Perhaps you can fight fire with fire, but you can’t – or shouldn’t – attempt to fight terrorism with terror. That’s an ultimate takeaway from the U.S. Senate report detailing abusive interrogations of terror suspects by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The CIA had a heavy responsibility in those dark days after Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans were desperate to know not only who had carried out the hideous attacks that claimed so many innocent lives but also whether more attacks were being plotted.
What’s more, the agency and its overseers in the administration of President George W. Bush were smarting from their failure to detect and deter the suicidal airplane hijackers who took down the Twin Towers and smashed into the Pentagon. Result: Overzealous overcompensation that led to violent and inhumane treatment of terror suspects, arguably crossing the line into torture as prohibited by international agreements.
The ends did not justify the means.
From this vantage point, we’re not able to say who has the upper hand in the argument over whether information extracted under severe duress from interrogation victims (yes, victims is the right word) proved valuable in heading off further acts of mayhem. The CIA says its brutal tactics worked; the Senate report – produced by Democratic staffers on the Intelligence Committee – says they didn’t.
Perhaps the information was useful to some extent. But if so, the question lingers – couldn’t it have been gathered via other, less abusive means? And isn’t it a maxim of intelligence-gathering that someone being tortured will say just about anything to stop the pain? Will say especially what he thinks his tormenters want to hear, whether or not it’s true? Republican Sen. John McCain, who was tortured while a prisoner of war in Vietnam, speaks persuasively to that point.
Beyond pragmatic considerations lie the ethical ones – which, as it happens, have pragmatic consequences themselves. Even if by some stretch of legal logic the agonizing stress positions, the beatings, the sleep deprivation, the freezing baths and the waterboardings didn’t rise to the level of torture as commonly defined – hard to imagine, but logic apparently advanced by Bush administration lawyers – they represented a descent into cruelty that reflected poorly on this nation’s ideals.
How is the United States credibly to present itself as a champion of peace, justice and individual rights when, as a matter of national policy, it inflicts such treatment on prisoners, even on people who have aligned themselves as our enemies? The critics who say that such tactics are likely just to incite more enemies make a strong case.
The aftershocks of the Senate report will be felt with special intensity in North Carolina. By a coincidence of geography and history, the CIA has relied on Aero Contracting, an air service based at the Johnston County Airport, to transport terror suspects to interrogation sites in compliant countries. So even if the link is tenuous, residents of this state have had a role in what took place at those sites. It’s no wonder that the activists of the group Stop Torture Now have cast a harsh light on Aero Contracting and its involvement in the so-called rendition flights.
The thousands of soldiers and Marines based at Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune who have carried the burden of fighting Islamic radicals in Afghanistan and Iraq will take a keen interest in any policy shifts that could help the U.S. cause, including a forthright acknowledgment that our treatment of terror suspects was in some cases abusive.
It’s too late to undo that abuse, most of which occurred in the years when the country was first coming to grips with its vulnerability to acts of mass terror. But President Obama sounded the right note in saying that at least when the United States makes mistakes, “we admit them.” Certainly it would only make matters worse to pretend that the mistakes never happened, since their outlines, if not some of the shocking details, were already well-known.
The chair’s duty
Richard Burr, North Carolina’s senior U.S. senator and incoming chair of the Intelligence Committee once Republicans take control of the Senate next year, figures to be at the center of ongoing debates over how to respond to the Senate report.
Burr broke with some of his Republican colleagues by supporting release of the report – or, more specifically, of the executive summary that was in fact released while the 6,000-page main document was kept under wraps. His move was seen as a commendable gesture of support for openness.
However, the senator ended up in a posture that seems designed to let him have it both ways. He now says he favored giving the Obama administration a chance to redact sensitive information from the report and then releasing it “if appropriate.” The document – compiled under the auspices of Democrats who are about to lose their Senate majority – failed Burr’s redaction test, so he joined fellow Republicans on the Intelligence Committee in arguing it shouldn’t have been released after all.
The GOP group criticized the report as inaccurate, needlessly provocative, adding little to what was already publicly known and politically biased. Burr said he would not hold committee hearings to further probe the findings. “Put this report down as a footnote in history,” he told McClatchy Newspapers.
What Burr must reckon with is the healing power of transparency in correcting governmental blunders. It’s no wonder that officials who’ve messed up don’t want the public to know about it. Finding out is the first step toward demanding that officials clean up their acts. Indeed, it’s the first step toward rewarding those who tried to do right and disciplining those who did wrong.
When large decisions about public policies are being made, it’s not unusual for partisan motives to come into play. For Republicans to accuse the Democrats who released the CIA report of being partisan is to ignore their own partisan stakes in absolving the Bush administration of misjudgments and possible wrongdoing.
Burr can best serve the public interest, and honor the principles of fairness and non-violence that are fundamental to groups such as the Council of Churches, by insisting that the CIA and other intelligence organizations be held to account for their actions in the light of public scrutiny.
That doesn’t mean disclosure of operational details. It does mean a degree of oversight sufficient to deter out-of-control programs such as the “enhanced” interrogations that once again have left the CIA to address damning questions about its conduct.