Political Vacillation About Torture

In anticipation of release of a public version of a mammoth report by the Senate Intelligence Committee on interrogation techniques, Walter Pincus has reviewed in the Washington Post what former secretary of defense and former CIA director Leon Panetta says about the subject in his recently published memoir. Pincus refers to Panetta as a “wily politician” and quotes Panetta's comments both that we “got important, even critical intelligence from individuals subjected to these enhanced interrogation techniques” and that “if a future president ever asked me whether we should go back to those techniques, I would say no.” The Post's headline-writer for the print edition characterized this combination of positions as “Panetta takes both sides”.

These comments brought to mind a compendium that the Washington Monthly published six years ago under the title, “No Torture. No Exceptions”. The magazine solicited 35 short pieces, all consistent with that title, from contributors who included a former president, the speaker of the House, other senior members of Congress (including today's secretaries of state and defense) and others, including myself. Several months after the feature was published I received some compliments on my contribution from people who had not been looking for it but had stumbled on it while looking for the contribution from someone else: Panetta, who had just been nominated to be CIA director. The magazine had printed the statements in alphabetical order of the contributors, and so mine was located shortly after Panetta's, with only the one by William Perry coming in between the two.

Panetta's contribution there was a clear and unqualified statement that began with the observation that the United States preaches certain beliefs centered around the dignity of the individual and has asserted that, consistent with those beliefs, there are certain lines it will not cross. “We cannot simply suspend these beliefs in the name of national security,” wrote Panetta. “We either believe in the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, or we don't. There is no middle ground. We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances. We are better than that.”

Panetta's comments on the subject in his memoir are not, upon close inspection, necessarily inconsistent with what he said back then, notwithstanding the way the headline-writer framed his views. Panetta points out what he believes was some useful information gained through coercive techniques not to argue for a return to those techniques but to be “clear-eyed” about what we might be giving up by observing our declared principles.

Even if Panetta might not be inconsistent on this subject, there has been other inconsistency on it. In fact, the dominant strain of American public opinion, as transmitted through the public's elected representatives in Congress, has been quite inconsistent. That strain took a post-9/11 detour from adherence to declared principles by condoning “enhanced” techniques before, after more years went by without another big terrorist attack, returning from the detour. Officials and former officials involved in the interrogations who believe they have been buffeted by changing rules and then left hanging out to dry have a right to be resentful.

The inconsistency may be continuing in a different form. A former colleague who was head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, Robert Grenier, suspects that pendulum-swinging political moods may be affecting when the Senate committee's mega-report will finally be released. "At a time when ISIS is on the march and beheading American journalists, some Democrats apparently think now is not the time to be advocating going soft on terrorists,” says Grenier. “The speculation I hear is that the Senate Democrats will wait until the elections are safely over." That is just speculation and may or may not be true, but if true it would be a continuation of a pattern of political vacillation on the subject.

In my own contribution to the Washington Monthly feature I noted how, although the possible extraction of nuggets of information gets most of the attention regarding “enhanced” techniques of interrogation, less noticed is the effect the awareness of our use of torture may have on the attitudes of foreign publics and foreign governments. Information extracted from prisoners may have some effect on how many Americans die from terrorism over the next few years, but the broader attitudes of foreigners toward the United States—and toward the use of force and violence in pursuing their goals—are apt to have far more impact. This is all the more true given that the classic scenario of a ticking time-bomb, although a useful vehicle for classroom discussion of ethics and security, has not materialized in the real world.

I also noted how the “enhanced” techniques are prone to yield bad information from subjects who, wanting to end the pain, will say whatever they think the interrogators want to hear. An outstanding example is Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who told a story about Iraq training his fellow extremists in Afghanistan in use of chemical and biological weapons. Later—a year into the Iraq War, which his allegation helped to justify—he admitted he had fabricated the story just to stop the torture.