The Terror in the Torture Report

It was several years after 9/11 before I had occasion to once again board a plane. Arriving at airport security, the sight of everyone in line, by rote, yanking off their belts and shoes shocked me enough that tears rolled down my face. That horrible day in September forever changed us. Suddenly we were no different than any other country vulnerable to terrorism.

Remembering 9/11 and the loss of 3,000 innocent citizens, I too wanted revenge and had no outlet for my rage. Yet I had to trust that those in authority would seek justice in a way that yielded results without letting go the ideals we say we hold dear. The goal cannot appear to be to inflict the most humiliation upon those they have captured.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein explains intel report on Senate floor (image clip from cspan video)
Sen. Dianne Feinstein explains intel report on Senate floor (image clip from cspan video)

The Senate’s release of the historic CIA torture report of Bush era “enhanced interrogation techniques” is a shocking document that forces us to examine the kind of people we wish to be. Americans were asked to make a number of trade-offs to our freedoms after 9/11 in the name of national security. I can’t profess to know what would make us safer, but I cannot imagine that rectal force-feeding, waterboarding or threats to slit the throats of a detainee’s family member would help in that cause.

The fog of war is one thing but we must be careful not to be seen as taking vengeance by humiliating and torturing the few we have in our grasp as a substitute for punishing those who are guilty of the horrific crimes for which we seek justice.

Per the New York Times, politicians in both parties, especially those with designs on 2016, have been rather muted in their responses to the report, or are avoiding the topic altogether. Times’ reporters Stolberg and Barbaro also shared that Conservatives wouldn’t “[shed] any tears for the terrorists who got roughed up.” Some liberals wouldn’t either. Full disclosure, no matter how liberal my politics, I’m an old testament kind of gal. There are some crimes for which you should no longer be allowed to walk the earth. Yet I still have a big problem with CIA black sites.

Senator John McCain, himself a victim of torture, said that we lose our honor by these tactics. It is a heavier burden to bear, but if we’re going to hold ourselves up as a beacon of higher ideals and freedom, then we have on obligation to adhere to those standards. It is said you will never know what your principles are until they become inconvenient to you. This is more than inconvenient. This is life or death. In such a moment, I cannot predict what I would choose. But I would hope never to dream up some of the gruesome tactics shared in that report.

Per HuffPo’s Michael McAuliff, Senator John McCain decried the CIA operatives’ who participated at these Black sites even as he offered them something of an out by saying “…in war good people can feel obliged for good reasons to do things they would normally object to and recoil from.” Yet, he still referred to their tactics as a “stain on our national honor” that “did much harm and little practical good.” McCain further stated:

“I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence,” McCain said, singling out the tactic of waterboarding in particular. “I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering.”

“Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.”

“I know their responsibilities were grave and urgent, and the strain of their duty was onerous. But I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear were neither in the best interests of justice nor our security nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend.”

The conduct of the CIA operatives mentioned in the Senate’s report seemed to reflect those in need of instant retribution to feed a lust for revenge rather than operating with a game plan that would yield actionable intelligence going forward. CIA Director John Brennan reacted defensively, averring that such techniques did save lives. But since radicals believe their greatest joy waits for them in the afterlife, how much will torture accomplish? If they see us an infidels who only wish to humiliate, doesn’t that strengthen their resolve against us rather than weaken it?

Joe Conason offered an interesting take on the subject in The National Journal:

Indeed, the Senate Intelligence report concludes, contrary to the boasting of Cheney and many others, that torture was proved “not an effective means of gathering intelligence,” let alone saving millions of Americans from jihadi plots, and actually “complicated and in some cases impeded the national security missions.” The overseers of the torture program, themselves of dubious competence, were unable even to assess the impact or effectiveness of their orders.

As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the CIA itself has admitted, in its otherwise aggressive response to the SSCI, that it lacked the “structure, expertise, and methodologies” to “systematically evaluate the effectiveness of our covert programs. They literally didn’t know what they were doing. But they were doing grave damage to themselves and to us….[snip]

According to the report, some episodes of interrogation were so blatantly sadistic and so obviously criminal that the men who witnessed them actually wept.”

Though this report damns ‘Bush-era’ policies, I cannot see this as a partisan issue. We have, after all, continued to renew the Patriot Act year after year with little fanfare – even when there was a Democratic super majority in Congress. And as Mr. Conason also stated:

“The searing issue we now confront, as a society governed by law, is that these lawbreakers will not be prosecuted or even required to testify publicly about their grave offenses. The Obama administration is apparently willing to expose their lawlessness, but unable to do anything to punish it. Even the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Romero, has abandoned any hope of prosecutions, noting that the torturers have in effect been pardoned. Romero has urged President Obama to make those pardons official – which would at least stamp the actions of the torturers and their accomplices as crimes.”

Whether the President would even go that far remains to be seen. Per The New York Times, even Hillary Clinton who will face great pressure to weigh in on this issue should she run as expected, has said while “The American people deserve to see [the report],” she opposed prosecuting “people who were doing what they were told to do.”

It is unlikely that any of the worst offenders practicing these “enhanced interrogation” techniques will be punished or called to account in any way. Which brings us to a question beyond the hyperbole of those either attacking the practice, or the report revealing it.

Going forward, we will have to decide if we want American to be as advertised or continue to sweep behaviors under the rug if they do not comport with our image management. Such a practice fools no one and, in the long run, weakens us.


Original version published at Anita Finlay’s blog.  Reposted, in full, with permission of the author.



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