Wednesday, April 22, 2009


In grubbing for something, anything, to discredit the Obama Administration and distract from the record of the Bush Administration, a lot of high-ranking Republican officials and office holders—Vice President Cheney, General Michael Hayden (head of NSA and CIA), and some other CIA directors—have cobbled up a defense based on claims that the release of torture memorandums or the renunciation of torture endangers American security. Their concern is either that the disclosure will help enemies prepare to resist torture if America resorts to it sometime in the future (under the GOP) or that America is ruling out the use of a tool necessary to national security.

The first claim is that knowing our torture techniques helps enemies resist them. But these memorandums tell our enemies nothing not already known to them. They know that America has tortured prisoners in the past and suspect that it will torture them in the future. They know our techniques because repatriated victims have reported their experiences, and international organizations and worldwide media have broadcast them. The only people not to know much about American torture are the American people.

The second claim is that torture has produced useful results. Nothing released so far supports this claim. High-level officials insist on this point. However, lower-level CIA operatives once engaged in interrogating prisoners have denied that torturing them produced any significant or useful information. Some Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee say they have seen nothing of value derived from tortured prisoners, and their Republican committee colleagues have not contradicted them.

Part of the second claim is that torture is indispensable when the situation is urgent. This part of the claim is dubious. The CIA waterboarded two “high-value” prisoners 266 times in one month, one of them on average nearly six times a day. We do not know whether at the end of the month either offered up anything useful. But we do know that neither offered up anything quickly. From here, it looks like brutality only.

Indeed, some CIA agents sometimes restrained themselves in torturing prisoners because they thought that they had gone beyond the limits of what was legal or moral. Hoping to excuse them from prosecution, Obama offers the “they-were-just-obeying-orders” defense, one rejected by the Nuremberg Trials of war crimes. His effort may not succeed but not for lack of trying in the face of growing repugnance at American torture.

The question of results makes the justification of torture depend entirely on practical grounds. Of course, enemies can justify torturing our troops on the same grounds. If we can ignore national or international law, never mind moral law, against torture, enemies can do likewise. If we torture enemies, enemies can torture our troops. Ironically, the most practical thing turns out to be the legal and moral thing.

We are going to learn a lot more about American torture in coming days, weeks, and months. But the education will be painful, both because of the revulsion which torture prompts in most people. If people do not like torture, they are not going to like the people who promoted it. So Republicans have much to fear from documents already released and to be released, investigations by the Justice Department and the FBI, hearings by Congress, and all kinds of official and media reports.

The present GOP strategy is to pre-emptively discredit the Obama Administration in order to distract attention from the brutality and dishonesty of Bush Administration officials, Ninth Circuit Judge Jay S. Bybee, and other Department of Justice officials; and to protect them from exposure and possible impeachment or indictment. The more we know, the less savory these officials appear to be in their contempt for basic American values, their lack of respect for the law of the land, and their cynical abandonment of traditional standards of, and aspirations to, civilized behavior.

I do not pretend that torture or torture after rendition to other countries did not occur during previous Democratic as well as other Republican administrations. But under their administrations, torture was off the books because everyone knew it was illegal and wrong. The Bush Administration’s innovation was to use the Department of Justice to legitimize and sanction torture as a matter of official state policy, to pervert national and international law to promote its political and military policies. At the same time, the entire apparatus of denial, secrecy, and twisted legal constructions were all efforts at concealment and anticipatory defense against the discovery of what they knew was wrong-doing, both illegal and immoral. (Without approving of past uses of torture, I note that using it against agents of established despotic states is an entirely different matter from using it against agents of indigenous terrorist organizations. Torture does not greatly aid recruitment and popular support in such states, but it does in areas in which such organizations exist.)

Not the least of concerns is that the post-9/11 policies and plans for torture came from the highest levels of the Bush Administration. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and others in the Administration lied to the American people when they stated that America does not torture. Inevitably, sooner rather than later, the GOP defense will descend to semantics: we in the Bush Administration know what we meant by “torture”; what do you mean by “torture”; and who is to say who is right in the face of a then waxing, now waning, threat? Fortunately, the word has established legal definitions, so that quibbling and quarreling is not going to save the GOP. And for the administration which once proudly pooh-poohed “reality-based” thinking, the facts will be torture: a slap in the face or a douse of cold water.

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