The Representation of Torture in the 'War on Terror'

Josh Watts, 11 February 2013

Categories: The Independent | War | Guantanamo Bay | War on Terror |

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In the mainstream media, we are presented with 'a "war on terror" conducted by a "civilized" West against a less civilized "other"'1. There are obvious flaws with this narrative. For example, even the barest of bones of the 'civilized' West's historical record demolishes its proclaimed values and objectives. Thus, a nation cannot claim to act to promote democracy and human rights whilst it kidnaps citizens the world over, places them in secret detention and tortures them, in order to attain such objectives; and simultaneously hope for its international conduct to be taken both seriously and at face value - as the West undoubtedly does. Let us then, observe the coverage of torture, as found in The Independent; focusing on three main areas.

Guantanamo Bay

Noam Chomsky has written that 'Even without inquiry, it was reasonable to suppose that Guantnamo was a torture chamber. Why else send prisoners where they would be beyond the reach of the law . . . ?'2 What are The Independent’s views on the prison? Let us begin with a leader of late 2010:

In a democracy, everyone has a right to be tried in a free court, where evidence presented can be challenged. In a democracy, it is unthinkable for those suspected or accused of wrongdoing to be imprisoned simply on the say-so of the intelligence services. In a democracy, a defendant cannot be tried on the basis of evidence extracted from them under torture.3

From this it is concluded that the guilty conviction of ‘the first suspect to be transferred from Guantanamo military prison to face a civilian trial’ is ‘a triumph for American justice and democratic values’, seemingly ignoring the initial internment in a prison where ‘Hundreds were detained . . . with no prospect of a trial’ and the imprisoned were ‘water-boarded to extract information from them’. In so doing, believes The Independent, ‘The world's most powerful nation ended up behaving more like a squalid dictatorship than a champion of democratic values’ – which should be all the more damning given the responsibility conferred by the status of ‘most powerful’. There is, however, no mention thereafter of the continuous denial of the rule of law to hundreds of suspects past and present. Note that this is explained simply by the fact that the US travelled ‘down a dark path’ in the aftermath of 9/11. ‘[P]utting those accused of committing violence against the US on trial’ is Obama’s way of ‘revers[ing] his predecessor’s shameful policy and . . . restor[ing] some dignity to America's tattered reputation’. Where though, is the notion of those who sanctioned and administered water-boarding of detainees and denied them their rights, being put on trial?

In another leader, though the ‘infamous’ Guantánamo Bay is described as an ‘unmitigated disaster, unnecessary in its own right and an enduring blot on the good name of a superpower that claims to be a beacon for liberty, justice and human rights’ – a ‘claim’ which is shamelessly taken at face value. Not once do the moral questions elicited by purposefully ‘lock[ing people] away’ somewhere wherein they are ‘not protected by the usual rules of war’, arise. Indeed, it should not need stressing that kidnapping people from foreign countries and imprisoning them incommunicado has little to do with simply ‘usual’ laws of war. Despite ‘flagrant injustices [that] remain’, The Independent does not conclude that Obama - who can ‘do nothing’ whilst faced with ‘such intransigence’ from Congress - should try harder to close the prison. Perhaps it does not much matter because ‘detainees were abused’ only in ‘the early years’, and ‘Legal protection has also improved’ – once again ignoring the basic principles of ‘extraordinary rendition’ itself.4 Rather, following the death of Bin Laden, the paper stated that ‘the creation of the legal black hole in Guantanamo Bay . . . sullied the reputation of America’, whilst the former Al-Qaeda head’s ‘baleful legacy’ and ‘shadow can be seen in the . . . continued existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp’, as if absolving the US for creating a ‘prison camp’; the Americans’ only crime in so doing was to hand ‘the acolytes of Bin Laden a potent propaganda weapon’, and, as mentioned before, to ‘sully’ the country’s reputation.5

Indeed, the most consistent concern with Guantánamo seems to be that it is ‘an appalling stain’ on America’s reputation6, which ‘depends on’ the prison.7 It is quite instructive that ‘open defiance of the rule of law’ and ‘ongoing affront to international law’ at best critically weakens America’s ‘moral authority’,8 and does not render it ‘wiped out’ (as The Independent described the US’ killing of Bin Laden).9 Perhaps this is not surprising given that ‘the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal’ ‘defined’ merely ‘a troubling chapter’ in America’s presence in Iraq,10 doing ‘vast damage to the country's global image’.11 Thus, though emotive condemnations are levelled at the US prison, the fundamental principles of its existence are scarcely touched upon; for, to vividly display such ‘uncivilized’ acts by a purportedly benevolent force, would drag the ‘War on Terror’ narrative into disrepute.

Britain & Algeria

In a recent report, we read of ‘a new joint security partnership [between British and Algerian intelligence services] in the wake of the In Amenas hostage crisis’: ‘closer security operation’ involving the ‘shar[ing of] intelligence from MI6 and GCHQ with the Algerian Government’, as well as British troops ‘work[ing] with the Algerians on a limited number of operations’ which ‘could potentially include the training of Algerian special forces by British special forces’.12 This is, of course, significant; however, there is a single, glaringly obvious fact which should elicit scepticism - that far from arising ‘in the wake’ of a recent crisis, Britain already had a strong relationship with Algeria; it being one country to whom it rendered ‘terror suspects’ who were then tortured, whilst being asked questions that British intelligence agencies had given to the Algerian security services.13 The alleged 'ricin plot' of 2003, for example - which was cited as a reason for war with Iraq - came from a tortured source (who was not extradited to Algeria, but fled there after his request for asylum in the UK was rejected, and was later picked up by the Algerian authorities).14 Such history – not forgetting the United States’ development of torture techniques, which has been rigorously documented15 - would demolish both the response and, indeed, excuse, cited in response to accusations of torture; that contemporary instances are aberrations, committed by a few ‘bad apples’,16 as well as the premise that ‘our’ side are ‘civilized’.

54 Countries Complicit in Rendition and Torture

A few days into February 2013, the Open Society Foundation released an extensive report entitled Globalizing Torture, which demonstrated that the human rights abuses associated with the CIA’s secret detention and extraordinary rendition programs were ‘significant and systemic, and [that] the scale of foreign participation in these operations was substantial and far greater than previously realized’, deconstructing the blatant violations of international law, and documenting ‘the active participation of dozens of foreign governments’ – 54, to be precise – who ‘made possible’ the execution of the operations.17 The governments involved included Australia, Britain, Germany, Ireland, Spain and Sweden; ‘enemy’ states Iran and Syria; former-‘enemy’ state Libya; as well as countries wherein the US currently conducts illegal drone strikes – Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

How did The Independent discuss the contents of this report? We shall focus on the information on Britain, but note first that it neglected the report’s observation that the US actually prosecuted the Japanese for water-boarding, in the trials following World War II (p. 16; a fact absent in all of the editorials cited above with regards to Guantánamo), and failed to mention that the CIA had been conducting rendition since the 1980s (pp. 14-5).18 Turning to Britain’s activities, though The Independent notes that Britain ‘gave access to air space and airports and provided intelligence’,19 it does not give specifics: 170 stopovers by CIA-operated aircraft at UK airports (according to a 2007 European Parliament report; p. 115.);20 the admission of former-Foreign Secretary David Milliband of two rendition flights stopping over on Diego Garcia (p. 115 ); the documentation by Reprieve of ‘23 suspicious stops between 2001 and 2005 in the Turks and Caicos by aircraft associated with extraordinary renditions’ (p. 115).21 Also absent is Globalizing Torture’s statement (referencing the work of Ian Cobain) that ‘within days of the September 11, 2001, attacks, the CIA informed British intelligence officials [including former-MI6 head of counterterrorism, Mark Allen] . . . of the CIA’s plans to abduct and secretly detain Al Qaeda suspects’ (p. 113);22 as well as recognition of a ‘NATO meeting in October 2001, [in which] the U.K. government pledged logistical support to the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program’ (p. 113). The Open Society Foundation report also quoted the words of Allen to Libya’s Moussa Koussa: ‘I congratulate you on the safe arrival of [a rendered detainee]. This was the least we could do for you . . . to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years. I am so glad. . . . I . . . am very grateful for the help you are giving us (p. 114). David Usborne, author of The Independent’s article, felt it unnecessary, it seems, to include such damning evidence.

We could go on. Indeed, though Britain’s role was previously known, this report documents the complicity of dozens of governments, yet the reception it received in The Independent was a whitewash; in this case limiting the potential damage done to the state, and the credibility of the ‘War on Terror’ narrative itself.


Admittedly, the thesis pursued throughout may be irrelevant at this point, due to the massive evidence (touched upon above) refuting the initial narrative, and the accompanying international condemnation. That said, the exposing of hypocrisy in the ‘War on Terror’ loses value if we are to believe, as does The Independent, that the invasion of Iraq was merely a ‘misguided enterprise’.23 Such a position – and the ones outlined above – should be strongly contested.


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Categories in which this article appears: The Independent | War | Guantanamo Bay | War on Terror |

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