CIA Torture's Immeasurable Damage to U.S. Global Leadership

The CIA was never among the world's most trusted global brands, even among U.S. allies, but torture revelations have diminished U.S. claims to moral leadership and reduced its "soft power."
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Last month's revelations about CIA torture have hurt U.S. credibility worldwide. The Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA Interrogation concluded the program "created tensions with U.S. partners and allies...complicating bilateral intelligence relationships." It said the program caused "immeasurable damage to the United States' public standing, as well as to the United States' longstanding global leadership on human rights in general...."

Immeasurable is right -- in a literal sense it's impossible to gauge just how badly Washington's international U.S. image has been hurt by the CIA's torture. The CIA was never among the world's most trusted global brands, even among U.S. allies, but torture revelations have diminished U.S. claims to moral leadership and reduced its "soft power." An editorial in influential Spanish newspaper El Pais argued that the revelations mean the U.S. can no longer present itself as "a beacon of freedom."

Releasing the report isn't what's hurt America's reputation -- making public and facing up to its mistakes are generally seen as a plus -- and the backlash attacks against American embassies and personnel overseas some warned would be triggered by the report's release hasn't happened. After Abu Ghraib and earlier revelations from Guantanamo it's not much of a shock for foreigners that the CIA tortured detainees and lied about it to other parts of the U.S. government, though details of rectal feeding and other abuses refreshed memories of what went on during the Bush presidency.

Western government leaders have been fairly muted in their reaction to the revelations, and their responses have generally concentrated on applauding the U.S. for doing the right thing in owning up to its sins (the U.K. is facing a not dissimilar test of transparency now its 1970s treatment of the "Hooded Men" in Northern Ireland is under renewed scrutiny).

There have been some calls for prosecutions of American officials, including from Members of the European Parliament and the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism. But for governments complicit in hosting black sites or otherwise facilitating the CIA's torture, is difficult to condemn what happened too vigorously. U.S. allies that facilitated American torture might be nervous about closer scrutiny of where the CIA money went.

"To encourage governments to clandestinely host CIA detention sites, or to increase support for existing sites, the CIA provided millions of dollars in cash payments to foreign government officials," says the report. "CIA Headquarters encouraged CIA Stations to construct a 'wish list' of proposed financial assistance to xxxxxxx [entities of foreign governments], and to 'think big' in terms of that assistance."

The Senate report estimates that the CIA Detention and Interrogation Program cost "well over $300 million in non-personnel costs. This included funding for the CIA to construct and maintain detention facilities, including two facilities costing nearly $[number redacted] million that were never used..."

Following the release of the report, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski admitted for the first time there had been a CIA "black site" in the country. Kwasniewski was in power from 1995 to 2005 and had previously denied the existence of a CIA site in Poland. Now he says there was a facility but that the Polish government had no knowledge of torture or mistreatment there.Around 50 countries are reported to have been involved in enabling the CIA program, either by hosting black sites or otherwise facilitating its operation. Some are now under pressure from their media and public for having enabled the torture, complicating their relationships with the US and making future co-operation more problematic. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani described the revelations as shocking and inhumane, and announced that from now on the US would not be able to detain Afghans in the country. Lithuania and Romania are among the countries now exposed to possible international legal action for having hosted CIA torture facilities, and while the Thai government is keen to distance itself from the revelations, denying it hosted a secret prison, it is widely reported that Detention Site Green was based in the country.

President Bush's personal assurances to Irish government leaders that Shannon airport was not being used as a refueling stop for flights carrying detainees are still met with some skepticism in Europe, and after the guarantee given to Ireland the Bush White House told the European Union it wouldn't be offering assurances to other governments on a country-by-country basis.

The revelations mean being seen as friends with the CIA is less attractive than ever, and will make it harder politically for some allies to partner with US intelligence agencies. But releasing the report was the right thing to do: in the long run continuing the coverup and refusing to admit what really happened would have hurt the U.S. far more.

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