Last week's release of the U.S. Senate Select Intelligence Committee report on "enhanced interrogation techniques (EIT's)" ignited a firestorm registering double figures on any political Richter scale. The report concluded that the CIA had indeed tortured prisoners detained in the war on terror and had misled and lied to Congress about those programs. And, torture, according to the report did not yield much vital information.
Leading the countering Banzai charge was former Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney called the report a load of "crap," citing both the urgency of preventing future attacks and the government's "legal" justification for applying these techniques. Five former CIA Directors used more civil language in criticizing the report written by Democratic staffers who purposely chose not to interview any CIA personnel in this process.
First a digression: I have been subjected to extreme forms of EIT's. I also was strapped to a table while a hole was cut in my stomach to insert a tube. Both were torture by any name.
In the first instance, like many other Americans sent to fight in Vietnam, Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School was mandatory training where we were voluntarily subjected to EIT's. Ironically, training occurred in mid-winter high in the southern California mountains where sub-zero temperatures produced hypothermia and frostbite in some of the students headed to the heat of South Vietnam.
In the second instance, I was literally dying. A feeding tube had to be inserted into my stomach for sustenance and survival. In such a weakened state, a general anesthetic was too dangerous. And the local did not work. The pain was beyond comment.
These observations suggest that debate over torture is not always straight-forward. Yet, the final standard for defining this conduct is unequivocally stated in the Constitution. Cruel and unusual punishment is prohibited.
The issue is not whether torture works or does not. I believe it does not work. But any cruel and unusual punishment is destructive to the legitimacy and credibility of American values. The Bush 43 White House should have known better.
Some such as Cheney may not regard EIT's as cruel. They surely are unusual. And had videotapes of these interrogations not been destroyed -- the diaphanous rationale was that printed records were kept -- if they were shown, almost certainly any fair observer would conclude these methods were torture.
Three conclusions should be self-evident. First, no matter what does or does not constitute torture, regarding EIT's, oversight at all levels was missing in action. Suppose for example the president or his senior staff viewed the tapes. What might have been their reactions?
Suppose that members of Congress briefed on these programs had been more inquisitive and not generally supportive of EIT's? Suppose the CIA had provided more aggressive and effective oversight? Or suppose full consideration of the moral, ethical and political dilemmas of this program been fully debated in advance -- one reason why then Secretary of State Colin Powell was purposely excluded from this process? His reaction and sense of outrage were predictable.
Second, organizations lacking competence, experience or understanding to undertake covert assignments such as EIT's should never be so empowered. After September 11th, the understandable, yet flawed reaction by the White House was to entrust the CIA with this mission. But if any discussion over other options took place, no record of that exists. That the CIA could hire two civilians to oversee this program who likewise had only experience in SERE training and none in interrogation like the FBI turned out to be disastrous.
Third, covert operations can backfire. No matter the successes, covert operations are inherently risky. Whether they were plots to overthrow governments (from Latin America to Africa to the Middle East and South Vietnam) or to assassinate leaders (Congo and Cuba) or to arm rebels (Iran-Contra or equip the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan), each carried highly negative consequences no matter what was or was not achieved.
That the U.S. promises to ban ETI's is rather like the ban on assassinating heads of government. It is conditional. The world is not black or white.
The drone program targets suspected terrorists, but it is void of due process. Sometimes innocents are killed but in the context of a "greater good." Osama bin Laden was in essence head of al Qaeda. Abu al Baghdadi leads the Islamic State (IS). But can targeted assassinations continue to be justified over time even though these people are societal menaces?
But the really sad lesson is that this brouhaha over the Senate report will not answer these questions or prevent future covert operations from self-detonating.