You probably have your own definition of torture, and I have mine. Here is mine: It is everyday life after getting a farewell call from someone dear to you, who then jumped from the 100th floor of a burning building because there was no other escape.
I put this thought together one evening last week after Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee released their findings on the CIA’s treatment of prisoners held after the 9/11 attacks. The next morning, a Facebook friend shared a very similar sentiment, attributed to Rush Limbaugh. I am not a Limbaugh fan, nor a regular part of his audience, so I can thank my friend for sparing me from being accused of plagiarism. I am sure Limbaugh and I were not alone in thinking about the 9/11 victims and their survivors after the Senate committee report came out.
There is no point in defending many of the things the CIA did a decade ago; I certainly will not try. A lot of what the intelligence community has done during the so-called war on terror has constituted overreach of uncounted cost and questionable benefit. However, much of what we know about that overreach is courtesy of fugitive leaker Edward Snowden, not outgoing committee chair Dianne Feinstein and her colleagues. Feinstein and the committee’s Democratic staff appear to have spent far more effort during the past five years inquiring about human rights violations allegedly inflicted on foreign detainees, nearly all of whom actually joined the cause of murdering strangers en masse, than they spent on protecting the civil rights and democratic liberties of innocent Americans and foreigners who were caught in the surveillance state’s information dragnet.
Civilized nations abhor torture, and they at least profess not to engage in it. However, nearly all those nations - except this one - also abhor capital punishment. We have publicly committed state-sponsored ritual homicide, after due process of law, against nearly 1,400 American prison inmates since 1976. Neither Feinstein nor her colleagues seem to see any need to stop it. Yet they worry about how the world will view us because, according to their report, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in an attempt to obtain information about future terror plots?
To review, the gentleman in question not only claimed credit for masterminding the 9/11 attacks, but he personally sawed off the head of captured Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. I can think of several hundred more pressing things to do today than to worry about Mohammed’s waterboarding or reported “rectal feeding” while he was in the custody of the CIA. The agency’s goal was to keep him alive and to get information to save as many other lives as possible. His aims were much worse. So rather than concern myself with his treatment, deplorable as it may have been, I prefer to spend my energy thinking of other things - beginning with Pearl’s family.
We can safely assume that none of the prisoners subjected to the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques voluntarily appeared at the nearest American consulate shortly after the 2001 attacks to announce that they were appalled at what had happened and to offer to share everything they knew in hopes of preventing future atrocities. The Senate report noted that at least a couple of the detainees were, in fact, intelligence sources, which is surely among the mistakes that the CIA has acknowledged making. Unfortunate as this is, it falls into the category of ordinary intelligence confusion - one party not knowing what another party is doing - and the fog of war.
The New York Times summed up the report as “a portrait of a spy agency that was wholly unprepared for its new mission as jailers and interrogators, but that embraced its assignment with vigor.” It is safe to say that on the evening of Sept. 10, 2001, only 19 men in America were prepared for what would happen the next day - they all perished aboard aircraft they hijacked - and nobody was prepared for what would follow. We would certainly hope that the CIA, along with everyone else who did what they could to improve security following the attack, embraced that mission with vigor.
Perhaps similar vigor following the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 would have prevented the second - and, along the way, attacks on Americans at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, two African embassies in 1998 and the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000. Perhaps not. There is no doubt that there were plenty of efforts to bring that sort of mayhem back to our shores in the months and years that followed 9/11. Senate Democrats dispute CIA claims that its brutal treatment helped disrupt some such plots, including one by Indonesian terrorist Hambali to use aircraft to strike targets on the West Coast. What they cannot dispute is that no mass attacks have been successful in the United States since 2001. I wish that were true of other places, including Madrid and London, where mass transit was hit in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
To me, the two most noteworthy aspects of the Senate report are its partisan cast and its timing. Abhorrence of torture and skepticism about intelligence agencies’ conduct is not a strictly partisan issue; a fair-minded review of the CIA’s efforts could have drawn Republican support. Yet the Republican members of the committee were apparently frozen out of the process and were left to join current and former CIA officials in denouncing it as a purely one-sided and partisan attack, based on cherry-picked information and in support of preordained conclusions.
As for the timing, the executive summary of the report - which is all that was released, along with the Republican rebuttal - was declassified in April. Yet it was finally made public only now, in the closing days of the Congress in which Democrats held a Senate majority, one more apparent machination in the yearlong effort to protect red-state Democrats who lost their seats anyway. Had the report been released earlier, Senate Democrats could have actually tried to pass legislation to address what they saw as the problems. But then, that does not appear to have been the report’s objective.
The report proposes no legislative fix. It proposes no prosecution, probably because the Obama administration’s Justice Department has already investigated and concluded there were no grounds for prosecution. The report merely serves to tarnish many senior officials in the George W. Bush administration, possibly in ways that will make them subject to potential detention overseas, and thus complicate their return to public office should a Republican win the 2016 presidential election.
Having occupied the high-dollar suites in the Senate for the past six years, including control of the intelligence committee, Democrats did not leave any helpful suggestions on a comment card for the new management’s benefit. They just chose to trash the place on their way out.