"Torture Report", 9-11, Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Barack Obama, CIA, Dianne Feinstein, George W. Bush, Iraq, ISIS, Leon Panetta, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Saddam Hussein, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Syria, Taliban, terrorism, torture
I admit it: My views on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Democratic staff’s new “torture report” are biased by my views on the Iraq War and the use of so-called harsh interrogation techniques themselves (whether they fall under some legal definition of torture or not). I was and still am in favor of the former and support the latter. I’m hoping that others who analyze and comment on it will be just as honest.
I can’t yet comment on any of the details or substance of the report, since I have not read either the Majority publication or the Republican staff response. (Hats off to you if you have already.) But I do feel able to write usefully about Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein’s decision to release itself, although admittedly the procedures and the content are not entirely separate issues. And I consider it to be a huge mistake.
The two preceding paragraphs may surprise many who know me either personally or through my writings. Re the former, yes, indeed, I was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, and strongly supported the media’s publication of the Pentagon Papers and Congress’ exposure of CIA wrongdoing during the Cold War. Re the latter, I remain strongly opposed to most of America’s post-Cold War interventions abroad, including attacking Syria to punish its use of chemical weapons.
But I oppose publication of the new Senate report, and have supported the Iraq War and the torturing (from this point I’ll use this term for convenience’s sake, not as a moral or legal judgment) of prisoners in the war on terrorism for a reason that’s straightforward analytically: I never viewed preserving the western orientation of Vietnam or most of the other developing countries that became Cold War battlegrounds to have been vital interests of the United States, or even close. Because it never mattered who controlled Cuba or Vietnam or Guatemala or other poor and weak countries lacking important resources or any other assets, CIA assassination attempts and other misdeeds that supported broader such Cold War policies were in my view completely unnecessary.
By contrast, I consider the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the destruction of Al Qaeda to have been decidedly vital interests. You can read my Iraq views here. Regarding the anti-terror campaign, it involves preventing another 9-11 – a threat that’s also raised by the prospect of ISIS consolidating control over large chunks of Iraq and Syria, and turning this territory into the kind of terrorist haven that the Taliban offered Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. If keeping the American homeland safe from attack isn’t a vital interest, I don’t know what is.
So it shouldn’t be too surprising that I support extreme means of achieving this goal, including those used by the CIA to extract information from “detainees.” Would I back even harsher techniques? I still need to think this through – just as their opponents need to think through whether they would forego water-boarding etc to save American lives (or, more pointedly, to save the life of one of their own loved ones).
The empirical evidence would certainly and properly bear on my final judgment. A least according to President Obama’s former CIA director, Leon Panetta, no one’s idea of a Republican or neocon whacko, it’s far more supportive of torture than the Majority report apparently contends.
I’d also be influenced by the unavoidable reality that war inevitably entails agonizing moral dilemmas, tragic misjudgments, and the deaths of innocents. And don’t forget the frequent need to make life-and-death decisions in real time, without remotely perfect knowledge. (Can you imagine the pressure decision-makers felt in those early hours, days, and weeks following 9-11?) The outrage so strongly expressed by torture opponents indicates an equally strong determination to define these complications out of existence.
Lastly, on the matter of substance, I would need to know whether torture had been authorized by both the President and Congress. No representative system of government is worthy of the name unless elected authorities determine overarching policy and guidelines in an area like national security. In immediate post-crisis circumstances, as with 9-11, the executive branch needs to take the lead. But the legislature must be brought in before too long. Of course, in this case whether the CIA ignored or breached guidelines laid down by U.S. leaders is still being hotly debated.
Which brings us to the procedural question presented by the release, and here I don’t see much room for reasonable debate. Whether you agree with it or not, the United States is indisputably engaged in a global campaign against terrorism that’s been prosecuted vigorously now by two American presidents (including Mr. Obama). As a result, it’s been ratified by repeated presidential elections. This conflict is highly unconventional conflict, it’s waged against genuinely shadowy opponents, and American forces are serving in any manner of dangerous positions on many kinds of front lines.
As a result, the prospect that the report’s release at this time could expose them to further risk – as acknowledged by the Obama administration – makes Senator Feinstein’s green light completely unacceptable. When those dangers are past, America can air linen that was dirtied years ago, not smack in the middle of what is very much a shooting war.