The Senate Intelligence Committee's recent release of their report on the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program (aka the CIA Torture Report) has caused quite a public and political stir. And while most reasonable people would agree that torture is categorically immoral, I have been repeatedly amazed (and disheartened) by the vehement support that still rushes to the defense of such a program.
I have decided to write this piece as a means of confronting various detracting arguments and show their empirical, logical or moral cruxes. I realize that in order to have the most constructive national conversation on this massively important issue, we must take these voices into consideration, even if it is only to better deconstruct and reject them.
1. The Program Helped Save American Lives/Fight Terror.
According to the Senate report, this assertion is greatly overstated, at best, and patently false, at worst. Still, there is substantial support for this claim in various political camps and within the CIA community. The extent to which it is true or not will never likely be settled but ultimately, it probably resides somewhere in the middle, although most evidence we have indicates that torture is most often quite ineffective. So to be diplomatic, perhaps we will just say that the jury is still out.
It is important to note that this point is ultimately irrelevant. Number of terror plots allegedly averted aside (which is quite few if we take the Senate report at its word), as a country of conscious and one that prides itself on moral values, we should never have allowed ourselves to be scared into violating such fundamental principles. Instead of walking ourselves down a Kantian or utilitarian morass of efficacy versus ethical responsibility, we can just stop this discussion at the gate by saying that, regardless of the results, torture is wrong. Period.
2. The Techniques Used Do Not Legally Constitute Torture.
The Bush administration was sure to create an extensive legal framework so that at least the semblance of legality (and freedom from indictment, no doubt) accompanied the torture program as it viciously visited itself upon the bodies and minds of detainees. [Note: the use of the word "detainee" versus "prisoner" is one of such legal consideration. "Detainees" are individuals who are being held but have not been convicted of a crime. "Prisoners", as in prisoners of war, are protected by the Geneva Convention]. This legal framework, however, was contrived and failed to follow international law -- a reality attested to by the number of independent investigations into different aspects of the program by Spain, France, the UN, and our own Department of Justice. So the simple technicality that, in fact, a legal umbrella existed in no way changes the nature of the abuses that occurred.
This is especially relevant when we look at the fact that in many cases, according to the CIA's own information contained within Senate report, CIA agents repeatedly exceeded the "acceptable limits" of the prescribed enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT). So even this facade of "legality" was ultimately violated, but without recourse.
3. Other Countries (Russia, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, etc.) Are Much Worse.
Personally, this argument is the most frustrating of all. We continually remind ourselves of our exalted status on the world stage, both as a political actor and a moral authority. It is in these moments of tragic moral failure, however, that we resort to measuring ourselves against the bar set by countries that make no claim to the ethical high-ground. I would agree that, in regards to human rights violations, countries such as Russia, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia are far behind. And yet, when we make a point of condemning their abuses and ignoring our own, the resultant hypocrisy only cedes moral ground in any international efforts to bring them back within the realm of acceptable governance. If, as they say, we are to be measured by the company we keep, this argument does much more to spoil our moral standing than to justify our actions.
4. The CIA Employees Who Were Involved in This Program Were Patriots, Not Criminals.
Speaking to this point is tricky. Calling for those "patriots" to be held accountable is wholly taboo. It is hard to make headway against such popular norms without being labeled anti-American, but so it is. While I do not doubt the sincerity of the love that the CIA employees and directors have for their country, I submit that this does not at all exonerate them from responsibility and accountability for their actions.
This is a textbook example of the crimes that were prosecuted through the Nuremberg trials against former Nazis. [Disclaimer: I am not comparing complicit members of the CIA to Nazis, just using the analogy to the legal precedent set by the trials that preceded WWII]. These trials made it abundantly clear that "following orders" does not absolve one of responsibility. Patriots they may be, but according to the International Criminal Court (ICC), they are perpetrators of crimes against humanity as well -- the two are not mutually exclusive. They are responsible and should be held accountable both domestically and internationally.
5. The Senate Report on This CIA Program Is Just a Political Ploy.
The notion that the release of this report was made to coincide with the transition of power in the Senate or any other politically-charged events is simply juvenile. No matter when this report would have been released, the same challenge would have been raised by the report's detractors. The reality is, there was never a convenient time for us to re-infuse the national conversation with discussion of torture -- that it needed to happen sometime is without doubt.
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), addresses the asserted partisanship of the report in his recent point-by-point rebuttal to an op-ed written by several former CIA directors who defend the EIT program. He reminds us that, "The Committee initiated this review [the torture report] on a bipartisan 14-1 vote. The Committee's report was approved on a bipartisan 9-6 vote, and the Committee voted to release it on a bipartisan 11-3 vote."
Additionally, and perhaps even more tellingly, the most damning evidence against the efficacy and ethics of the CIA's program comes from the CIA itself. The extensive internal communications of the CIA paint an explicitly grim and Orwellian picture of what amounts to a state-sanctioned torture program. A common rebuttal to this revelation is that the Senate Intelligence Committee never actually interviewed any of the CIA employees or directors involved in the program, despite the fact that many of them were on the record by means of internal documentation. The absence of their testimony, however, is not an issue of political gamesmanship, but of legality -- many of the program participants were unable or unwilling to go on the record due to prior or ongoing criminal investigations. The fact that these individuals were not interviewed is not evidence of a failure by the Senate committee but evidence of the truly comprehensive moral issues with this program.
6. We've Already Had This Conversation, No Need to Rehash Old Wounds.
This issue is not behind us. It is on the tips of the tongues of the international community, especially as we are faced, yet again, with the existential threat of radical fundamentalism in the new and gruesome form of ISIS. In other words, the War on Terror and its subsequent ethical pitfalls are far from over. Additionally, Guantanamo Bay remains alive and well, despite President Obama's campaign promises. It continues to house over a hundred detainees, many of whom have long since been approved for release and cleared of all charges, existing in a juridical limbo in which no other countries are willing to accept them. In other words, the EIT program might have ended in 2009, but our country is still committing crimes against humanity at this very moment.
7. At Least We Are Willing to Confront This Issue.
I am, admittedly, so thankful that we live in a country with the capacity and freedom to confront such issues in a public and political way. But as our political system is slowly hijacked by corporations, special-interest lobbyists, and the bottomless pockets of an increasingly edified elite, I worry that our ability to democratically affect the moral direction of our nation is simultaneously compromised.
This is a battle being fought and lost in the Supreme Court and on the streets every day, and it is preventing us from bringing necessary change to a vast array of important issues. Is it laudable that this debate is happening? Yes -- although most of these issues seemed rather settled after the 1949 Geneva Convention established prohibitions against torture in any circumstance. Does this debate mean that we will not commit the same egregious moral errors in the future? I worry that this depends more upon what is politically and financially expedient (endless war is incredibly profitable for some) than what we as a nation determine is ethically just.
8. America is AWESOME! Stop trying to make us not awesome :(
Such emotionally-charged and doubtlessly-genuine epithets are symptomatic of the moral problems we face as a country, not legitimate excuses for them. By creating an atmosphere in which any dissent is automatically dismissed as un-patriotic, anti-American, or otherwise, we simply reinforce the normative attitudes that undermine the power of plurality and diversity in our democratic process. The fervent belief in our own unconditional "awesomeness" is an expression of a dangerous ideology that feeds into notions of our own exceptionalism and unquestionable self-righteousness. Despite what FOX News might have us believe, such blind faith does not represent greater dedication, but instead the easy way out and the surest path to betray our rights and responsibilities as free citizens. It takes far greater virtue and courage, as a country and as individuals, to critically face our own shortcomings for what they are than to construct a self-reinforcing insulation from them.
The days after 9/11 were terrifying and confusing indeed. But it is not in moments of strength, but in those moments of vulnerability that our true resolve and values as a nation stand out. In the sense that such vulnerability led us to defy both international law and our own stated principles, we failed, and in no short order -- so let's try to stop downplaying this whole affair or attempting to justify it along legal or ideological lines. We did not just torture enemy combatants, we tortured fellow human beings, many of whom later proved innocent. That kind of a stain is hard to remove and rightly so. The longer we try to defend it, the longer it will take us to create meaningful change and move on as a country.