By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON — Torture is immoral, illegal and irreconcilable with this nation’s most cherished values. If defenders of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program disagree, they should come out and say so. Instead, they blow smoke.
Sexist smoke, at that: Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said Sunday that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is being “emotional” rather than “objective” as the intelligence committee, which Feinstein heads, moves toward release of a comprehensive report on CIA detention and torture during the George W. Bush administration.
Feinstein coolly responded that the report is indeed “objective, based on fact, thoroughly footnoted, and I am certain it will stand on its own merits. … The only direction I gave staff was to let the facts speak for themselves.”
Those facts, from what we know so far, are appalling.
Feinstein’s committee voted 11-3 last week to declassify the report’s 400-page executive summary, with ranking Republican member Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and several of his GOP colleagues joining the Democratic majority. President Obama will face renewed pressure from the torture program’s defenders to quash the whole thing, and it may be months before even the summary is publicly released. It is unclear whether the full 6,000-page report will ever be declassified.
Forgive me for getting emotional, but this is an outrage.
It was Justice Louis D. Brandeis who remarked that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Torture is a stain on this nation’s honor that can only be bleached away by full exposure. Feinstein’s committee spent years finding out what really happened. I should have a right to know what my government did in my name.
The Washington Post last week quoted unnamed sources as saying the Senate report concludes that the CIA “misled the government and the public” about the torture program. According to the Post, the agency downplayed the “severity” of its interrogation methods, overstated the significance of some prisoners and took credit for information that detainees had actually surrendered under legal, non-coercive questioning.
These leaked disclosures prompted another round of the endless “Does torture work?” debate. This is precisely what the defenders of torture want us to focus on, since it keeps us away from the central issue.
Jose Rodriguez Jr., who headed the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and ran the program of clandestine detention and harsh interrogation, wrote in the Post that the undertaking “produced critical intelligence that helped decimate al-Qaeda and save American lives.”
Rodriguez specifically defends the CIA’s treatment of an al-Qaida operative known as Abu Zubaida, who was subjected to waterboarding — a form of torture that involves simulated drowning — a total of 83 times. But according to the Post, the Senate report establishes that most of the useful information that came from Abu Zubaida was extracted by an FBI interrogator using normal techniques — before the CIA whisked the man away for waterboarding.
Ultimately, the debate about torture’s effectiveness is a waste of time because neither side can definitively prove its case. Let’s assume a detainee gave up a crucial bit of information after, say, 37 sessions of waterboarding. Should interrogators expect that another 37 sessions of waterboarding will produce another nugget of intelligence? If so, why stop? Wouldn’t it be logical, then, to torture every prisoner until he or she dies?
But can the defenders of “enhanced interrogation” point to a single piece of information obtained under torture and say, with certainty, that it couldn’t have been extracted any other way? No, they can’t.
This is an argument about worldviews, not about facts, and it ignores the heart of the matter. The reason to fully examine the CIA’s torture program isn’t that it was ineffective. It’s that it was immoral.
Torture is also illegal under U.S. and international law, and while Bush administration lawyers produced opinions sanctioning the practice, those who were involved are clearly worried about their potential exposure. It was Rodriguez who ordered the destruction of videotapes recording the interrogations of Abu Zubaida and another detainee, which kept them out of the hands of nosy Senate investigators.
The CIA wasn’t able to destroy all the evidence, though. Among many unanswered questions, I want to know whether trained medical personnel — physicians, psychologists — attended the torture sessions. I’m sure the relevant professional associations and licensing boards would like to know as well.
The report is written. Only when Feinstein — in her cool and unemotional way — gets to share it with the nation can we begin to put this most hideous of episodes behind us.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.