As It Happens

Guantanamo defence lawyer calls Spy Museum torture exhibit 'CIA propaganda'

"I believe the Spy Museum has tilted way too far to include CIA propaganda about the torture program," said defence lawyer Alka Pradhan.

Alka Pradhan calls the exhibit 'completely off-base and factually incorrect'

An exhibit on torture includes a section on waterboarding in the new International Spy Museum, Tuesday April 30, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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Last week, a group of defence lawyers working on the military tribunals in Guantanamo Bay visited a new exhibit at the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., about the use of torture by the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks. 

It wasn't a fun field trip.

"In what seems to be an effort to provide a balanced account of an issue that doesn't require balance ... I believe the Spy Museum has tilted way too far to include CIA propaganda about the torture program," defence lawyer Alka Pradhan told As It Happens host Carol Off.

The Spy Museum did not respond to As It Happens' request for comment.

Pradhan represents Guantanamo prisoner Ammar al-Baluchi, who has been charged with helping facilitate the Sept. 11 attacks. The torture he has faced in Guantanamo has been widely publicized.

She first heard about the Spy Museum's new exhibit on social media. After attending the exhibit in person, her concerns were not assuaged.

'CIA propaganda'

"Seeing the exhibit up close really reinforced my impressions over social media," she said. 

"We had criticisms of almost everything in the exhibit, from the text on the wall framing the program, to some of the examples ... of the techniques that were used on the detainees, to spotlighting a couple of the detainees, to the video testimonials that were included in the exhibit, which we see as providing a platform to people who committed crimes."

In this photo reviewed by U.S. military officials, detainees interact inside the Camp VI detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Under former U.S. president George W. Bush, the CIA used what they described as "enhanced interrogation techniques," but denied they were torture.

In 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report acknowledging that the enhanced interrogation techniques used were not effective in obtaining valuable intelligence. 

Some of the interrogation techniques that were used included waterboarding and water dousing, where people were mock drowned, and "walling," where a person's head would be slammed repeatedly against a wall.

People were held nude in freezing conditions, and starved, and forced into stress positions that did serious damage to muscles and joints.

"What is important to remember is that these techniques were used in combination," Pradhan said.

"And they were being done at the same time as these men were being, quote, 'interrogated,' which [was] basically asking in a ham-handed manner, things like, 'How do you know Bin Laden?' or 'What did you have to do with Sept.11?' Things that no serious interrogator would consider effective." 

The exhibit acknowledges that these "enhanced interrogation techniques" were used, Pradhan said, but "there is no discussion of whether or not those techniques rise to the level of torture, as every international legal scholar, and anyone who knows the law, agrees that they do."

"There's no dealing with that and there is no real dealing with what the effects of those techniques were, either physical and psychological," she said. 

'Exactly what the CIA wants people to think'

The exhibit includes quotes and testimonials from people, including psychologist James Mitchell, who is considered the architect of the program. 

"He provides a very broad blanket statement about how this program was meant to protect Americans and how this was a difficult decision for him, but he thought it was the right one," Pradhan said. 

She says this paints an incomplete picture.

"What's really striking about what James Mitchell is allowed to say in the Spy Museum exhibit is that it's almost really too readily contradicted by his testimony under oath in a deposition that he gave, brought by a detainee who died at one of the black sites," she said. "And that testimony is publicly available." 

The new International Spy Museum opened on May 12. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The exhibit ends by asking attendees a yes-or-no question: "Would you be willing to have the U.S. government torture suspected terrorists if they may know details about future attacks?"

Fifty-nine per cent of people said yes, Pradhan said.

"What I make of that is that the exhibit has basically just reinforced exactly what the CIA wants people to think about their program to avoid liability for it and to avoid, really, the horror of the American people finally understanding how badly wrong this program went," Pradhan said. 

"The exhibit does nothing to dispel the notion that perhaps there is some effectiveness to torture. The exhibit does not explain at any point that none of these techniques are in actual fact effective."

'Real consequences'

Pradhan and her colleagues have raised their concerns with the Spy Museum's chief historian Vince Houghton.

"This is not historical," Pradhan said. "These are events that have real consequences."

Houghton did not respond to As It Happens' request for comment, but Pradhan says he has assured her he would would take their concerns into account.

"I want to commend Dr. Houghton, first of all, for issuing the invitation and following up with us and walking us through and taking the time to do that," she said.

"He's been very receptive to some of our correspondence following the visit. ... We're taking it very seriously. We do intend to put together a granular list of changes that we would like to see to the exhibit. And I very much hope that Dr. Houghton will take those into account." 

Written by Alison Broverman. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong.