Torture is “inconsistent with our values,” President Obama has declared. I wonder. We have known about the brutal “interrogation” of terror suspects for years, without consistently lamenting or opposing it. In 2004, we learned that Bush Administration officials had approved the torture of terror suspects abroad. 2008 saw the release of a controversial Justice Department memo offering a legal basis for harsh interrogations. In 2009 a heavily redacted report by the CIA inspector general confirmed the use of “guns, drills, threats, smoke, extreme cold, stress positions, ‘stiff brush and shackles,’ mock executions and ‘hard takedown,’” in addition to waterboarding. In the wake of all these and similar revelations, half of Americans surveyed by Pew in 2009 agreed that torture was often or sometimes justified.
Will the newly released Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s torture program lead to a reconsideration of its justice or efficacy? Perhaps. Public opinion about torture has been fairly stable and these days opposition to it competes with new terror threats and videotaped beheadings of journalists and aid workers. But the Senate report does include gruesome new details, summarized by the New York Times:
Waterboarding is described as a “series of near drownings,” and detainees are said to have been “subjected to sleep deprivation for up to a week, medically unnecessary ‘rectal feeding’ and death threats. Conditions at one prison, described by a clandestine officer as a ‘dungeon,’ were blamed for the death of a detainee, and the harsh techniques were described as leading to 'psychological and behavioral issues, including hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation.'”
When law enforcement and security state agents are unleashed and unaccountable, they can’t be trusted to keep us safe or free.
Half of Americans may approve of techniques like this from a distance, but some CIA officers couldn’t stomach them. Reviewing the Senate report, the New York Times observes that “the sessions became so extreme that some C.I.A. officers were ‘to the point of tears and choking up,’ and several said they would elect to be transferred out of the facility if the brutal interrogations continued.”
Advocates and apologists for such “enhanced interrogations” insist that they prevented attacks and led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout. The Senate report disputes these claims, contending that torture was fruitless — ineffective in combating terror. The report also finds, not surprisingly, that that the CIA misled Congress and the president (as well as the rest of us) about the nature and effectiveness of torturous interrogations and the number of people subjected to them.
If none of these findings shock the conscience of people who support torture, they might want to consider the report that “at least 26 detainees 'were wrongfully held,' including an ‘intellectually challenged’ man who was used as ‘leverage’ to obtain information from a family member, two former intelligence sources and two individuals identified as threats by a detainee subjected to torture.”
In other words, the Senate Intelligence Committee found that in responding to terror threats, the CIA was not just vicious and dishonest but incompetent. The Senate report describes an agency characterized by “dysfunction, disorganization, incompetence, greed and deception … that was ill equipped to take on the task of questioning Al Qaeda suspects, bungled the job and then misrepresented the results.”
The question remains: Will this report significantly influence public opinion, policy or the current and future conduct of a war on terror? I suspect that our views of torture, terror and the CIA, positive or negative, are relatively fixed and that we evaluate relevant information according to our fears and ideologies. With a few exceptions, support and opposition to release of the Senate report and belief in its findings falls along partisan lines: Republicans (with the notable exception of John McCain) contest the findings and oppose its release, while Democrats tend to support it.
“GOP question motives” for release of the Intelligence Committee report, FOX News declares, stressing that the report was issued “amid warnings from lawmakers that the findings could ‘endanger the lives of Americans’ … more than 6,000 Marines on high alert.” The implication is clear: Senate “Dems” will be responsible for the next terror attack.
The security claims invoked in defense of torture are now invoked in defense of keeping the extent of torture secret. Former CIA Director James Woolsey condemns release of the Intelligence Committee report as a “great disservice” to the country. But our government’s resort to torture has not been a secret, here or internationally, anymore than the provocative detention and force-feeding of prisoners at Guantanamo has been secret, and as John McCain observes, terrorists “hardly need an excuse” to attack.
The security claims invoked in defense of torture are now invoked in defense of keeping the extent of torture secret.
But, in a democracy, government needs an excuse to keep secrets from citizens, and since 9/11, the promise of security has been a powerful excuse, overwhelming our professed belief in transparency. Government has rarely seemed more opaque and more righteous in its insistence on keeping its operations secret. Government agencies spy on us (we can’t keep secrets from them) and they torture in our name, ostensibly for our own good.
But we can’t know if government officials are acting in our interests when their actions are kept secret and, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned a century ago, “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government's purposes are beneficent.”
The Senate Intelligence report is a formidable challenge to the “beneficent” purposes and effects of torture. Put aside the Senate findings that torture did not keep us safe and consider the portrait of a vicious, dishonest, dysfunctional rogue agency. When law enforcement and security state agents are unleashed and unaccountable, they can’t be trusted to keep us safe or free.