Bruce Thornton: Back in Saigon: The Senate Intelligence Committee Report

The Senate’s misleadingly dubbed “torture report,” an executive summary of which was released by the Senate Intelligence Committee, is a shameless and dangerous act of political grandstanding and moral preening. 

The investigative report of the CIA’s long-suspended interrogation program reflects nothing more than just how firmly the progressive mind is stuck in the old Vietnam War paradigm, their master narrative of American crime and left-wing righteousness. Once more, we see how reactionary is the ideology of the left, their minds unable to accommodate historical change, new ideas, or even coherent thinking.

Jose Rodriguez, a 31-year veteran of the CIA who ran the interrogation program, has detailed the hypocrisy and untruths of the report. He reminds us that in the aftermath of 9/11, lawmakers demanded that the intelligence agencies do everything possible to stop another attack. Indeed, Feinstein in May 2002 told the New York Times that “we have to do some things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves.” In her comments on the Report’s release, however, Feinstein referred to the Geneva Convention and said, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, (including what I just read) whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” Twelve years later, the political advantages of moral preening have trumped the recognition that hard choices have to be made sometimes to fulfill the federal government’s highest duty, which is to keep the citizens safe.

Rodriguez also explodes the report’s canard that the enhanced interrogation techniques were not legally sanctioned. They were in fact reviewed in 2002 and 2005 by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, and in 2009 were investigated by Eric Holder’s DOJ, which did not file charges. Rodriguez also debunks the claim that the CIA withheld information concerning their use from government officials. Rodriguez should know, since he was there when the CIA briefed Senator Feinstein and House Representative Nancy Pelosi on the techniques. And he exposes the lie that EITs did not yield vital information, an assessment also contradicted by ex-CIA chief Michael Hayden, who said of the charge that it “is so untrue” that it “actually defies human comprehension. We detained about 100 people, we had a Home Depot-like warehouse of information from those people.” Former CIA chiefs James Woolsey, Porter Goss, George Tenet, and, with shrewd equivocation, Leon Panetta, along with ex-Attorney General Mike Mukasey and current CIA chief John Brennan, have confirmed that EITs did provide valuable intelligence.

Yet the central fallacy of the report is that the EITs  “amount[ed] to torture,” as Feinstein announced on the report’s release. But government policy follows the law as written and established by Congress, not what “amounts” to the law in someone’s subjective estimation. Such sophistic language compromises the report’s description of EITs. The techniques cited––threats, sleep deprivation, “physical assault,” stripping detainees naked, putting them in “stress positions”––are all obviously frightening and painful. But they are not “torture” under U.S. law. Nor is waterboarding, Exhibit A in the left’s indictment of U.S. heinous behavior. That’s why Feinstein slyly says that EITs “amount” to torture rather than explicitly calling them torture, and why she cites international conventions on torture rather than the U.S. law.

Just consult the statute covering torture in the U.S. Code, which defines it as “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control,” and further clarifies “severe mental pain or suffering” as “the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from . . . the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering.” The key words are “intended” and “severe.” As Marc Thiessen concluded in his analysis of the EITs and their legality, “The fact is, none of the techniques used by the CIA meet the standard of torture in U.S. law. This is for two reasons: because the CIA interrogators did not specifically intendto inflict severe pain and suffering; second, because they did not in fact inflict severe pain and suffering.” And in 2009 Attorney General Eric Holder agreed, when he testified before Congress that waterboarding U.S. military personnel as part of their training was not torture: “It’s not torture in the legal sense because you’re not doing it with the intention of harming these people physically or mentally.”

This simple legal reality is why Feinstein in her statement depends on imprecise adjectives like “visceral,” “ugly,” “brutal,” and “harsh”––to create a cloud of emotion that hides the fact that EITs were not illegal and were not torture. Furthermore, if Feinstein and other critics think this point is a sophistic evasion and that these techniques are torture, then they should call on Congress to change the law rather than rewriting history to suggest that the CIA did something illegal.

But fact and reality are not as important as politics and the leftist melodrama of America’s historical crimes. Thus Feinstein said her report reveals behavior that is “a stain on our values and on our history,” and Senator John McCain said they are violations of our “ideals.” So just how is attempting to keep America safe by interrogating terrorists according to the law, with doctors and psychologists present to monitor the terrorist’s well being, a “stain”? In the real world beyond our borders, genuine torture is used daily without the sort of legal limits or oversight imposed on our interrogators. And most of the time, the torture is not used to gain life-saving information, but to punish political enemies, terrorize political opponents, or just indulge sadistic cruelty. That is a real “stain.”

As for our “ideals,” such a low bar for indictment as waterboarding––which killed no one, and which several journalists volunteered to undergo––means,as Max Boot has suggested, that the Allied strategic bombing of Germany and Japan, which killed 650,000 and a million civilians with high explosives, nuclear bombs, and incendiaries, was an even grosser and more heinous “stain” on our “ideals” than sleep deprivation and scary threats. Where was the investigation of strategic bombing after World War II, or the pontifications on the Senate floor of how we Americans were “better” than such practices? Are we now just morally superior to those Americans who accepted the “awful arithmetic” and defeated 2 racist, brutal, totalitarian regimes? Or how about Obama’s droning to death over 3600 terrorists, including nearly 500 civilians, actions not subject to the legal review the EITs were? Dead terrorists are bad sources of intelligence of the sort gleaned by using EITs. Will we see a future investigation that condemns these drone executions as a “stain on our values and history” and “ideals”? It seems that “values” and “history” are defined by which party is in control of the government and stands to benefit politically by pointing out how they’ve been defiled.

But apart from politics, this report and its rollout are just another act in the progressive melodrama of America’s sin and guilt for crimes committed when morally superior liberals aren’t running the show. And exhibit number 1 for progressives of a certain age is the Vietnam War. That’s why the conflict in Iraq was shoehorned into the Vietnam paradigm as soon as ambitious Democrats like Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and John Kerry, who had all voted for the war, began noticing the traction Howard Dean was gaining from opposing the war.

Thus the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the escalation of the war in Vietnam found its parallel in Bush’s alleged “lies” and “false intelligence” about Hussein’s WMDs (“Bush lied, millions died!”). The charge that Vietnam was benefitting the “military-industrial complex” and its lust for profits and resources was duplicated in allegations that the Halliburton Corporation and Dick Cheney were really after Iraq’s oil (“No blood for oil!”). Anti-war critics like I.F. Stone and the Berrigan brothers were reincarnated as the buffoonish Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky. The anti-war movement of the Vietnam era reappeared as International ANSWER, Code Pink, and various other outfits protesting the war in Iraq. Clichés like “escalation” and “quagmire” resurfaced in media commentary, and atrocities like My Lai were searched for in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

And don’t forget the investigative assault on the CIA by Senator Frank Church’s committee following the 1975 North Vietnamese victory in Vietnam, a report that weakened the CIA and compromised its effectiveness in ways that helped pave the way for the 9/11 attacks. Now it finds a new iteration in the Senate Intelligence Committee report and the dishonest media coverage besmirching the CIA. The immediate result has been to endanger our agents and intelligence assets abroad.  It still waits to be seen how much damage will ensue to the morale and future practice of the brave men and women who try to keep us safe.