Guantnamo lawyers see issues in torture exhibit at spy museum

Defence lawyers and critics say Washington museums display on US use of torture in wake of 9/11 sanitises the punishments

Last Thursday, a handful of defence lawyers from the military tribunal trials under way in Guantnamo Bay gathered by James Bonds silver Aston Martin in the lobby of Washingtons new International Spy Museum.

The lawyers, accompanied by a former CIA analyst, had come in the wake of a spat that had broken out on Twitter after the museum opened its new, enlarged venue, over its controversial exhibit about the US use of torture in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In the face of criticisms that the museum was sanitising torture, the museums chief historian, Vince Houghton, challenged the critics to see the exhibit for themselves.

The Guantnamo group were the only ones to take up the challenge. Their clients were tortured after being captured about 16 years ago, and are now undergoing pre-trial hearings on their alleged role in 9/11. The central point of contention in the hearing is whether statements they made after their torture have any validity.

We are down in Gitmo every month with these guys moving towards an eventual trial. There will be a trial and all of this very much figures very prominently in it, Alka Pradhan, who represents Ammar al-Baluchi, a Pakistani charged with helping facilitate the 9/11 attacks, said. How people feel about it is going to play a big part in whether these guys are convicted and executed or not. Whether or not people gave decent information is going to make a big difference. Its literally life or death.

The issues the lawyers had come to the museum to raise have been largely forgotten. To the extent it is remembered at all, the USs use of torture is mostly recalled as ugly but necessary. The film Zero Dark Thirty shows Baluchi being strung up by chains from the ceiling and waterboarded, but suggests that he consequently gave up information that led to Osama bin Laden. That did not happen. A Senate report on torture concluded that it led to no life-saving intelligence at all. The valuable information extracted from the captives was all the product of conventional and legal interrogation.

Houghton greeted the visitors in the lobby. He is an army veteran who has just released Nuking the Moon, a book about the history of madcap intelligence and military schemes that were left on the drawing board. His visitors were there to argue that torture should have been one of them. He thanked the group for rising to his online challenge, and took them up to the contested exhibit, a few square yards in a corner, dimly lit by some artfully dingy fluorescent lights.

The display shows some of the history of torture, with models of an iron maiden and a thumbscrew, and in the corner a wooden stress box in which captives in the US war on terror were made to curl up for hours or days at a time, and a wooden bed historically used for waterboarding (simulated drowning by saturating a gag with water) by the Khmer Rouge for example. The CIA used a medical-style gurney, of the sort also used in the US for execution by lethal injection, but at present that is not portrayed.

The surrounding walls were inscribed with annotations, explanations and historical observations, all of which were clearly aimed at providing a balanced account. There was a video screen, on which five talking heads give their views. Two were in defence of the CIA programme, both from its architects, James Mitchell, a military psychologist who worked as a CIA contractor, and Jose Rodriguez, a former head of the agencys clandestine service.

Visitors
Visitors participate in an interactive exhibit about the raid to kill Osama bin Laden at his Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In his testimony Mitchell justified his actions by saying: I decided that I had a greater moral obligation to use what I knew about psychology and what I knew about resistance to interrogation to save American lives that I did about the temporary discomfort of a terrorist.

Three experts on the video display, including Alberto Mora, former navy general counsel, argued why waterboarding and other techniques were torture and why torture was both immoral and ineffective.

At the end of the exhibit, visitors were asked: Would you be willing to have the US government torture suspected terrorists if they may know details about future attacks? and presented with two buttons Yes willing; the other No not willing. In the two weeks since the new museum has been open, 59% had pressed yes.

The Guantnamo group had issues with almost every aspect of the exhibit, starting with its underlying aim of balance. Museumgoers are not asked to vote yes or no on committing other historical atrocities, they pointed out. The CIA programmes defenders, Mitchell and Rodriguez, were able to make provably false claims about the torture saving lives and its human impact (temporary discomfort) that were provably false. For example, US courts have consistently deemed waterboarding to be torture.

However, Mitchell and Rodriguezs claims are not directly challenged in the videos. The torture opponents on screen argue in generalities, and were not direct witnesses to the CIA abuses.

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A visitor tours the International Spy Museum. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Ben Farley, another lawyer from the Baluchi defence team, pointed to the text at the entrance to the exhibit, titled Interrogation: Who knows. The text asks at the end: Even if its effective is harsh interrogation compatible with our ethics and values?

The premise of this question is that it is effective, right? But its not effective, Farley said. He suggested instead: You can just assert torture is ineffective or theres no evidence that torture is effective. Period.

The group pointed to some factual mistakes and use of language they took exception to. Gail Helt, a former CIA analyst who now runs the security and intelligence studies programme at King University in Tennessee, said: When I saw this, I imagined my students coming through here and then I imagined myself having to disabuse them of the notions that we picked up here.

Houghton insisted the exhibit was not set in stone, and promised to take his visitors objections into account.

Were not beholden to anybody in Langley, Virginia. Were not beholden to anyone anywhere, he told them. Were beholden to telling the truth.

The important thing for me is that we have now established this dialogue, Houghton added. The changes may not happen overnight. They may happen kind of progressively as we move through.

But he warned: Were not going to necessarily convince a lot of people that torture doesnt work. I dont care if were encyclopedic about this I watched people go through the entire exhibit watch every video and then hit Yes, I would torture somebody.

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