In the light of the Senate Committee’s Torture Report, we’re all keen to criticise the CIA. But 54 countries were involved in rendition and torture, and they all need to come clean about their involvement. The problem was global. The US may have exported torture just like the British Empire once exported its questionable values, but the States which worked with the CIA were not occupied by the US. They chose to. In the cases of UK-US rendition to Libya, the CIA’s role was actually minimal.
An outspoken Libyan dissident, Sami Al-Saadi, was forced to flee from country to country to avoid Gaddafi’s agents. He and his family were given temporary leave to remain in Britain but after a few years living in London and hiding their identities, they had to flee to China were they lived for a while. The family ended up detained in Hong Kong for immigration issues. In 2002 Tony Blair decided to make a deal with Gaddafi that Britain would get gas from Libya and Gaddafi wouldn’t develop chemical weapons. As part of this deal, the Al-Saadi family was to be renditioned to Libya. Though the CIA later decided to help by providing a plane, this was a UK plot and not a CIA-instigated rendition. The UK government wrote to Libyan officials that they had provided the intel (on the family’s location) even though they hadn’t paid for the plane, which shows they were eager to take credit for the rendition. The entire family, including children aged 4 to 12, were put on a plane in Hong Kong and flown to Libya where the entire family was imprisoned for months and their father tortured for six years. Fearing that the US would attempt a cover-up, in August 2014 the oldest daughter expressed hope that this CIA torture report would reveal the truth about her rendition. What she didn’t realise was that it wouldn’t be a US cover-up, but a UK one-the UK asked the Senate not to include references to UK agencies, so her family’s rendition was omitted from the report.
This rendition was not instigated by the CIA, but by Tony Blair. The CIA can’t be blamed as much as Britain and Hong Kong because the State which hands over the family, thereby enabling the rendition, is most culpable. That state was Hong Kong. The State which planned and negotiated the rendition is also culpable, and that was Britain. The US was complicit but they weren’t the main instigators.
According to The Guardian, terror suspect Abu Munthir was detained in Hong Kong before he and his family were renditioned to Gaddafi’s Libya in 2004, just two years after the rendition of the Al-Saadis. Hong Kong agreed to the operation, their only conditions being that the US would contribute toward plane costs and the plane would be registered in a third country. This means that, as the family were then in Hong Kong detention, it was Hong Kong who handed over the family to Libya, and not the US or UK. If Hong Kong hadn’t renditioned the family, the UK and US wouldn’t have been able to perform a rendition (at least not without first breaking the family out of the detention facility). The UK has rightly been criticised for providing logistical support and intelligence in the 2 Libyan renditions, and for routinely allowing the CIA to use British airspace and refuel while doing renditions. But Hong Kong has done exactly the same thing- it’s allowed a use of airspace and also done a handover of an entire family to Libyan agents.
The Guardian says “The Hong Kong authorities were also insisting that the Libyans offer an assurance that the family’s human rights would be respected”. That might sound good, but in reality the Hong Kong government (and ours, and the US) were turning a blind eye to the fact that they were sending someone off to be tortured. You’d have to be very gullible to take a brutal mass-murdering dictator like Gaddafi at his word. And if there’s one thing governments aren’t, it’s naive. They knew what they were doing, even if they were trying to convince themselves that Gaddafi would honour his promise, even when the family were completely in his control and no other State would know what he was doing to them.
What is of concern here is that while the US has an investigation into CIA torture and rendition, and the UK is having a police investigation over the Libya renditions, Hong Kong has yet to make any attempt to address its role in these same two Libya renditions.
So, while we need to demand the prosecution of CIA torturers and the architects of the torture program- including psychologists, politicians, soldiers and everyone who made it possible- we should be scrutinising other countries, too. Hong Kong had a starring role in both the UK renditions- in fact, without Hong Kong’s actions, there would have been no UK-Libya renditions. And seeing as both renditions were to Libya and involved the UK, that might suggest a much closer working relationship existed between Hong Kong and Libya (and/or Britain) than is currently known.
We also need to take the sole focus off the CIA and ask how much Bush and other lawmakers knew. Though the report suggests the CIA hid the extent of their torture program from everyone else in government, Bush knew something. Why should he escape jail if all the other culprits are prosecuted? He was the head of state, and it’s a standard principle for the boss to take responsibility for employee misconduct. The issue of whether government agencies can refuse the orders of a President is a complex issue, dependant on US law and CIA policy, but the question of whether being a head of state grants you immunity is not. And the same applies to Tony Blair. Without his decision to use the Al-Saadi family as collateral damage for his Deal In The Desert, MI6 wouldn’t have renditioned the family. So why are the police only investigating MI6 and letting Blair get off scot-free? Surely the main culprit shouldn’t escape justice if his accomplices (who were subject to Blair’s pressure and possibly legally obligated to do what he says) can’t?
The Torture Report is a great start, but we need to avoid focusing on the CIA’s crimes to the extent that we forget the bigger national and global crimes, and the fact that spy agencies are being led into crime by psychologists and heads of state. The Torture Report raises a lot of issues about individuals being given too much power over organisations, the trust we give to psychologists, the way civilians can influence intelligence agencies, the relationships between lawmakers and spy agencies, the power of media and activists, and the amount of scrutiny we have over our government. If we don’t want a global superpower infecting our planet with torture-as-neocolonialism, and if we don’t want business-savvy members of the public and individual politicians to lead our governments astray, then laws, policies and the structure of relationships between agencies will have to change.
This is not just a problem with the CIA. It’s a problem with the whole system of how governments operate and how influential or not the media and human rights activists are. It’s not even just an American problem. It’s a global problem. It’s a problem which includes ingroup belonging, a form of mob psychology, and similar issues. The CIA agents and US soldiers didn’t wake up one day and be like, “OK, I’m gonna get my evil on!” Some of them really thought they were doing the right thing, while others, according to media reports, were uncomfortable but felt they had to go along with it. So, despite its inhumanity, it is a very human problem.