aNewDomain commentary — Republicans spent the weekend in a full-court press defending CIA torturers and the Bush administration that authorized them.
Many of the arguments fell apart upon little reflection.
Former VP Dick Cheney, the architect of post-9/11 torture policy for the White House who personally signed off on individual “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on Muslim prisoners kidnapped and held at Guantánamo and other concentration camps, spat out the following:
“Torture is what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11,” Mr. Cheney said in his latest interview defending the C.I.A. program. “There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogation.”
On that second point, he is right. Murder is what the terrorists did on 9/11. On the first, no: it was definitely torture.
Another nonstarter talking point for the far far right – how else to describe people who support torture, which was abolished by most Western nations by the late 1700s? – was the complaint that the Senate intelligence committee’s report on torture imperils America’s relationship with other nations.
“We do a lot of things with friends,” said former CIA chief Michael Hayden.
He wasn’t talking about fantasy football. He continued:
“A lot of these things are edgy, not illegal, but they have a pretty high political risk quotient attached. When you get into a relationship with a partner and you ask them to do something on your behalf or to cooperate with you, you’re giving them a really powerful commitment of your discretion. Now, this report is going to come out and although it is not going to name the countries that were involved with us in this program, there are those people who think they know what countries were involved that will then use the data in this report you and I have already discussed is not accurate, but they will treat it as accurate, treat it as the historical record and cause great problems for countries who are friends of the U.S.”
I love this argument.
Hayden is literally saying that a future CIA or NSA or NKVD or whatever might want to convince some future counterpart intelligence agency in a foreign country to break the law – do something “edgy” – and that in order to preserve that possible future cooperation in lawbreaking, neither the US government nor the CIA itself should ever second-guess itself, much less prosecute wrongdoers. At the risk of violating Godwin’s law, this is kind of like Germany refusing to apologize for the Holocaust because what if they wanted to do something like that again in the future, perhaps with the help of Japan and Italy?
America is done. Certainly America as a nation of laws is done. But not Michael Hayden. He’s anything but done:
Hayden muses: “What CIA officer in the future, after this and after having been indicted and convicted in absentia, is going to raise his hand in the future and say, ‘This is an odd idea, might be a little edgy, but I’ve been thinking…?'”
Oddly, Hayden seems to believe that this is a bad thing. “The final outcome of this report is going to be an American espionage service that is timid and friendless and that really is a danger to the U.S.”
Given the dismal history of the CIA, from its role in overthrowing the democratically elected governments of Iran and countless Latin American countries, to arming and supporting regimes that torture and murder political dissidents, to spying on opponents of the White House here in the United States, to – most recently – kidnap, torture and murder of innocent people – turning the CIA into a “timid” outfit doesn’t seem so terrible.
But let’s get back to that edgy, leaning-in, go-getter Jack Bauer CIA agent.
Whatever happened to personal responsibility?
The Republican Party, after all, is the party of conservatism. Conservatives say that it’s every man for himself, that we’re all responsible for our own actions, and that if we make a mistake we have to be willing to pay the price for it.
That goes double for the man’s men who work on the dark side in covert ops. In the intelligence community, at least as we see it represented on TV and in the movies, torture is the tool of the rogue CIA agent willing to take the risk of breaking the rules. What are the Geneva Conventions compared to the lives of millions of Americans? There are covert operations the US government stands behind and then there are many others that, if they go bad, leave the agent dead or otherwise twisting in the wind, perhaps locked away in some foreign prison.
Those are some cold egg noodles, but for the patriots who keep us safe, it’s a bargain they’re willing to accept.
But not anymore. Just like the banks that are too big to fail, so-called conservatives are upping the moral hazard ante by declaring CIA operatives to patriotic to be prosecuted.
“They were successful. That’s historical fact,” Hayden says, counterfactually. “Do I support them? With regard to waterboarding, I’ve made it very clear that I thank God I didn’t have to make that decision. I had easier circumstances when I was director .”
Cheney says John Yoo’s “torture memos” — legal opinions issued by the White House Office of Legal Counsel under Bush – inoculate CIA agents who committed torture from legal repercussions. “All of the techniques that were authorized by the president were in effect blessed by the Justice Department opinion that we could go forward with those without in fact committing torture,” Cheney claims.
But legal memos, no matter how well argued, are simply the opinion of a random lawyer. They don’t carry the force of law, even when they’re issued by a lawyer who works for the White House. What they attempt to do is to reassure the lawyer’s client that their actions are probably in compliance with the law and, in this case, international treaty obligations such as the Convention Against Torture. Lawyers can be and often are wrong. The only way to settle disputes over what is legal and what is the legal is to bring the case before a court of law.
The torture memos, however, were leaked early during the so-called global war on terror. Reaction from the mainstream legal establishment was swift and severe: they were crap. “They not only took extreme positions; they were legally incompetent, failing to consider many of the most obvious counterarguments,” Bruce Ackerman wrote.
In other words, any CIA operative wondering whether he enjoyed legal cover for torture, had only to open a newspaper or conduct a cursory Google search to learn that the answer was no. The law had not changed. As far as the American judiciary was concerned, interpretation of the law hadn’t changed either.
Every CIA torturer knew that he was breaking the law.
So here you have it: a collision between conservative politics and reality. Officially, conservatives hold people responsible for their actions, especially when they break the law. But when those people are goons beating and killing those they deem to be enemies of the state, they deserve the utmost leniency.
Uncle Sam art: “Uncle sam” by Thomas Nast – http://www.rigneygraphics.com/lunchmeat/archive/04-08/04-08.php. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.