Maybe you heard about this, but yesterday the Senate Intelligence Committee released the summary version of its six-year investigation into CIA torture during the Bush administration. The summary is 525 pages long. It describes detainees who were subjected to medically unnecessary rectal hydration procedures, detainees who were deprived of sleep for as long as a week, detainees made to stand on broken feet—you know what? Let’s just go ahead and call them prisoners. Once you’ve waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for the 183rd time, he’s your prisoner. The president has condemned these behaviors as torture. But he refuses to comment on whether they produced meaningful intelligence that deterred terrorist attacks.
We know of particular cases in which they did not and the CIA lied to the White House about it later. For example, that agency claimed that torture of KSM yielded information that led to the capture of the man believed to have masterminded the 2002 Bali bombing. That wasn’t true. I quote the Washington Post:
In a briefing for the president’s chief of staff, for instance, the CIA wrote, “During [KSM’s] interrogation we acquired information that led to the capture of Hambali.” But the Senate found that information from KSM played no role in Hambali’s capture and that, in fact, information leading to his detention came from signals intelligence, a CIA source, and investigations by the Thai authorities.
That’s kind of a weird thing to lie about, when you think about it. Presumably, the CIA wanted to torture prisoners because it made gathering intelligence easier. If torturing people doesn’t generate meaningful intelligence, why lie about it? Surely it wasn’t because they loved torture so much.
One reason might be that you torture first and evaluate what you learned later. For the individual interrogator who is not a sexual sadist,1 the idea that you are saving lives by preventing future attacks is probably necessary to your psychological health. The same principle applies to CIA administrators. If they stopped believing they were generating valuable intelligence, they would have to admit to themselves that they were the people who institutionalized American torture for no reason.
The Senate report suggests that’s exactly what they did. But the question of efficacy is orthogonal to this issue. Even if torturing people produced absolutely perfect information that allowed the CIA and the rest of the American government to prevent dozens of terrorist attacks, it would still be wrong.
The proper behavior of a modern state does not rest on the question “does it work?” any more than the proper behavior of an individual person does. Probably, this country could more effectively prevent terrorist attacks if we imposed a 6pm curfew and made everyone board the subway naked. But preventing terrorism is not the most important task before the United States of America. Lightning strike me dead for saying this, but if America’s success depends on torturing people, then America should not succeed.
Luckily for us, it probably doesn’t. The Senate report suggests that, in addition to maybe permanently obliterating our moral authority in the international community and generating at least 26 new sworn enemies, the CIA torture program didn’t work. I guess I’m glad we don’t need to have a national argument about whether we should continue to effectively torture people. But the president should not imply that argument has merit by calling CIA torturers “patriots.”
In defending their actions, CIA administrators and low-level functionaries alike have said they were told that what they were doing was not torture. A person who violates fundamental standards of human decency—who puts out one prisoner’s eye, threatens to rape another prisoner’s mother, and puts hummus in the rectum of a third—because someone told him to is not a patriot. He is a henchman, and he would be at home in 1930s Germany or an ISIS film crew as he is in the American government.
Torture is wrong—not because it doesn’t work, but because some actions are evil in and of themselves. It was a gutless move for the president to praise the “patriots” in the CIA at the moment we learned they had damaged America and violated fundamental standards of human decency. He shut down that program because he knew it was wrong. He should not excuse the people who executed it. Telling America that torture is fine if you do it for your country isn’t patriotic, either.