Self-Inflicted Wounds: America's Torture Dilemma

"Any governmental activity that generates such intense and emotional political conflict should be avoided if its utility is questionable."

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s controversial report on “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA after 9/11 has unleashed a bitter debate in America on multiple implications of both those techniques and the report itself. For example, did those techniques, coming close to anyone’s definition of torture, actually yield significant intelligence? Well, we don’t know. Even CIA director John Brennan says it is impossible to separate out those techniques from other efforts in determining just what efforts yielded what information.

Critics of the report brand it as a partisan product designed to slam former president George W. Bush, while its defenders insist it is the product of a higher purpose, designed to keep the nation operating at a high plane of morality. Critics of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT), such as Arizona’s Republican senator John McCain (and he has higher standing on the issue than just about anyone), insist such activity undermines America’s standing in the world, while neocon elements believe we shouldn’t worry about that as we pursue our global interests through the exercise of our unparalleled power. Another argument from CIA defenders is that you really need to go back to that day—and the anxieties produced by the 9/11 attacks—to understand why such things can happen and probably needed to happen.

Then there is the question—perhaps more simple, but profound—as to whether any great nation should engage in such behavior, just on the basis of whether it is right or wrong. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius crafted an eloquent “no” answer the other day, while skirting the more complex question of whether we can even know whether enhanced interrogation yields positive results. He said that question was too complex to answer—and superseded anyway the more fundamental question of right and wrong.

Put aside for a moment all these questions, the subject of so much intense debate in the country since the report was released. The debate itself answers the question in this sense: Any governmental activity that generates such intense and emotional political conflict should be avoided if its utility is questionable. Sometimes presidents and national leaders are faced with unavoidable decisions that will prove divisive for the nation, even tear at its cohesion and stability. But anyone with any understanding of politics would know that such activity as that recounted in the Senate report would drive deep wedges through the American policy.

And for what? For shards of intelligence that nobody can say with certainty actually came from those techniques.

So now the country is rent with a debate over its own moral standing, as the world looks on and piles on. Even foreign-policy realists, who generally are uncomfortable with the introduction of moral precepts into international relations, can see that this can’t be good for the country. Its leaders have a responsibility to weigh such outcomes when they devise policies that inevitably will be pulled into the light of day. No president should open up destabilizing political fault lines when there is no compelling reason to do so.

The questionable nature of this particular decision is reflected in what we know now about how it emerged. It seems that the government hired two outside contractors to design the interrogation approaches, including waterboarding and other techniques that many consider abusive. The government paid these guys—“questionably credentialed advisers,” as the Washington Post calls them—some $80 million to devise the techniques.

Neither of these two men, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, “had experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qaeda, a background in terrorism, or any relevant regional, cultural, or linguistic expertise,” said the Senate report. It added that they pushed a concept called “learned helplessness,” defined by the Post as “the idea that a prisoner could be reduced through dehumanizing treatment to utter dependency on his captors.”

Anyone could see how controversial this would be, even in the context of the post-9/11 trauma experienced by the country. Controversy roils the nation. When it bubbles up from within the polity and must be dealt with by its leaders, that’s one thing. But when it is introduced into the polity by marginal activity on the part of the government, that is something else entirely.

That’s what we are seeing now. It isn’t pretty, and it’s particularly disturbing when considered in the context of America’s standing in the world.

One could argue that this undermines those foreign-policy moralists who want to remold regions of the world into the American image. No doubt about that. But that’s a high price to pay for exposing a questionable foreign-policy outlook that should be rejected on other grounds anyway.

Having set aside the debate elements unleashed by the Senate report for purposes of this argument, we can now return to all those debate elements. Have at it. But keep in mind how unfortunate the whole thing is. 

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