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The Torture and the Damage Done

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Joseph Bottum - published on 12/13/14 - updated on 06/07/17

This was wrong, and we can’t make that moral truth go away

Let’s start by admitting one of the strongest points made by those upset about the damage done to America’s foreign interests by the release of a 528-page “executive summary” of a 6,700-page report that remains classified. Let’s start by granting them the claim that this is clearly a partisan document, released in the waning days of the Democratic majority in the Senate and endorsed only by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

And why not give them that claim? It seems pretty clear that the summary was created with partisan intent, and it is certainly being used for partisan purpose: a weapon designed for the battles of domestic politics rather than a serious consideration of the role of American violence in the world. Thus, for example, both the NBC reporter Richard Engel and the former Democratic senator Bob Kerrey have denounced the result as a predetermined score-settling with the CIA and a betrayal of the bipartisan role of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

If the summary had been delayed for only a few months, held back till the Republicans took over the Senate, it would surely have named a few people beyond only those associated with former President Bush. It would surely not have passed over in silence the fact—insisted on by both former CIA acting director John McLaughlin and CIA veteran Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., along with the former CIA interrogator and current defender of torture who writes under the name “Jason Beale”—that the same Democratic leadership now professing shock and outrage was informed multiple times about what was happening (and consented to it, with at least their silence).

Of course, to grant that point, we have to use phrases such as “current torture defender,” which ought to stick in the throat like a fish bone, choking us into dry, painful hacks as we try to pronounce them. But that should not stop us from recognizing as untrustworthy hypocrites many of those who released this summary—along with many of those now publicizing it, still infected by what conservatives during the previous administration mocked as “Bush-derangement syndrome.”

While we’re at it, let’s also allow the hard-edged foreign-policy types another of their points. Let’s admit that torture may actually work at getting accurate and useful information. Although the Senate committee’s summary denies that anything pertinent was obtained through “enhanced interrogation,” the subsequent statement by President Obama was more circumspect. Even while it pledged that the United States will no longer use these interrogation techniques, the president’s statement seemed carefully phrased to avoid denying that (as Stephen Hayes notes at the Weekly Standard) information about couriers, obtained via torture, helped in his administration’s much-boasted tracking down of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

Finally, let’s agree with one more point: There isn’t a competent governing class in the history of the world that would have allowed something like this summary to see the light of day. Yes, we might say, the Senate should have quietly compiled this horrifying report about what the government’s proxies in the CIA have been doing. And yes, the Senate should have followed the report with efficient measures to shut down all such programs. But the reason for making the report and then using it, quietly and efficiently, is precisely the damage that torture would do to American interests if the news ever got out. So what kind of idiocy then makes public a summary of the report, thereby doing exactly the damage such a report should have been created to avoid? The release of the CIA torture summary is proof, if we needed it, that we have finally lost even the last vestige of the old Cold War-style political accord, where no matter how strong their disagreement on domestic policy, Republicans and Democrats would at least pretend they were doing foreign affairs in a bipartisan manner.

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