Few things are as ridiculous to me as torture. Making an individual suffer in terrible ways to save a country sounds to me like a contrived comic book plot. Or a rather unlikely hypothetical moral scenario designed for the philosophy classroom. But the CIA report which has this week shocked the world shows that, while the policymakers had capitulated to the moral dilemma on a day-to-day reality, they weren’t saving anybody.
The full 500-page report can be found here (http://www.vox.com/xpress/2014/12/9/7360291/full-senate-torture-report) for those interested in the horrific detail concerning every tortured detainee. Only the summary of the report’s findings, a hefty 19 pages, is discussed here. Three questions I’m going to ask are: What did the report tell us? What does it show us about how our government acted? How does this change the relationship between people and power?
What new things did the report tell us?
Western Governments have been suspected of torturing their enemies since before Osama Bin Laden could even say the word intifada. The idea that torture might have to be used by upstanding folks such as 24’s Jack Baeur (Being a loose cannon is admirable if it’s for national security) to protect innocent citizens from violent fundamentalists (if you’re being a loose cannon for another nation’s security and you have a beard then fuck you) is not a new one. But the number one finding was that torture was “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation.” In other words, the main premise of torture justification by supporters and policymakers is a false one, in the opinion of the US Senate Committee.
Secondly, the committee found that the CIA lied to Congress and the President about the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation. It omitted to brief the President about its activities. It underplayed the brutality of “enhanced interrogation” and acted in a myriad of ways to mislead, misinform and cause misconstruction of its activities, and to resist oversight.
Thirdly, even if you think torture is great and the CIA are a greater asset to America than the bald eagle, the CIA were inadequately prepared to implement its program, and didn’t manage it properly. The two psychologists contracted to devise the scheme did so with no experience of al-quaida, or even some things you would assume were basic knowledge when devising an interrogation program – the psychologist had never studied interrogation techniques before. It seriously called into question the ability of the CIA to govern itself effectively. In fact, the supervisors appear to have been a force unto themselves, recommending techniques not approved by even the CIA. When the CIA officers felt uncomfortable and tried to challenge them the supervisors ignored and marginalised them; when CIA officers violated policy by being far too brutal the supervisors excused them.
Through all of this, there have been 2 significant costs to the US – a financial one which is well over $300 million. A second cost has been the reputation of the US amongst the international community: it has been severely harmed, with many nations refusing to grant medical care to the detainees being held on their soil in foreign facilities.
What does it tell us about authority?
This episode makes two things apparent to me. The first is an apparent willingness to throw out any moral, financial or political caution in the name of national security. If you are the government, or Congress, or the President, you should know better than to let the mention of national security scare you into complete obedience. The national security argument was vague and shoddy – why then, was it not exposed by anyone involved?
You’re just not going to convince me that arguments based on national security deserve to be under less scrutiny than any other argument. Where was the evidence? Where was the proof? The biggest irony is that the CIA had to lie to justify the argument that torture was effective to the government. I’m no expert in logic, but I would have thought a bit of critical thinking would have been useful here. If you believed torture was effective but you couldn’t find any facts to back up your argument, wouldn’t it be more clever to suppose that you were wrong about torture, rather than lie to the President because of how certain you are that torture works?
In defence of the CIA, its own officers regularly called into question the effectiveness of torture. It all smacks of the Nazi Officers who said they were only following orders; clearly doubting the morality of their actions but unable or unwilling to change their actions. However, the astute amongst you will notice that this apparent eagerness to drop their doubts because it was thought national security was at risk was not a defence at the Nuremberg trials. It shouldn’t be here either.
Another thing I think it shows is an Orwellian streak in our institutions. In the novel 1984, the protagonist is tortured within the throngs of the Ministry of Love. The activities of the Ministry of Love are never questioned, partly because the citizens take it at face value. Now, they do the same for immigrants, by calling them “illegal aliens” and now they do it for torture. The use of language such as “enhanced interrogation” seeks to make the evil palatable by its blandness. In my view, if we are to take measures to stop the CIA and other institutions from misleading the public, that would be entirely appropriate. But this would fail to change anything unless we also force it to change its language. To me, no moral distinction can be made between misleading by lie or omission and misleading by this loaded language to describe its activities. It simply must stop.
How does it change our relationship with our institutions?
And now we come to the bit of my article that really is my personal opinion. I believe the take home message is that we should be suspicious of our governments. The CIA acted as a force unto themselves – at every point encouraging brutality, lies, and the evasion of supervision. Instead they punished conscientiousness, restraint and professional conduct. But the CIA has not been punished. In fact, many of them still have their jobs. With those kinds of people in charge of our national security, I feel a lot less safe indeed. The title of the CIA report might as well have read “Al-Quaeda recruitment material” for all the difference it would make.