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Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Today both The Boston Globe and The Lowell Sun had opinion pieces on the issue of torture as part of the war on terrorism.

I would like to state my position up front.  I think that torture is wrong at a moral level and a legal level.  I believe that without the tools that would allow successful interrogations without torture, torture is generally not effective.  Further, I believe that eschewing torture helps our overall public diplomacy effort, our psychological operations, and our interrogation efforts.  While these "non-kinetic" considerations may appear unimportant, they are in fact very important when one is involved in a long war that involves "hearts and minds." 

I believe that trained interrogators, who know the language and culture and who work calmly can do a better job harvesting information than interrogators using torture.

On the other hand, the CIA IG report suggests that we had some success with torture with regard to Khalid Shaykh Muhammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al Nashiri.  By torture we are talking "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques," e.g., sleep deprivation, hot and cold conditions and waterboarding.

At this point I would like to emphasize that I believe the ends do not justify the means.

That said, in the days after the 9/11 attacks, the People of the United States, and the Government, were concerned about more planes in more skyscrapers.  Like rounding up Japanese on the West Coast in 1942, resorting to the use of torture to gain critical information seemed like what was needed to save lives.  It was a dumb idea.  And it was against the law.  And it was against what we stand for.  But, it was natural and if it hadn't been done and there had been another attack the People and their Representatives in Congress would have been out to wipe the Administration from the pages of the history books.

In The Boston Globe Opinion Writer Derrick Z Jackson talks about the torture issue in an OpEd titled "Cheney’s dark side - and ours."  Mr Jackson is for letting the hounds of law loose, no matter the cost. 
Now, as Cheney continues to defend the dark side - even without conclusive proof that waterboarding coughed up critical intelligence - he is daring Americans to come out of the shadows to demand a bright light on interrogation and prisoner-treatment practices that render us hypocrites on human rights.  To some degree, Attorney General Eric Holder is attempting this with his probe.  But it appears that the inquiry will be limited to any CIA officers who went beyond legally authorized methods.

That is not enough. President Obama has sought to avoid controversy - and avoid demoralizing the CIA - by saying he wants to look forward, not backward.  But these last eight years have revealed too many brutal abuses to write them off as only the actions of a few rogues.

We are at the point where nothing less than full congressional hearings, or a full Justice Department investigation, will let us know how high the rot started and how deep it went.
The thing is, to make the legal system work we have to not only inquire about the seniors, but also the juniors.  In Nuremberg we established the principle that "just following orders" was not a defense with regard to criminal activities by Service members and Government Civilians.  Unlawful orders are to be disregarded—disobeyed.

Then we have the view from the editorial board of The Lowell Sun.  In an editorial, "Holder's decision tortures America," the Sun asks if it isn't all political.
Is politics driving U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's investigation into CIA interrogators who might have used harsh techniques -- even torture -- on terrorist detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other detention centers?

Holder says no. He says he's sticking up for the independence of the AG's office to prosecute CIA violators. Holder has appointed a special prosecutor to look into the CIA's "brutal" interrogation program.

Legally, Holder is on sound footing. But when his boss, President Barack Obama, says one thing and Holder does another, we have to wonder if this isn't a convenient cover for giving liberal Democrats what they want:  revenge on the former Bush administration.
This brings out that problem with the US Attorney General.  How much deference does he owe to the views of the President?

The President is sitting there with Dennis C Blair, his Director of National Intelligence, and James L Jones, his National Security Advisor, telling him that an over-enthusiastic prosecution of possible wrong-doers in the CIA will depress morale there and will make the nation less safe.  This is not to be dismissed lightly.  Rumors of CIA Agents balking at assignments are starting to circulate.  There are CIA people, no matter how misguided, who pressed on when their seniors said, "We have your back."  Of course, with a change in Administrations no one has anyone's back.  Usually, in such a situation, the bureaucracy closes ranks and wins, but when they bring out the lawyers it is a whole new story.

Throw into this mix the fact that former Senate President Dick Cheney has taken this issue and run with it.  Sure, he is out selling his new book.  The fact is, in his television appearances he is mopping up the floor with President Obama and Attorney General Holder.

The Lowell Sun is correct in expressing concern about the politicalization of the CIA and the impact on morale in that agency.  We need those people on the job and focused, and not running the yellow pages, looking for a lawyer.

Commentator Derrick Jackson is correct in expressing concern that the guilty should be punished.  However, I believe we need to distinguish between the evil and the over enthusiastic.  And, at the risk of missing a few, we need to do it quickly.  In war people do stupid things.  The trick is to sort out what we prosecute and what we ignore.

What Attorney General Holder owes the President, and soon, is an assessment of whether or not he is going to enfeeble the CIA.  And, this is not a "let the chips fall where they may" issue.  If we lose the clandestine service, it then falls to the Department of Defense Special Operations forces to do that kind of thing.  That would be a mistake with more impact than the CIA's use of torture.

So, we are back to the "Goldilocks Rule."  Mr Jackson is too hard.  The Sun's editorial board is too soft.  We need President Obama to get this just right, and soon.

Regards  —  Cliff

  Calgacus, a Briton of some sort, is attributed as the author of the judgement about the Romans, "they make a desert and call it peace."  As an American I would like to think that we have been stepping back from that view for at least the last 100 years.
  That is my read, but I will send him the URL and if I have offended him he will be free to comment, EMail me, or hang me up to ridicule in his column.
  I blame former President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal for this.  That made the use of political guidance from the White House problematic.
  And there is talk of CIA Director Leon Panetta leaving early, adding to the turmoil.  Director Panetta is a Democratic insider and his departure would likely be to the detriment of the CIA and thus US Security.  (See footnote below.)
  There are those who will ask if it makes a difference, given that the CIA missed 9/11.  On the other hand, we, as laymen, don't know how many 9/11 like events the CIA thwarted, both before and after.  That, of course, is the Cheney argument.  They kept us safe.  You don't have to be a fan of former Senate President Dick Cheney to believe that the CIA has likely prevented other 9/11s, once the Agency progressed forward on 9/12.


Craig H said...

To roughly paraphrase Ben Franklin, "Those who sacrifice liberty for safety deserve neither". And, other than death, there seems to me no greater affront to liberty than torture.

Our founders clearly expected to continually purchase in blood the ideals for which they fought. (Jefferson wrote one of my favorites: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants".) To me, the increased threat of dying in a terrorist bombing becomes my patriotic contribution, but it ensures for my country and my children the ideal for which this great nation was founded.

The alternative (torture, etc.) is to create something so completely un-American to me that it is unconscionable.

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


C R Krieger said...

To Susan/Sheela

I am sorry that your comment got caught up in a test I was running to try and convince the big stakeholder in another blog that we could go with comments and if concerned, "moderate" them. So, I had to go back and "unleash" your comment inasmuch as I had made that post one of several where comments required "moderation."

Sorry for ignoring you.

Regards  —  Cliff