Fear can make people – and nations – lose their moral bearings. That human truth is documented once again in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s newly released report on Bush-era CIA interrogations.
A 528-page summary of a much longer document, the report spends much of its time chasing its tail over a dubious assertion: that brutal interrogation methods never, ever produce useful intelligence.
Lots of people disagree, including former CIA Director Leon Panetta and current Director John Brennan, both of whom opposed the tortures used on a reported 39 “high value” terrorists. A newly released CIA report and the Senate committee’s minority report challenge that sweeping conclusion as well.
The question of torture’s effectiveness has turned partisan. The majority report was produced by the committee’s Democratic staff members. The minority rebuttal is a Republican product. Given the committee’s inherent biases and passions, people like Brennan and Panetta offer as much credibility as we’re likely to see on this question. The fact that an interrogation technique is morally wrong doesn’t mean that it never produces results.
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The real issue isn’t the usefulness of torture; it’s the nature of torture.
The very word “torture” needs some attention. It covers a broad multitude of sins. It describes crucifixion, electrification and the driving of splinters under fingernails. Conceivably, it could also be applied to long and grueling police interrogations in hot rooms under blinding lights as a suspect is suffering withdrawal.
The CIA’s tactics lay somewhere in between. Three terrorists, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were subjected to waterboarding, perhaps the most repellent practice. Mohammed was waterboarded a reported 183 times, sometimes in a way that looked like “near-drownings.”
Other techniques: days of sleep deprivation; long exposure to frigid temperatures; physical beatings; and extended confinement in a small, coffin-like box.
The CIA did, however, have doctors and psychologists supervise some of these practices to avoid inflicting permanent injury. Mohammed appears to have gotten wise to the limits and endured his sessions with stoicism. But one of the CIA’s prisoners reportedly died of hypothermia.
If the Inquisition was guilty of first-degree torture, the CIA was employing something like second- and third-degree torture.
A big question raised by the majority report is whether the people running the CIA operation were keeping the president and Congress informed. Again, the CIA and minority reports challenge the Democratic account, which asserts that the operation had gone rogue.
In one sense, though, the operation was very much in line with where the country was 10 or 12 years ago. After Mohammed and his fellow conspirators toppled the World Trade Center towers in 2001, Americans were furious, scared, and screaming for retribution and protection.
They had seen office workers jumping to their deaths off blazing skyscrapers to escape being burned alive. In the aftermath of that horror, most Americans might have applauded U.S. operatives water-boarding Mohammed in hopes of extracting what he knew of plans for further attacks.
In that era, the United States also invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and erected unprecedented surveillance systems to monitor the homeland. The secret abuse of captive terrorists fit right in to the era’s prevailing theme of fear and anger.