torture practiced by the CIA.”
The English-language Twitter account of Iran’s Supreme Leader has also been active, featuring a stream of criticism of the “corrupt capitalist regime” using both the #torturereport and #ferguson hashtags:
One exception to this parade of criticism: The Guardian notes that Russia’s state-sponsored media, which normally jumps on opportunities to highlight American hypocrisy, has been unexpectedly quiet.
Leaders of allied governments, including Britain and Germany, also condemned the activities in the report but praised the U.S. for releasing it.
The most interesting countries to watch are those whose governments hosted the “black site” facilities where the torture took place—most significantly, Afghanistan, Poland, and Thailand. The 500-page summary of the 6,000 page document that was released on Tuesday redacts the names of these countries, but there’s enough information in the document when combined with previously published reports to piece together which countries are being discussed (and media outlets haven’t been shy about reporting on them by name). U.S. embassies have warned U.S. citizens in Afghanistan, Thailand, and Pakistan to beware of anti-American protests and violence, which so far don’t seem to have broken out.
Afghanistan hosted the facility referred to in the report as COBALT, described by one interrogator as a “dungeon,” where one detainee died in custody. At this facility, according to the Senate report, detainees were “kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste.” “COBALT was itself an enhanced interrogation technique,” said one CIA officer.
Afghanistan’s recently elected President Ashraf Ghani delivered a televised address to respond to the report, saying that the practices described violate “all accepted norms of human rights in the world.” He vowed to investigate the practices and reminded viewers that starting next year, when the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan formally ends, Americans will no longer be handling detainees in the country. Afghanistan has also been accused of torture at its own prisons.
Thailand was the country where the CIA “enhanced interrogation” program began with the waterboarding of detainee Abu Zubaydah. In one session, according to cables cited in the report, Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” Some of the interrogators themselves were “profoundly affected … some to the point of tears and choking up.”
Why Thailand? According to the Bangkok Post, the “ U.S. Senate's unedited report claims the CIA chose Thailand as the site of its safe house because of the close ties between the U.S. agency and Thai intelligence officers.” The report also claims that then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was informed of the facility only after it began operating. But according to the Post, the report has been met with public disappointment in Thailand as it “blanked out all information about the country's role in waterboarding, housing terrorist suspects from around the world, and the exact involvement of [the] Thaksin Shinawatra government, National Security Agency, and Royal Thai Army.” In any event, Shinawatra is currently in exile, facing a variety of criminal charges back home, and his sister Yingluck was overthrown in a military coup earlier this year. If any prominent members of the military junta that is now ruling the country were complicit in CIA torture, the report isn’t providing many answers.
Then there’s Poland, which from 2002 to 2003 hosted Stare Kiejkuty, the most important of the CIA’s black sites, where prisoners including Zubaydah, U.S.S. Cole bombing suspect Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammed were held and subject to brutal interrogations including waterboarding.
It was here that, according to the report, Nashiri was threatened with a gun and a drill, left in uncomfortable stress positions for days, and told that “his mother would be brought before him and sexually abused.”
Following the report’s release, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and former Prime Minister Leszek Miller admitted for the first time that they had been aware of the facility’s existence, though both say they were not aware that torture was taking place there. Polish prosecutors have been conducting an investigation into the program and prosecutors say the report could be used as evidence. Human rights groups have accused the Polish government of dragging its feet with the investigation.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled in July that Poland had been complicit in the program and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to Nashiri and Zubaydah, both of whom are now being held at Guantanamo Bay.
While it’s extremely unlikely that any of the perpetrators of the acts described in the report will ever be prosecuted in the United States, there’s still a question of whether they could face consequences overseas. In 2009, for instance, an Italian court found 23 Americans and two Italians guilty in the kidnapping of an Egyptian terror suspect in Milan as part of the CIA’s extraordinary renditions program. The Americans were tried in absentia but the decision could put them at risk of arrest if they travel to Europe.
While the activities described in the Senate report were mostly already known, the graphic detail in which they were described—as well as the fact that they were acknowledged in a U.S. government document—could add to calls for the prosecution of the officials involved. This could happen either in the countries where the torture took place—the CIA also ran black sites in Romania and Lithuania—or elsewhere under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which courts in some countries have used to try individuals for serious crimes, even if they took place abroad. (Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested in London in 1998 on a Spanish warrant, is the most famous example of this principle being carried out.) One Amnesty International official told the Guardian, “If I was one of those people, I would hesitate before making any travel arrangements.”