Decoding the Senate ‘Torture Report': Are we coming away with a better moral compass?

Or just a clearer policy on torture?

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The release Tuesday, finally, of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the use of torture in the war on terrorism has been a blizzard of spin and counter-spin, facts and counterfactuals, investigation and blame. If journalism is the first draft of history, official reports are the second drafts. This blizzard is just part of a long weather pattern that will outlast us.

Never having seen the report, former Vice President Dick Cheney this week called it a “crock.” It is unnerving that Cheney, the puppet-master of the wars on terror and Iraq, can be so cavalier about the oversight process in a democracy.  With people like that in charge, investigations like this Senate report are even more vital.

The report’s broad conclusions, which have been know for some time, are that the CIA misled the White House, the departments of Justice and State and sometimes its own leadership about the extent, brutality and success of torture used in interrogations. 

With all that in mind, and knowing the blizzard of argument is blowing hard, it might be useful to step back and view the storm from some different perspectives.

History and blame

There is one enormous dark cloud that always will hover over the history of the post-9/11 decade. The defining and most lethal event of that era was the Iraq War. And the justification for that war made by the Bush administration, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, turned out to be dishonest and incorrect. It also had nothing to do with stopping terrorism.

That colossal deception rightly clouds how we view those times and makes it especially important to get the history right. It means that anyone who isn’t deeply skeptical of most everything that comes out of the Bush administration’s history is a sucker.

Congress was played for a sucker but of course isn’t eager to accept responsibility for that.

The existence of secret CIA interrogation camps and the process of rendition began to come to light in 2005, almost a decade ago. Because of news and congressional investigations, the “enhanced interrogations” we now simply call torture pretty much ended in 2006, the Senate report confirms. We also know from the history of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that the CIA was not the only outfit in the torture business.

The Intelligence Committee first commissioned the report issued Tuesday back in 2009.  Five years of partisan and bureaucratic battles followed. In the end, only Democratic staff members worked on the report. This summer, the CIA admitted it spied on the committee by hacking into its computers.

So there is ample room for skepticism about the CIA’s statement about the report on Tuesday that “there are too many flaws for it to stand as the official record of the program.” The counter-punches by former CIA leaders has just begun.

For his part, former President George W. Bush is standing up and taking a bullet, saying everything the CIA did was approved.

Sometimes the spin isn’t all bad

I am going to commit a journalism heresy: The administration’s pre-spin of the report is a good way to think about it.

Anticipating a leak or release of the torture report, the State Department in July 2014 prepared a memo on “Topline Messages.”  Unfortunately for the State Department but luckily for those of us who work on the first drafts of history, someone sent the memo to the Associated Press.

The money quote from the memo was, “This report tells a story of which no American is proud.”

But the rest of the paragraph is also important, and true: “But it is also part of another story of which we can be proud. America’s democratic system worked just as it was designed to work in bringing an end to actions inconsistent with our democratic values.”

The talking points also include:

The 9/11 attacks presented a threat to the security of the American people that was unprecedented in our history. Our government and people responded to that threat in ways that were mostly smart, principled and effective. But we also made mistakes that we must acknowledge, learn from, and never repeat – including the use of interrogation techniques that were contrary to our values and traditions.

Please note the use of the phrase “and people” in the second sentence. Americans reacted to 9/11 in ways noble and ignoble. So did our government. In hindsight, we want to blame those we can finger as responsible for specific and important lapses of judgment and morality, like torture. 

That is proper when done without too much hubris. It also is proper to remember how public opinion and the political climate, which we all were a part of, were overly scared, xenophobic and vengeful. The crimes of torture didn’t happen in a vacuum.

As Sen. Diane Feinstein said in the introduction to the report, “I can understand the C.I.A.'s impulse to consider the use of every possible tool to gather intelligence and remove terrorists from the battlefield, and C.I.A. was encouraged by political leaders and the public to do whatever it could to prevent another attack.”

More from the early talking points:

In the first executive order he issued, President Obama directed that individuals detained in any armed conflict shall in all circumstances be treated humanely and shall not be subjected to torture or cruel treatment, and he revoked previous executive directives, orders and regulations to the extent inconsistent with that order. The American people have stood by this decision, and there is no serious effort in our country to reconsider it.

America can champion democracy and human rights around the world not because we are perfect, but because we can say that our democratic system enables us to confront and resolve our problems through open and honest debate. Our Congress issued this report, and the Obama administration strongly supported its declassification, in that spirit. This report will help the American people can understand what happened in the past, and that will help to guide us as we move forward.

So, just how have we moved forward?

Drones vs. torture

The Senate report found that 119 prisoners where held in CIA interrogation camps, not 98 as previously thought. Of those, 26 were held wrongly, cases of mistaken identity or bad information.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, over 2,700 people have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia from 2004 through the summer of 2014, including hundreds of civilians.

Is torturing a terrorist more immoral than killing a civilian with a robot?

Through the process of investigation and debate, the country and national security regime may now have a clear and enforced policy on torture. But does the nation, the Congress and executive branch really have a clearer real-time moral compass, one that we use in the heat of battle not just in hindsight?

Sen. Feinstein wrote in the introduction to the Senate report, “The major lesson of this report is that regardless of the pressures and the need to act, the Intelligence Community’s actions must always reflect who we are as a nation, and adhere to our laws and standards. It is precisely at these times of national crisis that our government must be guided by the lessons of our history and subject decisions to internal and external review.”


[Also by Dick Meyer: Calling the president insulting names is nothing new]

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