A Matter of Precedent

An executive summary of a long-awaited, highly controversial Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s use of torture on terrorist suspects was finally released on Tuesday. As expected, Democrats decried the results, the CIA disputed the findings, and many — though certainly not all — Republicans rushed to defend the beleaguered agency.

As I read through parts of the report, and the various news articles about the reaction to it, I grew increasingly appalled and, frankly, deeply concerned.

My feelings were not elicited by any sympathy for those who experienced this torture. The CIA had every reason to believe that terrorists — including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks that killed thousands of Americans, and other al-Qaida operatives — had information about plans for future terror attacks. Details about the infrastructure of al-Qaida, its strengths and weaknesses, was information vital to the United States as it waged a worldwide war on terror.

What I found deeply disturbing was that it appeared that the CIA misled Congress and even the White House. By providing vast amounts of inaccurate and incomplete information, it impeded any sort of oversight and relevant decision making. Furthermore, it appears that the CIA tactics didn’t make America any safer.

Eleven years ago, in the very first op-ed that I wrote in these pages, I argued that when considering the treatment of terrorists it is imperative that the precedents being created be considered. At the time, I was referring to the holding of terror suspects indefinitely, without charges or real judicial review. I have yet to read or hear any reasonable rebuttal to this concern, and the same argument applies here as well.

Unlike the arguments put forth by the Democrats, I do believe that under certain circumstances torture is necessary and even mandatory. However, the decision of when and how to apply such extreme measures must be made at the highest levels of government and include serious and comprehensive level oversight that allows for checks and balances.

As this Senate report illustrates, no such oversight existed, creating a situation in which the CIA had free rein to brutally torture whomever they wished, regardless of whether that person was guilty of any crime. During the course of the torture, the detainees gave various rambling statements, hoping to convince their interrogators that they were cooperating.

The problem is two-fold. For one thing, not all the detainees held by the CIA in secret locations were even terrorists. Secondly, much of the information they were spitting out was fabricated in desperation to get the torture to end, yet the CIA took their words at face value.

According to the report, at least 26 of 119 known detainees were wrongfully held, including two who the CIA assessed to be connected to al-Qaida based solely on information made up by a CIA detainee who was being tortured.

History is rife with examples of the innocent being tortured, with Jewish victims of the Inquisition being a prime example. Even if we would assume that the report is mistaken in regard to the wrongfully held detainees, the absence of oversight created an incredibly frightening precedent. If the CIA can, on its own, decide who should be subjected to some of the harshest torture tactics known to mankind, what will prevent a totally innocent person from falling victim in the future?

For this writer, the most telling reaction came not from the left — who obviously are biased — but from Republican Sen. John McCain. As a former POW who was himself tortured in Vietnam, he welcomed the report and endorsed its findings.

“We gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer,” he said in a Senate speech. “Too much.”

How right he is.