The reaction to the Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s torture program has been almost as depressing as the report itself – which is saying something. There’s been impotent outrage from people you’d expect to be outraged; lame excuses from people you’d expect to make excuses; and muddled ambivalence from the vast uncommitted.
I’d hoped America would say with one voice: “We’re ashamed. Never again.” That isn’t what I’m hearing.
Much of the country still can’t even bring itself to say “torture.” Despite knowing what the report said, reporters are still referring to “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
In an earlier column I argued that the program was deplorable, but that it matters to understand exactly why it was deplorable. It was evil, but not because it violated an absolute moral principle that says torture can never be justified. That principle is no help, I said, because it’s false, and everybody (reluctant as they may be to admit it) knows it’s false.
An article by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University, unwittingly proved my point, demonstrating the futility of saying, “Torture is always immoral, and that’s that.” The classic ticking-bomb argument to justify torture does not disturb her moral certitude: She says it’s morally irrelevant that many of us might assent to torture in such circumstances.
“I think of myself as a pretty nice person, but I’d unquestionably use torture if I were the protagonist in the ticking bomb scenario,” she writes. “It wouldn’t even take a nuke under New York City to turn me into a waterboarder. If my children were threatened, I’d turn to torture in a heartbeat if I thought that would protect them. Readers, I imagine you’d be no different.But this doesn’t change the moral status of torture. All this tells us is that under sufficient psychological pressure, virtually all of us would commit immoral acts.
“But this doesn’t change the moral status of torture. All this tells us is that under sufficient psychological pressure, virtually all of us would commit immoral acts.”
Notice she doesn’t actually say that the nuke under New York City couldn’t justify torture – because to state this baldly would be so unpersuasive – yet she insists torture is necessarily immoral. Here’s the problem. The moral status of any choice turns on whether it’s justified.
This is what I call “impotent outrage.” Brooks somehow fails to see that she is closer to excusing than condemning the CIA’s program. What the agency did was wrong, wrong, wrong, she says – but, hey, sometimes you feel you’ve no choice, and anybody can do terrible things under pressure. Brooks demonstrates the price of refusing to draw lines and confront hard moral choices. She ends up making excuses for acts she abhors.
Brooks at least wants to be on the right side. Better to be an accidental apologist for what the CIA did than a deliberate one.
On Wednesday six former directors and deputy directors of the agency mounted a defense in the Wall Street Journal. Much of what they wrote dwelled on secondary issues: whether the Senate report should have been released in this form, or at all; whether the report’s exhaustive examination of documentary evidence is invalid because these former officials weren’t interviewed and the findings were written up by Democrats ; whether what was done was lawful and correctly authorized; whether things were hidden from political leaders; whether lies were told, and so on. But they also stated plainly that the program yielded intelligence that saved lives. The program was “invaluable,” they say.
So crucial facts are still contested. What can one say? First, that the directors’ assertions on the value of the program are flatly belied by the evidence laid out in the report. I also find it telling that the agency’s current director, John Brennan, conspicuously failed to align himself with their claims in his news conference on Thursday. He said the value of the evidence gathered was “unknowable.” That’s a long way short of “invaluable,” and not nearly good enough to justify a torture program.
I agree with the ex-directors, though, that they should have been questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee. It shouldn’t be too late to put that right, but it probably is – and the reason might be the most disturbing aspect of the response to the report. It’s a partisan issue. The new congressional majority is evidently more understanding of the need for “enhanced interrogation” than the Democrats who wrote the report.
Never again? Perhaps a revival and expansion of the program will be attached as a rider to some future omnibus spending bill. “We'll agree to regulate derivatives as long as you let the CIA hang prisoners in diapers from the ceiling.”
A brief word of praise, though, for Sen. John McCain – not for the first time, a notable exception to the rule. He said the program “stained our national honor, did much harm and little practical good.” That’s exactly right. And if you haven’t read it already, Peggy Noonan’s column on the subject is good: “American policy should be to treat prisoners the way we would hope – with clear eyes, knowing it is a hope – our prisoners would be treated.” That’s two conservatives willing to see what really matters in all this.
The CIA’s program was deplorable not because torture can’t conceivably be justified, but because it wasn’t in fact justified. It was deplorable because it was indeed a program, a policy, a system; because it was disgusting; because, far from being necessary to save innocent lives, it didn’t actually work; and above all because, lacking any such justification, it destroyed the moral standin of the United States.
The failure to form a strong national consensus around those points is a sad and shameful thing.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.