The CIA Torture Report: The Elephant In Australia's Foreign Policy Room


If, in order to defend Australia, we do not believe that members of our defence forces and intelligence agencies should become the facilitators and accomplices of torturers, then we need to be having a national discussion as to how current and future Australian governments will avoid becoming embroiled in torture programs such as those revealed by the CIA Torture Report.

It has been over a month now since the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its delayed and redacted report into the Bush administration’s CIA torture program. Within the Australian Government and the wider defence commentariat, though, little has been said and the task of analysing the report’s significance has been largely left to journalists.

Conspicuous by their absence, the contributions from Australia’s top-three foreign policy and defence think-tanks; the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC), the Lowy Institute for International Policy (Lowy), and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), have been few and narrow.

For institutions whose members are gatekeepers of Australian public discourse on matters relating to foreign policy, strategy, defence planning and war, this is a concerning state of quietude. Staffed by a combination of former public servants, defence-academics, veteran journalists and former military personnel, these institutions are ideally resourced to conduct informed discussion of the report’s implications.

Yet to date, these three institutions combined have produced a mere four short articles (roughly, 2,500 words in total) and one 6 minute radio interview, with the Lowy web-blog, The Interpreter, providing all four articles. In them; Sam Roggeveen tut-tutted the role of “high emotion” amongst US policy makers in the wake of 9/11; James Bowen opined that, whilst “the sane among us knew”, the legacy of the report would be as a forewarning of any future national security overreactions; Susanne Schmeidl highlighted the potential for ongoing abuses given the CIA’s ongoing involvement in Afghanistan; and, Cynthia Banham posed questions concerning the role that Australian intelligence agencies might have played in the detention and torture of Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks.

Elsewhere, in the radio interview on 2CC Canberra, SDSC Senior Fellow John Blaxland stated that, whilst the report has revealed “a shameful episode in recent and contemporary history of the US,” the US remains “a state that recognises that you don’t kill people in this process.” Meanwhile, for ASPI, the report merited no comment, beside a few links in their weekly roundup.

Let’s be clear, the findings of this report detail the systematic use of torture by one of the world’s most powerful and secretive government organisations at the instruction of the former President of the United States. And, whilst the CIA exceeded these instructions, the report still implicates a range of senior administration and military officials in a spectrum of offences.

Furthermore, it revealed that the CIA not only deceived and misinformed its own administration and the American people, but also allies of the US who had participated in the program. This is what Australia’s ‘great and powerful friend’ spent the better part of $300 million dollars and seven years doing behind closed doors: perpetuating a ‘kafkaesque’ sideshow of spurious operational utility in support of two military occupations that resulted in massive civilian casualties and produced brutal sectarian violence.

This report has so far received no more analysis from Australia’s top-three strategic and defence think-thanks than what one would find in an undergraduate essay and half a tutorial presentation.

Perhaps the most obvious reason for this effective silence is that to explore the implications of the report would pose uncomfortable questions about our alliance with the US, particularly regarding joint military and intelligence operations. As Hugh White observed in 2010 many within the community simply:

“believe Australia’s commitment to its alliance transcends the ebb and flow of events. For them the US alliance is more than just a policy instrument … the alliance is an end in itself, an object of loyalty, part of our identity.

But, given the present situation in Iraq, it is precisely such searching analysis that this report demands, irrespective of whether one supports the US alliance or not, because we are again facing the possibility of becoming embroiled in such brutalities.

Here, the experience of Vietnam is a useful comparison.

In early 1962, Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War began with the deployment of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) to train and advise the Army of the Republic of Vietnam in a joint-operation with US forces. As the course of the war changed, the AATTV’s role evolved, from advising and training, to including small-group joint-combat operations as well as individual postings to specialist units.

What still remains officially unrecognised today, however, is that the secretive and dispersed nature of the unit resulted in some members becoming involved with the CIA’s ‘Phoenix Program’. While estimates vary, it is known that, from 1965 to 1972, ‘Phoenix’ was responsible for the ‘neutralisation’ of, at the very least, 20,000 civilian supporters of the Vietcong via detention, extreme torture and assassination [Michael Otterman, American Torture, 2007, pp. 59-72].

As in 1962, the much larger commitment of the 200-strong Special Operations Task Group of Operation OKRA have also been deployed for the ostensible purposes of training and advising the Iraqi Army. Now, while there are major differences between Vietnam and our third Iraq campaign, there are still political, strategic and tactical conditions we face today that incentivise the use of torture.

Firstly, in what US military leaders are already forecasting will be a protracted campaign, we are working in a tense geopolitical climate against an evolving, trans-border entity with whom, at least presently, no political compromises will be entertained, but the international demand for quick results is high.

Secondly, with a limited commitment of US-led forces, we are propping up a Western-backed government whose military cannot independently conduct major campaigns as it has been severely weakened by defeat on the battlefield, internal corruption and depressed morale.

Thirdly, the deployment is public knowledge and the enemy has been systematically reified as ‘evil-incarnate’, both of which add domestic pressure on leaders in a situation where traditional options, such as the use of substantive combined-arms ground forces are not yet being considered.

In such a scenario, information on the enemy’s political, organisational and logistical structures becomes the preeminent resource for optimising the impact of limited tactical options. For those under pressure to deliver results, this is but one way in which intimidation and torture becomes incentivised. Invariably, due to secrecy provisions, it is special operations and intelligence units that are given such tasks.

That we might become involved in such scenarios once again is not mere speculation either. David Wroe and Philip Dorling have already revealed that Australian special forces are conducting joint-operations “outside the wire” and that one of the major beneficiaries of our assistance is the US developed Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service: a unit that the Canberra Times reported as being unquestionably “responsible for major war crimes and unnecessary civilian casualties”.

Clearly, the gravity of the CIA Torture Report not only demands a serious assessment of the extent to which we were involved, it also presents an opportunity for a mature debate about the Australia-US alliance at a time in which we are at great risk of repeating past mistakes. And it is in view of this that the quietude of SDSC, ASPI and Lowy on these questions is not merely perturbing, it is a form of discursive delinquency.

We did not deploy the AATTV to be part of the atrocities of ‘Phoenix’, but that’s what happened.  We did not deploy our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq to become involved with the CIA’s system of extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation, but we were, at the very least, politically complicit with it.

And so, if the US and Iraqi governments resort to such ineffective and sadistic practices again, it is improbable that our government and our defence forces will remain innocent of its perpetration.

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