What the CIA report tells us about Arab torturers

What the CIA report tells us about Arab torturers
5 min read
17 Dec, 2014
The Senate report revealed the dark side of one US security apparatus but also a working democracy in action. For some Arab security agencies, however, it was an additional outrageous ignominy in a long record of disgrace.
Dianne Feinstein presents a summary of a senate report detailing CIA torture (Getty)
The release by a United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) of its so-called Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) torture report last week raised several issues, none more interesting than the light it shone on the Arab security sector.

The 525-pages released described some of the CIA’s violations between 2001 and 2006. The document includes key findings and an executive summary of the 6,000-page full report, which remains classified.

The report did not only show that the CIA tortured suspects, but also that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT) were not an effective mean of acquiring intelligence. The report also concluded that the CIA had deliberately impeded congressional and presidential oversight, as well as the efforts of the CIA's internal oversight body (CIA’s Office of
     For the CIA, the report was certainly a scandal. For American democracy, it was a victory.
Inspector General). Moreover, the Agency misled the media by leaking selected classified information to show the effectiveness of EIT techniques.

Regarding Arab security agencies, the report and related documents showed how some of them, especially in Egypt, Libya and Syria, have not only been torturing their citizens for foreign intelligence agencies, but have also been providing misleading intelligence based on the alleged “confessions” of the suspects.

The rest of the 20 key findings shocked America and the world. But the reactions of specialists on the Arab security sector were bit different. By way of comparison, almost none of the Arab parliaments have an oversight committee on intelligence, despite gross violations and six recent uprisings and revolutions sparked by the brutality of the security sector. The opposite is true. The security sector oversees and sometimes control parliaments, which are usually an outcome of rigged elections.

Also comparatively, an Arab parliamentary intelligence committee headed by a freely and fairly elected female MP, from a religious minority, who insists on investigating and then exposing the violations of the intelligence to the world is an Arab liberal democratic dream. That dream, however, seems so far from the realities of brutal autocracies, misogyny, sectarianism and unaccountability.

So, what does the report tell us about the behaviour of some of the Arab security agencies compared to the CIA violations? Well, quite a bit – especially about the level of repression and incompetence.

Another level of repression

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The report covers the period between 2001 and 2006. In these five years, 119 foreign prisoners – mainly from Arab and South Asian backgrounds, were held in CIA custody; 26 of whom were held because of mistaken identities or bad intelligence.

Those figures and time-periods pale compared to violations in the Arab-majority world. One-hundred-and-nineteen is 0.093 percent of the estimated death toll of protestors in the less than 12-hour massacre committed by the security forces in Egypt on 14 August 2013. It is also 0.0029 percent of the estimated 40,000 political prisoners held in Egypt in a year; the overwhelmingly majority of whom are Egyptians, not foreign combatants.

The estimate given by the former UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on the number of Syrian political prisoners suggests that the CIA held somewhere between 0.0011 percent and 0.0023 percent of the number of Syrians the Assad regime is abusing.

The forms of torture and abuse are also on a different scale. CIA agents threatened to target relatives of three out of the 119 suspects, as a form of pressure. That was considered one of the top-ten worst cases of abuse suffered by detainees, and certainly it is in a democracy.

But consistent hostage-taking (women and children included), and the torture of relatives of suspects is standard operating procedure in many of the Arab states mentioned in the report. The current tactics of the Sisi regime in Sinai, as well as successive Assad regimes over the last four decades, are grim reminders.

The CIA began sending (‘rendering’, in intelligence parlance) suspects it captured in the first month or so after the September 11 terrorist attacks to several Arab security agencies, including those under Mubarak, Qadhafi and Assad. It is clear however that the CIA never fully trusted Arab torturers; the suspects handed over were described as “second tier”, “less important”, “with less direct involvement in terrorism”, and “having limited intelligence value.” The ones with high intelligence value were held in “black sites” directly managed by CIA personnel.

This however did not prevent some of the “confessions” from these “lower-value” suspects to have major impact on the region.

Incompetence and dirty secrets

The most infamous case is that of Ibn al-Seikh al-Libi (Ali Mohammed al-Fakheri). He was a Libyan suspect reportedly captured by the CIA, and then handed over to the Egyptian General Intelligence Apparatus (EGIA), led by Omar Suleiman.

Under the torture of EGIA, al-Libi “confessed” that the Saddam Hussein regime and al-Qaeda were coordinating attacks against the United States, false information that was quickly passed on by the Mubarak regime to the George W. Bush administration. The latter cited it as one of the reasons to invade Iraq.

When the information was proven false, it was a source of great personal embarrassment to Suleiman and the EGIA. Not only had they tortured an Arab citizen to extract information for the CIA, but they also provided justification for the Bush administration to invade Iraq.

This is an addition to the apparent incompetence in assessing the information extracted under torture. Al-Libi was handed over to the Qadhafi regime in Libya, which Suleiman visited in May 2009. By the time Suleiman's plane left Libya, al-Libi had allegedly "committed suicide", the Libyan regime announced. Apparently, Suleiman wanted to bury one of his dirty secrets.

What the Senate report revealed is the dark side of one of the security apparatuses in the United States. But what it also showed was the level of transparency, professionalism and institutionalism in America. For the CIA, the report was certainly a scandal. For American democracy, it was a victory. And for some of the Arab security agencies, it was an additional outrageous ignominy in a long record of disgrace.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.