Are We a Great Nation?

tags: torture, CIA, interrogation

Steve Hochstadt is a writer, a gardener and a professor of history at Illinois College. His column appears Tuesdays in the Journal-Courier and is available at stevehochstadt.blogspot.com.

Now we know a lot more about the role of torture in America. A summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program is now available for all to read. The full Committee study is more than 6700 pages long and is still classified. It is the result of 5 years of study by the Committee. Even the summary is not easy reading. It covers hundreds of pages. The full report is actually two reports: the majority Democrats wrote and passed the report, while the minority Republicans objected to parts or all of it, and some voted against releasing even the summary.

In fact, many Republicans on the Committee chose not to participate in the investigation at all. When the final report came up for a vote, the 7 Democrats, one independent, and one Republican voted for it, and 6 Republicans against.

The report details the following treatment of prisoners in American custody: prisoners were force fed; one prisoner showed medical signs of a violent anal rape; one prisoner froze to death after being chained naked to the floor of his unheated cell overnight; waterboarding was frequently used, and several prisoners nearly died from this treatment; threats were made to rape or kill family members, including children, of the prisoners; one prisoner was put in ice-water baths and forced to stand for 66 hours (he was arrested because of mistaken identity); one prisoner was placed in a coffin-sized box for 11 days, and also in a box 2' by 2.5' by 2.5' for more than a day.

Of a total of 119 prisoners, 39 were tortured, 6 of them before any attempt was made to see if they would cooperate without torture. At least 26 innocent prisoners were improperly detained, but some of them were tortured, too.

The CIA provided misleading testimony to Congress and the President about a variety of issues, including the total number of prisoners and the methods of interrogation. Private contractors developed the torture techniques, employed them on prisoners, and evaluated their effectiveness. They earned millions of dollars for their work.

The major objection of the Republican Senators to the Committee report is over the issue of effectiveness. While the official report written by Democrats says that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence”, the minority Republicans disagree, and have written dozens of pages of detailed objections. But the most significant assessment of the effectiveness of CIA torture was provided by CIA chief John Brennan, who said after the report was released that, “the cause-and-effect relationship between the application of those EITs and the ultimate provision of information is unknown and unknowable.”

The question of effectiveness cannot be answered. I think it’s more important for our national self-respect to ask whether torture ought to be used by the American government whether or not it is effective. The minority Republican report does not address the morality of torture. One Republican on the Committee, Susan Collins of Maine, stated at the beginning of her own minority report that “the use of torture is deplorable and is completely contrary to our values as Americans.” She notes that the US ratified the international Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1994, and thereby promised that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever”, including war, could be used as a justification of torture. Another Republican with personal knowledge of torture, Senator John McCain, praised the report on the floor of the Senate, and said “the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights”.

The partisan division in the Senate Committee is mirrored in the general public. A poll by the Pew Research Center found that 76% of Republicans thought the torture methods were justified, and 64% thought the release of the report was wrong. Only 37% of Democrats justified torture, but 56% said the report’s release was correct. More liberal Democrats were less likely to justify torture, but more likely to approve the release. Republicans say that torture helped prevent terrorist attacks, while Democrats are split on that issue.

The founders of the United States were Enlightenment thinkers who eagerly put into practice the ideas of their philosophical peers. One of the foundations of Enlightenment thought was the rejection of torture. That belief was written into our Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bans “cruel and unusual punishment”.

It is noteworthy that those conservative Americans who insist most loudly that we should follow the founding documents literally, and who also insist that the US is an exceptional nation because of its moral virtue, defend torture because they believe it is effective. The rejection of torture as immoral has now become a “liberal” idea, just as it was in the 18th century, when the most liberal political leaders in the world founded our nation.

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