For the United States, the legacy of the torture remains complex and multifaceted two decades after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, led the George W. Bush administration to set aside legal and moral constraints in the name of national security.
But the choice to turn to government-sanctioned torture remains a stain on the country’s reputation, undercutting its authority to confront repression elsewhere. Even today, some former Bush administration officials risk questioning when traveling to Europe by investigators invoking the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
After his first meeting with President Biden in June, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia reminded journalists that Guantánamo remained open and that the C.I.A. had carried out torture in secret foreign prisons. “Is that human rights?” he asked. The use of torture is complicating efforts to bring the five men who are accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks to justice. “There was torture,” said Adele Welty, whose son Timothy, a firefighter, died in New York on Sept. 11. She has come to question whether the military commissions at Guantánamo can deliver justice. “The fact that my country could do that is so barbaric. It really bothers me,” she said. “What kind of people are we that we could do that to other human beings, and did we really believe that what they were saying in response to the torture was real, or were they just saying it to stop the torture?”The United States also sent 119 people into the C.I.A.’s overseas network of secret prisons — including the accused plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks — where detainees were routinely sleep deprived, shackled in excruciating ways and subjected to rectal abuse and other brutal treatment. The C.I.A. has acknowledged that three detainees were waterboarded. One died of abuse. Many more were brutalised in U.S. or allied detention as interrogators improvised their own methods. A comprehensive study by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee of the agency’s program concluded that the techniques did not save lives or disrupt terrorist plots and were not necessary, findings that the C.I.A. disputed. (A lengthy executive summary of the report was made public in 2014, but the full report remains classified.)The war court at Guantánamo, run by the U.S. military, is meant to balance the need for secrecy with the rights of the accused. To the frustration of families of the nearly 3,000 victims of the attack, the crimes of Sept. 11 have been rarely mentioned in nearly a decade of proceedings. Rather, defense lawyers have effectively managed to put the C.I.A. on trial as they have systematically sought to exclude evidence against the men — notably confessions they made months into their stays at Guantánamo — as a product of torture.
The lawyers for one defendant, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, who sits gingerly on a pillow in court because of pain from rectal abuse in C.I.A. custody, argue that the case should be dismissed outright because of outrageous government conduct. In an effort to speed up the proceedings — and perhaps to protect the identities of certain C.I.A. employees — prosecutors have begun acknowledging that the United States tortured its captives in overseas prisons. They do not use the word, but they have read aloud in court from grisly descriptions of abuse to try to argue that defense lawyers have sufficient details to try to move either for dismissal of the charges or to exclude the death penalty if the defendants are convicted. Prosecutors said in 2018 that they would stipulate to “anything tethered to reality” to avoid the national security struggle over declassifying certain details of what went on in the secret sites.
Carol Rosenberg has been covering the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay