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The tortured narrative of a nation at war: USA & the CIA Torture Report

By Tyrell Mayfield:

Photo: Wikipedia

What is more important: truth or trust? Are they mutually exclusive? Does one require the other? These are the questions that America is struggling with as it finds itself once again standing at the crossroads of legal, moral, and social justice.

The recent release of the summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program describes—in over 500 pages—what America has long referred to as ‘enhanced interrogation’. Most of the world called it what it was: torture. America has shown the world a redacted report – the original is 6700 pages – that describes what it has done in its quest to protect itself and its way of life from those that would do it harm. It turns out that America has clearly harmed itself and its own credibility more in the process than it gained in any meaningful way.

America rode an unprecedented wave of international support into Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, which targeted the economic, military, and political arms of the nation’s power. The attacks, notable for their simplicity and profound impact on the American psyche, galvanized the country in a way that was perhaps last seen with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour on 7 December, 1941. In other words, on 12 September 2001 anything was possible in America. The narrative that emerged was one universally understood: America was a nation that would respond in a measured and purposeful way to ensure its security and exact retribution for an unprecedented attack on its homeland.

To say that it has been a long road would be a drastic understatement. It has most certainly been a complicated one, full of technicalities, abstract ideas, and an undeclared war against a non-state actor. It is likely that this last complication—the non-state actor—served as the point of departure for a series of policy decisions that have brought America through the invasion of a sovereign nation without any real justification, the debacle of Abu Ghraib, and now the disclosure of a prolonged policy of behavior which in hindsight is nothing short of appalling.

Had America gone to war against a nation with a uniformed army, obligations to treaties and conventions would have proscribed the behavior now in question. In an undeclared war against an ideology, America applied executive policy where moral courage was required. One is now compelled to ask what positives, if any, can come of this behavior and its now very public disclosure? Does America believe that if it tells the truth, even when it harms its own image, that it will become a more trustworthy entity in the eyes of the international community? Can America change the way other states, cultures, and people view it by disclosing its own wrongdoing?

Truth-telling is only the first step in building trust. What comes next is more difficult: it requires that people and institutions be held accountable and that real and meaningful change be enacted. This suggests that the release of the ‘torture report’ may in fact serve two purposes. First, the report clearly demonstrates that America acted in a manner which was inconsistent with its own ethical values and boundaries. That these boundaries were, for a time, obscured by anger and injury, and further complicated by a prolonged campaign against a non-state actor is in part a reasonable explanation, but it is no excuse for the behaviour that followed. America seems to be coming to terms with its own actions; whether or not it can reconcile its conduct with its identity by holding individuals and institutions accountable remains to be seen.

Second, the report demonstrates that while America’s actions were inconsistent with its own identity, it is still a country that is capable of admitting when it is wrong. Make no mistake, America’s humility will not be appreciated by its detractors. They will simply argue that America is finally providing the world a glimpse of what it is capable of or, worse yet, what it considered to be acceptable and legal behaviour. But that is not why this report is important – its true value resides in its ability to regain some of the confidence of its allies and supporters. America has, after all, pressured many other states to reconcile the grievances of its own citizens with truth and justice commissions. Should it not ask the same of itself?

These two paths can be traveled at the same time. As with the release of the photographs from Abu Ghraib, America has once again torn off its bandage and revealed a self-inflicted wound to the world. What happens next will determine if the American narrative can help the nation recover its credibility or if the narrative of its detractors will remain dominant. Regardless of the kinetic power of the American military, so long as the opponent’s narrative remains compelling and dominant, the persuasive capabilities of American instruments of national power will continue to wane.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the USAF, the DoD, or the U.S. Government.


Ty Mayfield is a Political Affairs Strategist in the U.S. Air Force. He holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Oklahoma and an MA in National Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. Ty is participating in the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff directed AFPAK Hands program and splits his time between Washington D.C. and Kabul, Afghanistan. @tyrellmayfield

Editors’ note: Strife and the US Foreign Policy Research group will be hosting our first annual conference 4 March 2015 at King’s College London entitled: “A world in flux? Analysis and prospects for the U.S. in global security”. Leading up to this, we will be featuring a number of articles and responses to current events related to US and global security from a variety of students, researchers, practitioners and academics. This article is part of that series. 

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2 thoughts on “The tortured narrative of a nation at war: USA & the CIA Torture Report

  1. This report should accompany, amongst other actions, the release of most US-held prisoners “suspected” but not “accused” of terrorism from Camp Delta, Camp Bucca, and other “prisons”… Yet, the they still stand, full of detainees. It’s all good and great to put forward the “truth” narrative. But until US walks the talk, this will go into one ear and out the other. As you said, what matters is accountability… not just spilling the beans. This should be the spark to a whole lot of outrage worldwide (as if we didn’t know this before the report, but what ever), however, it’s alarmingly quiet out there… Forget what the US objective is or if they might be succeeding, what does the silence and conformism say about us? It’s right here, in black and white, in our face, yet most will choose to look away. Bravo humanity…

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