Earlier this week the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. After the events of 9/11 the CIA began, with the approval of President Bush, to gather intelligence that would allow us to find, capture, and prosecute those responsible.
Virtually everyone in the country, and indeed the world, found this appropriate. Violence should always be answered with justice. But early on it became clear that while we all agree on the goal, the Bush administration saw this as an opportunity to suspend the Constitution and ignore long held prohibitions on torture.
Over the next several years we learned about Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, Extraordinary Rendition and a host of other terms. Many of us (who wanted justice for 9/11 as much as anyone) believed that the Bush administration made unwise and illegal decisions under the guise of national security. Unfortunately the administration was clear: anyone who disagrees with us is unpatriotic and secretly hopes for the destruction of the United States.
Time and again they claimed that “enhanced interrogation” of “the worst of the worst” led them to intelligence that saved thousands of lives. Many of us were suspicious or doubtful but in the absence of information (that they refused to release) it was hard to prove.
It isn’t any longer. According to an article in Vox, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence decided to launch an investigation in March of 2009. To be fair this isn’t a coincidence: it came two months after the inauguration of President Obama. Then again many of us voted for President Obama hoping that he would stop the abuses of the Bush administration. In any case when they began their investigation it became clear that they couldn’t interview anyone from the CIA because the Department of Justice was considering criminal prosecution of those involved. Nobody from the CIA would testify out of a well placed fear that any testimony could be used against them in a criminal trial. While the Justice Department decided in 2010 not to prosecute anyone, it gave the Republican members of the committee the cover they needed to stop cooperating with the investigation and distance themselves from any findings. They are now portraying this investigation and report as one sided and partisan even though they abandoned their chance to affect it.
As Americans we need to ask two questions: (1) Is torture permissible?, and (2) Does it work?
As to the first question, I answer “no.” Torture is ultimately about convincing another human that he isn’t human. Torture means telling someone that he isn’t of any value outside of his ability to provide information that is valuable to the enemy. When our Vietnam Veterans spoke of being tortured they all knew that they were being coerced to give information that would injure their country in exchange for better treatment. And they took solace in the fact that the United States didn’t torture Vietnamese prisoners.
As to the second question, that answer is clearly “no.” The report is clear that any information gained was already known from another source or was gained from the prisoner before the torture began. Simply put, all the torture gave us nothing.
And yet the previous administration continues to push back against the facts. Former Vice President Dick Cheney stated on Meet the Press that he would do it again. He claimed it was justified because the Justice Department ruled those tactics permissible.
In the final word this is what troubles me most. The Bush administrated claims to rely on the opinion of the Justice Department even though they were officials Bush appointed. Everyone, from the president on down to the torturers, claimed to be following orders. This sends chills down my spine because it reminds me of the Nuremberg Defense. After World War II the surviving leaders of the Nazi party were put on trial for war crimes. They defended their actions by saying that they were “just following orders” and were not responsible for their actions. The court ruled this defense unacceptable: the defendants had a moral and legal responsibility to refuse to carry our orders that were clearly illegal.
I wish that was more widespread here. Unfortunately there was one man who stood up and called out the torture for what it was: John Kiriakou. He is now in federal prison. His inmate number is 79637-083. Had other shown his courage he might not be there and we would be a country that better lived up to its values.