Tortured report

Pretty slow news day, huh? Yep, not too much to talk about today I guess.

Is there anything on TV? Any movies out?
Is there anything on TV? Any good movies in the theaters?

Well, I guess there is that report the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released about some program or another, enhanced something something? I guess I could Google that and see if it’s gotten any attention…

(Hours pass)

Well, uh, I guess it’s not such a slow news day after all. The executive summary of the SSCI report on America’s post-9/11 detainee and torture program was released today after protracted, frequently bitter negotiations between the committee and the CIA/White House over how much of the summary should be released and how information about the particulars (identities of CIA personnel, locations of American black sites) should be obscured. This was accompanied by the release of responses, from the Republican minority on the committee, from President Obama, from the Director of National Intelligence, from the CIA, from former CIA workers, from the ACLU, from…well, from a lot of people, OK? Including this guy, who, whatever else you may think about him, does have some particular expertise on this subject:

I’m not going to try to make you read another exhaustive summary of the report; those can be found pretty much everywhere on the internet today, and take all forms and flavors depending on your political persuasion. But there are some important issues around the release of this report, and I would be failing you and this blog (and myself) if I didn’t say something about them.

First, and perhaps for the only time in history, I have to say that I am in total agreement with Dick Cheney when he says this:

“What I keep hearing out there is they portray this as a rogue operation, and the agency was way out of bounds and then they lied about it,” Cheney said in a telephone interview with the New York Times on Monday. “I think that’s all a bunch of hooey. The program was authorized. The agency did not want to proceed without authorization, and it was also reviewed legally by the Justice Department before they undertook the program.”

Where I suspect the former VP and I would differ is that he thinks the program was rightly authorized, whereas I’d like to know when I can expect to see Dick Cheney and David Addington frog-marched off to await trial. But it is outrageous to portray the “enhanced interrogation” program as some kind of CIA-led initiative that had no provenance outside the agency, that was conducted in total secrecy and defended with outright lies to Congress and the White House. The report’s findings suggest that the CIA withheld information about the severity of its techniques to Congress, to the DOJ lawyers who wrote the legal justifications for the program, and to the White House, and that may be a fair point, but it then obscures the far more central fact that the Bush White House ordered, the DOJ justified, and Congress then approved of interrogation techniques (like waterboarding) that constituted torture. That they might have been less severe forms of torture than some of the things the report says CIA officers did doesn’t mean they weren’t still torture. There’s an obscenity in laying the blame for the torture program solely at the feet of CIA agents (many of whom, as the report shows, objected to the program when they were ordered to carry it out) when the program had support and backing at the highest levels of the legislative and executive branches, and, for that matter, among we Americans ourselves. Where’s the report investigating those people? Where’s the study that tries to figure out what the hell is wrong with an American public that is 70% in favor of torturing prisoners under certain circumstances?

This is not meant to marginalize or excuse the CIA’s role in the program or the awful, graphic reality of some of the things it did try to hide from Congressional or White House oversight. The harshest techniques that were used are impossible to justify on any level. People with no connection to Al Qaeda were tortured on the basis of faulty intelligence derived from other prisoners we tortured. Hell, even CIA informants were accidentally tortured by the CIA:

A detainee died, of hypothermia, forced to sit on a cold floor for hours on end with no pants. And although it doesn’t excuse the role that Congress and the Administration played in the program, the Agency did, it seems, lie to just about everybody as to the nature, method, and effectiveness of the program.

That last point is important, because the people who are still supporting the program are arguing against the SSCI report on the basis that the torture program did produce effective, actionable intelligence. The investigation revealed several instances where the CIA claimed that torture provided the intelligence to thwart a pending terror attack or to finding the whereabouts of a key terrorist figure (like Osama bin Laden), but where the facts don’t appear to support the agency’s characterization. For example, the agency claimed that the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed led to information that thwarted a supposed plot to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting its suspension cables, and yet:

The committee report revealed that it was actually a court-approved wiretap of another American suspect, Majid Khan, that prompted the F.B.I. investigation into Mr. Faris. Mr. Khan’s capture and interrogation by a foreign government — without any harsh tactics, according to C.I.A. documents — led to the identification of Mr. Faris as a Qaeda member.

Later, after being tortured, Mr. Mohammed identified a photo of Mr. Faris but could not remember his name. He said that he had once tasked Mr. Faris with finding tools to loosen the bolts of American suspension bridges, but that Mr. Faris had been unable to do so. The F.B.I. had already been following Mr. Faris at that point, and when agents approached him, he talked voluntarily, the report showed.

Separately, C.I.A. officials played down the likelihood of the bridge attack. “We risk making ourselves look silly if the best we can do is the Brooklyn Bridge,” one official wrote in 2005.

Max Fisher argues that the torture program wasn’t even designed in a way that could have produced actionable intelligence, since it was reverse-engineered from the Army’s torture-resistance training program, which prepares soldiers to resist the kind of torture techniques that are employed to obtain false confessions, not true information. You can’t expect techniques that aren’t designed with any concern for actually eliciting the truth to elicit any truth, and in fact it’s likely that most of these interrogations elicited false information that may have actually compromised our counter-terrorism efforts. The attempt to obfuscate the program’s effectiveness is still ongoing:

Yet, despite common ground with some of the findings of the Committee’s Study, we part ways with the Committee on some key points. Our review indicates that interrogations of detainees on whom EITs were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives. The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al-Qa’ida and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day.

The phrase “interrogations of detainees on whom EITs were used” is such obvious weasel-wording that I can’t even believe it made it into the statement. It’s an attempt to claim that the EITs (and notice how we’ve completely elided all emotion from what was in fact a torture program, first by redefining torture as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and now by reducing that to the completely vapid acronym “EITs”) were responsible for intelligence that CIA records indicate was obtained from detainees before those techniques were actually used on them. And this doesn’t even get in to the question of whether actionable intelligence produced (assuming any was produced) in a way that materially harms America’s standing around the world is actually worth obtaining.

But I’m wading into the wrong end of the pool, here, because the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if torturing detainees produces effective intelligence. The immorality of the act outweighs any baser questions of its effectiveness. The founders of this country (who we don’t hear much about on this issue even though we’re so often told to turn to them when it comes to questions like “should the government make sure that everybody can go see a doctor when they get sick?” or “should the government make sure that poor children can get a decent free lunch in school?”) were utterly and completely opposed to the idea that governments should be allowed to torture prisoners, even foreign prisoners or prisoners of war. While chattering nitwits can go on their insipid TV morning talk shows and say things like “the notion that somehow this makes America less great is asinine and dangerous,” this does indeed, I’m sad to say, make American less great. Every one of the 185 times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded diminished us as a people, and we all must bear the responsibility and shame for it because it was done in our names and with our electoral blessing. While addled clowns can go on TV and argue that the release of this torture report is a smokescreen for the obviously far more serious question of how we can stop making sure everybody can go see a doctor when they get sick, it should be clear to the rest of us that the torture program’s degradation of our basic humanity is the far more important issue.

The committee minority’s rebuttal argues that the report is flawed in part because it fails to take into account the “context” of the program, as though that should excuse the crimes that were committed:

It also makes no mention of the pervasive, genuine apprehension about a possible second attack on the United States that gripped the CIA in 2002 and 2003. During our review of the documentary record, we could clearly discern a workforce traumatized by the thousands of lives lost as a result of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but also galvanized by the challenge of working to ensure such an attack never occurred again.

The whole country was traumatized by the events of 9/11, but the entire reason we elect representatives to govern the country rather than running things by plebiscite, and then subject those representatives to a system of laws and checks on their authority, is that at some point in the process the people who we put in charge are supposed to rise above emotions like trauma and determine the right thing, not the easy thing or the expedient thing or the immediately gratifying thing, to do. If Congress panics, the White House is there to limit the damage. If the CIA runs off the rails, somebody overseeing the agency is supposed to rein it in. If all the human beings running the government fail, then the laws we’ve created and the principles that underlie them, embodied in We the People, are meant to serve as the ultimate limit on their actions. But when the entire system panics, when blind fear and rage takes over at every level of government, we ignore those laws and principles to our great detriment. Then you have a government torturing prisoners, a military sent wildly and cathartically into a pointless and self-defeating war, and a public too frightened and cowed to demand that we come back to our collective senses. You have, in other words, the last 13 years of American history.


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