What's Left for America's Torture Apologists?

For the past several years, America's torture apologists have been telling stories about the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" program. The stories go like this: Following the capture of high-value al Qaeda members, particularly Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the CIA found traditional interrogation techniques inadequate. Facing both the threat of imminent attacks and recalcitrant detainees known to have information about those attacks, the CIA turned to "enhanced interrogation." Agency interrogators prevented detainees from sleeping by keeping detainees in stress positions, swung detainees into walls, and, in only three cases, waterboarded detainees. These and other "enhanced" practices underwent rigorous legal review. They were employed with care by trained professionals, who immediately stopped using the techniques when detainees divulged the information that the Agency needed.

Former-President George W. Bush told this story in September 2006, when he publicly acknowledged the CIA's program. In Congress, some Republicans repeated versions of it. Lamar Smith, a Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, claimed during a December 2007 hearing that "Zubaydah refused to offer any actual intelligence until he was waterboarded for between 30 and 35 seconds" and Mohammed "stayed quiet for months until he was waterboarded for just 90 seconds." A colleague on the Committee, Trent Franks, made similar claims during a June 2008 hearing: "The CIA waterboarded 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaidah, and Abdul Rahim Nashiri for approximately 1 minute each. The result [sic] ... were of immeasurable benefits to the American people."

The release of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA interrogation program reveals how misleading these stories were. Abu Zubaydah's first waterboarding session took place over a "two-and-a-half hour period," during which he, "coughed, vomited, and had 'involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities.'" During a later session, Zubaydah "became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth. ... [He] remained unresponsive until medical intervention, when he regained consciousness and expelled 'copious amounts of liquid.'"

Abu Zubaydah was the first detainee that the agency waterboarded. Perhaps, then, these difficulties occurred before the Agency perfected its interrogation program, as John Brennan, the Agency's current director, has implied of most of the problems that the Senate Intelligence report documented. We would expect, then, that CIA interrogators would have perfected waterboaring by the time that they interrogated Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the third detainee who we know suffered the practice. Instead, Mohammed's waterboarding devolved, according to a medic who oversaw it, into "a series of near drownings."

No matter a technique's alleged effectiveness, most Americans are reluctant to defend practices that conjure the dark images associated with torture. This explains, in part, the nearly universal condemnation of Abu Ghraib. The photographs were simply too much for most of us, and the tortures that occurred at Abu Ghraib were, rightly, disowned by virtually everyone, conservatives and liberals alike. For advocates of "enhanced interrogation," Abu Ghraib was especially useful. Disowning it, they could demonstrate that they, too, believe that there are lines that may not be crossed. "Enhanced interrogation" just happens to fall on one side, Abu Ghraib on the other. But now CIA interrogation is looking more and more like Abu Ghraib: unprofessional, unrestrained, dripping with cruelty, if not sadism.

So what's left for the country's torture apologists? Continue to claim that the program saved lives and discredit the report for relying too much on the CIA's own emails and cables, rather than interviews. Others will offer a bit of what Stanley Cohen, a South African sociologist who studied denial, called partial acknowledgment. They will recognize some problems with the CIA's program, but excuse these as mistakes or accidents that occurred, as Brennan said, early in the program's development. They may also, though they haven't yet, blame particularly unskilled, unprofessional, or even rogue interrogators for using unauthorized practices, much as the Department of Defense did to defuse Abu Ghraib. Doing so, they'll try to inoculate "enhanced interrogation" against its own excesses. What they likely won't do is admit and defend the version of waterboarding described by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Indeed, so much will depend on suppressing the image of Abu Zubaydah unconscious on the board, water bubbling out of his lungs or stomach.

Waterboarding cannot bear itself. It never could, which is likely why the CIA destroyed videotapes of the practice's use and supporters have described it in such a misleading way. Now, thanks to the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report, we finally know why.