Column: Torture remains a political football
The catalog of horrors contained in Tuesday’s report from the Senate Intelligence Committee ought to settle one argument for good: Yes, the CIA did use torture on suspected terrorists in its secret detention program a decade ago.
Not convinced waterboarding is torture, even though the U.S. military considers it that? Then try sleep deprivation, which the State Department calls torture when it’s used by other countries. The CIA kept some detainees awake for 180 hours, the report notes, “at times with their hands shackled above their heads.” Still not enough? Try “rectal feeding,” which has little to do with nutrition. And then there’s the case of Gul Rahman, the Afghan detainee who was stripped naked from the waist down and shackled to the floor of an unheated dungeon; he froze to death in the winter of 2002.
But Tuesday’s report won’t settle that argument for everyone, alas, because — like so much else in American politics — it has become a partisan football. Five years ago, most of the Republicans on the Intelligence Committee decided that the investigation of CIA misconduct was a veiled attack on the administration of President George W. Bush, and stopped cooperating with the committee’s Democratic majority on it. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the report as “ideologically motivated and distorted.”
Nor will the report settle an equally important question: Did the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” produce information that stopped terrorist attacks, saved American lives, and led Navy SEALS to the hideout of Osama bin Laden?
For years, the CIA and its directors have insisted that the coercive interrogations produced intelligence that couldn’t have been gained any other way.
The Senate report says that simply wasn’t true. “The CIA consistently omitted the significant amount of relevant intelligence obtained from [other] sources,” it charges, “leaving the false impression that the CIA was acquiring unique information from the use of the techniques.”
This debate is a little narrower than it sounds, though. Some of the CIA’s critics have charged that torture produced no useful intelligence at all, but when she unveiled the report, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) didn’t make that claim. She said, instead, that the information credited to torture could have been gained without it — and often was. The CIA’s defenders insist that without using harsh techniques, the U.S. might never have found Osama bin Laden; the report suggests that’s not true.
“There’s something tragic about this report,” said Amy Zegart, an intelligence scholar at Stanford. “Feinstein and her staff have spent years trying to get to the truth. But because of the way the process worked, their report will be attacked as imperfect and partisan through eternity. It was an attempt at truth and reconciliation that will achieve neither.”
It’s particularly frustrating that the Senate report didn’t quite succeed in settling the debate over whether torture is ever effective. In part, that’s because some of the detainees were subjected to coercive interrogations before their questioners got a chance to find out what they would have said under less draconian treatment.
The CIA doesn’t know the answer, either. In his response to the report, CIA Director John Brennan notes, remarkably, that the agency “failed to perform a comprehensive and independent analysis on the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation techniques.” As a result, he says, “The agency takes no position on whether intelligence obtained from detainees who were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques could have been obtained through other means or from other individuals. The answer to this question is and will forever remain unknowable.”
“I was hoping for an ‘aha’ moment — that moment where we’d get a definitive answer,” said Zegart. “That didn’t happen.”
There were a few exceptions to the partisan divide on Tuesday. One of them, Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), was a victim of torture himself, as a prisoner in Vietnam. He made an important point: Whether “enhanced interrogation” ever works is not the most important question.
“Torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use,” McCain said on the Senate floor on Tuesday. “This question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.
“We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them,” he said. “How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves, even momentarily.
“Our enemies act without conscience,” McCain said. “We must not.”
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