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.