The Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA interrogation techniques was supposed to be released two weeks ago. Unfortunately, after reviewing the redactions made on the report by the CIA, the committee decided not to release it to the public yet. They are claiming that important information relating to evidence of torture has been redacted and are weighing their options before getting it out.
Still, according to summaries provided to various news outlets, and admissions by President Obama himself, the report finds that CIA personnel did, in fact, carry out acts of "torture" on terrorism detainees in the wake of the September 11th attacks. These acts, which included waterboarding and other so called "enhanced interrogation techniques" are said to have violated the Geneva Conventions and thus were blatantly illegal under both international and domestic law. Officials in the administration of former President George W. Bush put forth arguments and even provided official memos attesting to the legality of these acts under Presidential wartime authority and the status of terror detainees as "enemy combatants." Lawyers like the controversial John Woo argued that as commander in chief, the President could order CIA personnel to carry out these interrogations, and as long as no lasting bodily harm resulted, they should not be considered torture and thus were permissible. Essentially, anything that did not cause serious injury to the body of a detainee was not torture. This made things like sleep deprivation, slapping a prisoner around, waterboarding, or extreme stress positions, perfectly permissible. Beyond the attempted legal cover, these actions have always been justified on the notion that strong, actionable intelligence resulted from them, allowing counter-terrorism officials to stop plots and capture terrorists, including supposedly Osama Bin Laden himself.
According to the Senate report, or what has been leaked of it so far, not only were the CIA's actions not legal, the intelligence obtained from them were only slightly useful in either preventing attacks or capturing valuable terror suspects. Further, the report seems to imply the CIA deliberately covered up the actions of its employees, tried to downplay the brutality of the interrogations, and got rid of incriminating evidence.
President Obama's reaction to all this has been to say "we tortured some folks", but that the people doing the torturing were "patriots" that somehow got carried away with trying to protect the country from another attack. Of course, we can all agree that in the early months after that terrible day in 2001, the whole country was spooked and that perhaps a significant majority of the public would have supported interrogation methods far more brutal than waterboarding if it meant potentially keeping one of their loved ones safe from the deranged plans of would be terrorist scum. Hell, most of us would probably not shed a tear at the thought of the CIA or anyone else making some barbarous madman with the desire to kill innocent men, women and children, suffer for a bit; especially if it helps save those very innocent lives in the process.
It seems reasonable that we should be willing to forgive or at least ignore people on the operational level, ala the fictional Jack Bauer, taking things right to the edge of the moral line in order to stop an imminent attack. After all, our enemies are not the sort of people who seem to have any moral line whatsoever, and as we continue to see in places like Syria, Iraq or Gaza, extremist militant Muslims have committed some extremely heinous acts in the name of their supposedly God sanctioned crusade.
Yet the Senate report, and indeed in all the information revealed since these interrogation techniques began, show something far more problematic than a few good patriots taking things a bit too far as the President has suggested. This is not some failure of oversight at the operational level; what we see is a systematic directive put in place and actually justified or attempted to be justified by supposed constitutional experts. What should be very clear to us is that waterboarding and other morally dubious techniques were not some on the fly attempt to quickly and effectively save lives, and they were not put in place by low-ranking people. Rather, this was part of a deliberate policy authorized at the highest levels of government, and personally approved and signed off by the President, Vice-President, Defense Secretary and CIA director, as were the mass surveillance of all our communications, and the extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects to third countries like Egypt.
There is no sense, therefore, in which we can attribute the actions described in the Senate report as some sort of easily brushed aside and temporary loss of control.
Those in high office who signed off on these policies must take full responsibility for what they did in our name, especially given the attempted cover up and deception of what was going on. I understand that specific operational revelations had to be kept secret, but the American people should have still been given the opportunity to decide if they wanted to be spied on, if they wanted us to torture people or have other countries torture for us, or if drones should be used covertly to assassinate terror suspects.
These are not trivial matters; they speak to the core of what society stands for and what is fighting for. It may very well have been that the majority of our citizens would have supported these measures if asked, but the point is you don't get to upend our most-basic values, violate ratified international treaties, or do whatever else you want just because you can't figure out how to counter or contain a bunch of medieval extremist nut-jobs.
So not only were illegal things done in the name of protecting us, we weren't even consulted on whether we wanted to go down that path or not. For this, someone needs to be held accountable, and it should not be some low-level employees at the CIA used as convenient scapegoats like the poorly trained National Guard soldiers that abused detainees at Abu Gharib. Further, going against a few token CIA officers would be a stab in the back to them because although following orders is never a defense for human rights violations, and they still could have objected based on their own moral code, they were told by multiple authorities and given apparently clear legal cover for their actions. What comes next can't just be focused on who committed the acts, it has to go higher or else we have no guarantee it won't happen again.
While I don't think it would be politically feasible or desirable for the health of our democracy to prosecute George W. Bush, maybe former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former CIA director George Tenet should be investigated by a special prosecutor and certainly someone like John Woo should be disbarred for creating legal memos he had to have known were advocating blatantly illegal acts. President Obama has no real excuse for failing to appoint a special prosecutor to at least investigate these matters in a serious way, even if no one gets prosecuted in the end. I doubt that will happen though, given his complicity in policies that in due course will also probably be found to be illegal, things like mass NSA surveillance and drone assassinations.
The only remedy will come when we start electing people that represent our values and who have coherent, long-term strategies to combat the very real security problems we face, not knee jerk reactions to unpredictable foes that lead to both strategic stalemate and the loss of our moral authority in the world. Perhaps those future representatives will hold our current and past officials accountable and bring back the rule of law, not men.