Andrew Sullivan is very angry at 60 Minutes

Former CIA Director of National Clandestine Service Jose Rodriguez

Andrew Sullivan begins his screed against Jose Rodriguez and the 60 Minutes producer who blew his chance to ask him if he was maybe a war criminal with some bold assumptions. “There are a couple of things worth knowing about Jose Rodriguez,” Sullivan writes: “that he is a war criminal and that he destroyed the evidence that would prove it without a doubt. The third thing you need to know is that he has no shame about any of this and intends to make money off it.” That’s a good list, but it’s incomplete. It is also worth knowing about Jose Rodriguez that he was Director of the National Clandestine Service of the CIA in 2005, when it destroyed video evidence of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” conducted at a CIA prison in Thailand in 2002. Yes, the CIA has a prison in Thailand, and yes, they waste videotapes there. Rodriguez was also D/NCS in 2007, when people found out about that. Now he is on a book tour, and he has “no regrets.” For example, he does not regret destroying the evidence of what he did.

There is a name for someone who does not regret what he did but also knows he needs to hide it. Sullivan refrains from invoking it, preferring the more robust “war criminal.” He takes issue with Rodriguez’s assertion that what he did saved American lives, and Sullivan’s sources are better. Where Rodriguez has a book that he himself* authored, Sullivan has this Senate investigation, which concludes that waterboarding and other techniques we were not then calling torture did not generate the intelligence that led to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

None of these points was addressed by Leslie Stahl, who in the course of his interview with J-Rod noted that “we used to think waterboarding was a war crime.” We also think that now. In fact, the only time we didn’t think waterboarding was a war crime was when we were doing it. Even when we were insisting that waterboarding wasn’t a war crime we were destroying videos of ourselves doing it. Rodriguez sounded less like a man with no regrets when he emailed the executive director of the CIA to say that “the heat from destroying is nothing compared to what it would be if the tapes ever got into public domain.” And we sound less like a nation with no regrets when, every time we try to talk about waterboarding, we end up arguing about how useful it was. That, of course, is not the point.

The argument against torture is not that it is an ineffective way to gather information. No one is saying that attaching electrodes to your roommates testicles isn’t the fastest way to get him to tell you about your birthday party. It’s just that certain means are not justified by any end. That’s how morality works; it prioritizes the content of actions over the results they produce, in a way that makes results not merely less important but orthogonal to the discussion. It isn’t thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s wife unless she has a really sexy mouth. You don’t torture people because torture is wrong. The sentence ends at the adjective.

But the American sentence on torture is in the past tense. We did torture people. Our collective national guilt is such that we cannot convince ourselves that torture isn’t wrong, but we might convince ourselves that it was justified under the circumstances. Hence the straw man argument over whether information from torture led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Rodriguez and his ilk know that we want the outcome of torture without having to actually do it. Like any man unencumbered by the human prohibition against doing horrible things to other humans, he has wisely opted to market his efficacy rather than his decency. Jose Rodriguez is cool with torturing people but is not the target of international terrorism. The United States is the target of terror but is not cool with torturing. Let’s make a deal.

We made that deal with Rodriguez, even if part of the deal was never acknowledging that we had. That the deal was made without our knowledge is maybe the only detail excusing those of us who are not ranking officers in the CIA. But it does not vindicate us. We know what Jose Rodriguez did, and we know that he both covered it up and wrote a book about it. We should punish him, not because it will redeem us in the international community or because he didn’t generate useful information, but because torture is wrong. America is a country founded on an idea, and ideas without principles are just wishes.

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  1. I would be totally willing to let someone off the hook for coveting his neighbor’s wife if so doing prevented, say, a genocide. So I think there is a bit of room for some weak utilitarianism here. I’m less sure if I could ever accept torture, but do think it’s still worth at least thinking about the cost/benefits. And the outcomes of its use by the Americans, and every other group who’s tried it, have been disastrous.

  2. I think Sullivan made this point years ago: torture could be acceptible if the individual instance could be tracked to the prevention of an even greater crime (the famous Ticking Time Bomb Scenario). The problem is, we were using torture as raw punishment and standard operating procedure. I love how they deny that such and such a procedure is torture and immediately thereafter advocate for the efficacy of the thing they say they’re not doing. It’s the old broken kettle joke: I never borrowed your kettle and it was already broken when you lent it to me.

  3. Actually, torture is an ineffective way to gather information. Tortured individuals are liable to tell you whatever they think you want to hear regardless of whether it is true or not. The veracity of information obtained by torture needs to be confirmed by methods that don’t involve torture, potentially rendering the torture moot.

  4. @John: agreed. Under Bush it was a “post-conventional” moral exception they tried to turn into “conventional” law. But the same logic would abolish traffic lights since I can conceive an occasion that might justify violating them.

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