Torture Report’s Long Shadow
My latest for The National Interest, “Torture Doesn’t Work: The CIA Torture Report’s Long Shadow,” has published.
Despite the editor-assigned title, that torture doesn’t work “is not new news.” What especially bothers me are the defenders of torture that point to the hard job the CIA had.
On the one hand, I wholeheartedly concur that our intelligence professionals are in “an unfathomably difficult position” and are asked to do an essentially impossible job with potentially deadly consequences. On the other, this is the same mindset that lets police get away with killing unarmed civilians with impunity. Those performing dangerous jobs protecting the public deserve our understanding; they shouldn’t be above our laws or immune from scrutiny.
Like Senator Dianne Feinstein, the outgoing chair of the committee who courageously released the report, despite bullying from the intelligence community, I “can understand the CIA’s impulse to consider the use of every tool to gather intelligence and remove terrorists from the battlefield.” But, as she rightly notes, “such pressure, fear, and expectation of future terrorist plots do not justify, temper, or excuse improper actions taken by individuals or organizations in the name of national security.”
Oddly, that notion was simply common sense not all that long ago. As a freshman cadet thirty years ago last summer, the laws of war were drummed into me even before I studied battlefield tactics or the capabilities of weapons systems. That military professionals had a sacred duty to protect noncombatants, treat surrendering enemy soldiers humanely, and otherwise uphold our laws and our values, even at increased risk to our own lives and those of the soldiers under our command, was simply a given.
And, yet, I don’t really know what to do about it.
[W]hile I frequently and publicly opposed the use of waterboarding, rendition and all the rest, even in the earliest days after 9/11, and even while strongly supporting the Bush administration, I fully understood why the people with the awesome responsibilities of safeguarding the nation in those days might have thought torture was “worth it.” Thus, I’m left in the untenable position of simultaneously believing that the Bush administration acted illegally in many cases and yet not thinking that Bush, Cheney, Yoo and company ought go to jail for these acts. Indeed, I share this odd position with the current administration.
The cynical explanation is that Obama is president now and he doesn’t want anyone second-guessing him down the road. But it’s also something much more: sitting in the big chair gives him an appreciation of how hard it is to fill. Indeed, more than a decade after 9/11, Obama himself is still making compromises with the law, including the Constitution, which he swore to uphold, in the name of safeguarding the Republic.
While there are horrific revelations in the report—including that CIA willfully and routinely misled, if not outright lied to, everyone from their own inspector general to the oversight committees of Congress and even the president of the United States—we’ve known the broad brushes of this for more than a decade. While Congress and the Bush administration reined in the worst of the abuses by 2005, our elected leadership and public opinion overwhelmingly supported illegal actions in the name of protecting the nation from terrorism. There’s no appetite for punishing anybody and it’s therefore highly unlikely that anyone will be punished for torture.
Which leads me to an uncomfortable close:
If nothing else, CIA officials who lied to everyone from their own IG to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to the FBI to Congress and the White House should be called on the carpet. There is, of course, a perversity in going after bureaucratic miscreants for lying about torture while letting the torturers themselves and leaders at the highest level who authorized torture to go free. But there’s simply no appetite for going after elected leaders who were overzealous in fighting terrorism.
And as outrageous—and, again, illegal under both U.S. and international law—as the acts of torture against terrorist suspects in our name were, they were at least relatively few in number and long-since discontinued. The notion of a rogue agency taking these actions of its own volition, willfully evading the myriad checks, balances and safeguards built into the system is ultimately even more destructive to our values.
That conclusion is less than uplifting. But the report shed light on what Doug Mataconis has rightly termed A Dark and Regrettable Time In American History. It was by no means the only one; indeed, it was neither the darkest nor most regrettable. The most important thing now is making it less likely that we repeat these outrages. And making sure our institutional checks and balances are allowed to operate is the best safeguard of that.