During his Thursday press conference defending his agency, CIA Director John Brennan used a telling word. In wrestling with the issue of whether torture produced important, life-saving information, Brennan claimed the answer was “unknowable.”
In a way, he’s right. And that makes what the CIA did — what the United States of America did — all the more reprehensible.
Personally, I don’t believe “effectiveness” is a sufficient excuse for the moral depravity that is torture. Once you justify the degrading abuse of a helpless human being on that basis, then any ban on torture becomes meaningless. Everybody in every country in every conflict, domestic or foreign, can make the argument that torture can be justified because it is “effective” in achieving the cause.
They have to violate our right to privacy, because doing so is effective in reducing crime and saving lives. They have to be able to lock us in prison without trial, because doing so is effective in keeping the peace. In fact, almost any limitation on government power becomes meaningless once you allow it to be trumped by effectiveness. The argument of Dick Cheney and others that the end justifies the means is a totalitarian argument.
For the sake of that argument, however, let’s accept effectiveness as at least somewhat of a justification. In that constrained moral universe, what does Brennan mean when he says it is “unknowable” whether torture produced information not otherwise attainable?
Suppose we had used traditional means of interrogation against detainees. Suppose we had tried those techniques and exhausted them and then turned to torture only as a last-ditch effort. Under those circumstances, you might then be able to argue that the information acquired through torture was attainable only through torture.
But that’s not how the program operated. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” weren’t the last-ditch option when all else had failed; as the Senate report confirms, they used torture as a first option, a primary option. In case after case, as soon as detainees came into CIA control, they were interrogated not through traditional means but through brutal intimidation, mind control and physical pain.
That is not who we ought to be. That is not who we have been up until now. Right from the beginning, in the Revolutionary War in which the British treated captured American soldiers as traitors undeserving of basic humanitarian treatment, General George Washington insisted on a higher standard.
As he wrote to his Army:
“Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.”
They bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.