“A government of laws, not of men.” — John Adams
Attorney General Eric Holder doesn’t seem to have any enthusiasm for revisiting the torture controversies of the Bush era. Neither does his boss, President Obama. Contrary to the view of some conservatives, Obama and his team are not interested in making any political points with the liberal base by prosecuting CIA operatives for abusing detainees.
But Obama and Holder had no choice. There is enough evidence that laws were broken and international treaties were violated that Holder had to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. He would have been remiss in his responsibilities as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer if he had done otherwise.
The appointment of John Durham, a registered Republican and veteran prosecutor, doesn’t automatically mean that CIA employees or contractors will eventually be indicted. (It seems unlikely the investigation will ensnare high-ranking Bush administration officials.) Durham’s charge is to thoroughly investigate the evidence and see where it leads. At the very least, Americans should find out much more about the brutality that festered and spread in a time of fear and panic.
Documents released Monday revealed, in miserable detail, some of the methods used. One detainee was told that his children, who were in the custody of American and Pakistani authorities at the time, would be killed if there were any more attacks on U.S. soil. One detainee was lifted up by his arms after they were already bound behind his back.
One detainee’s carotid artery was pressed so hard he passed out. He was revived so his “interrogator” could repeat the procedure. Other documents, released months ago, had already revealed that one detainee was waterboarded 183 times.
I know, I know. Al Qaida has done far worse. But we’re not them, are we? We don’t behead journalists or send suicide bombers to blow up shoppers in a marketplace. Isn’t that among the reasons we’re determined to prevail against terrorists? Aren’t we trying to preserve standards of humanity and civilized behavior?
Perhaps we’ve seen so many James Bond movies and so many episodes of “24″ that we believe that the world of espionage demands torturing suspects. But many real-world experts say that simply isn’t so. Indeed, many military officers, FBI agents and even CIA employees were deeply troubled by the abused heaped on detainees.
And lots of those same reality-based experts say torture is as ineffective as it is inhumane. In severe pain, prisoners do often make confessions, as John McCain did when he was tortured by the Viet Cong. But such confessions are often unreliable. If the nation were facing the threat of imminent attack, security experts could waste valuable time chasing down false leads.
Dick Cheney continues to insist that waterboarding and other such illicit techniques produced valuable information that saved lives, but he has not pointed to a specific session of torture that yielded high-quality intel. The CIA’s inspector general concluded that detaining and interrogating suspects clearly produced vital intelligence, but whether “enhanced” techniques contributed “is a more subjective process and not without some concern.” In other words, U.S. agents may have discovered just as much without torturing anyone.
The Obama administration has concluded that any intelligence that may have been gleaned through torture was not substantial enough to outweigh the damage done to America’s standing in the world. The outrages at abu Ghraib, the years-long detention of suspects at Guantanamo Bay without charge, the scary ‘renditions’ that amounted to kidnapping — all these have already contributed to a climate of anti-Americanism.
In the long run, the U.S. cannot win against jihadists by killing every would-be suicide bomber. We have to win the war of influence — of “hearts and minds” — that persuades people around the world to work with us instead of against us. Letting the world know we stand against torture is an important weapon in that campaign.