Yes, yes, we understand (and concur) that we have the right, indeed the need, to know what our government did in the name of security and national defense following 9/11. After all, it was in our name that the CIA did whatever it did following the devastating attacks on American soil that killed considerably more Americans than were killed at Pearl Harbor.
Torture as an instrument of policy is, of course, simply repugnant. It is — not to be trite — as un-American as un-American can be. If we tortured “detainees” we have the right to know that, and the need to stop such practices, as we, in fact, did over six years ago. Yet the report, or more correctly its detail and its timing, nags at our sense of judgment, if not our sense of propriety. Was so much of the gory detail really necessary, and was the timing of the report wise? Certainly we could and did, through Executive Order, bring an end to such practices as are described in the report without hanging out all of the sullied linen to dry.
And given the widespread and routine barbarity with which radical Islam confronts us today, was this the time to bombard worldwide media with stories of our excesses following 9/11? After all, we have rather routinely sequestered far less damning government information from public access for decades following various events of historical note. Just try to get all of the details the government still keeps under wraps concerning Watergate, or the Kennedy assassination, and what about the still secret memo that President Obama relied upon to justify killing, without a trial, U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan, an al-Qaeda propagandist from North Carolina, and Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. No, these and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pages of files arbitrarily classified as too sensitive for public release are vaulted in secret government archives. But the gory details of the CIA’s so-called enhanced interrogation program — that Senator Feinstein demanded be made public. And to what purpose? The enhanced interrogation described in the Senate report ended at least six years ago.
NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who concurs with the decision to release the CIA report, nonetheless writes (this week) that he has sympathy for people who were charged with defending the nation’s security after that surprise attack. It was impossible to know what was coming next — for which they would be held accountable…”But (he goes on to write) it is hard to read the summaries of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report and not conclude that some officials and the C.I.A. took the slack we cut them after 9/11 — motivated by the fear of another attack — and used it in ways, and long past the emergency moment…”
“Long past the emergency moment” – ponder that for a moment. Just when did that emergency moment fade into what Friedman calls “the long past”?
Al-Qaeda sent Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab, more familiarly known as the underwear bomber, on a mission to blow up himself and 289 other people on Northwest Airlines flight 253 over Detroit. That was eight years after 9/11.
Anwar al-Awlaki, operating from Yeman apparently convinced Nidal Malik Hasan to go on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood. He killed 13 Americans and wounded more than 30 others. That too, took place eight years after 9/11.
Faisal Shahzad went to the Waziristan region in Pakistan to learn bomb making and returned to the United States and came quite close to detonating a weapon of mass destruction near Times Square in New York City. That was ten years after 9/11.
Al-Qaeda also came close to blowing up an airliner over Chicago by delivering to UPS and FedX packages of printer toner cartridges loaded with plastic explosives scheduled for delivery at OHare on November 1st, 2010, again ten years after 9/11. The first package was intercepted in route to OHare at East Midlands Airport in Leicestershire England. The second package was discovered on a Federal Express plane at the FedEx depot at the Dubai airport at around 9 am on October 29. The plane was scheduled to fly to Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, and then on to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
So exactly when did “the emergency moment” that provided some slack for interrogators to, well, enhance their interrogations really end. Does anyone believe it is over now? Our point is not to justify torture in any form. We don’t. Nor is it to suggest that enhanced interrogation stopped these attacks. It didn’t. We simply recognize that extreme stress, during extreme times can cause extreme behavior by those charged with the awesome responsibility of stopping carnage directed at American citizens on American soil.
The process that produced the Senate report also troubles us. Judge Louis Freeh, former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation notes in the Wall Street Journal as we go to press that President Bush was granted by Congress authority to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.” (Emphasis added)
This joint congressional resolution, Freeh notes, has never been amended, was not a broad declaration of a “war on terror,” but rather a specific, targeted authorization to use force against the 9/11 terrorists and to prevent their future attacks.
Freeh reminds us that in the war-footing atmosphere following 9/11 “the RDI (Rendition, Detention and Interrogation) program, including the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, was fully briefed to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House intelligence committees. The Senate committee’s new report does not present any evidence that would support the notion that the CIA program was carried out for years without the concurrence of the House or Senate intelligence committees, or that any of the members were shocked to learn of the program after the fact.”
It is both disturbing and curious that none of the CIA directors nor their deputies nor, for that matter, any CIA employee who had briefed the Senate committee’s leadership (and who carried out the program) were interviewed by the Senate investigators. None! “Such a glaring investigative lapse”, Freeh opines, “cannot be fairly explained by the Democratic majority’s defense that it could make such crucial findings solely on the “paper record,” without interviewing the critical players. Nor does the committee’s other explanation for avoiding interviews make sense: The Democratic senators say they didn’t want to interfere with the Justice Department’s criminal inquiry into the RDI program, but that investigation ended in 2012 and found no basis for prosecutions. And no wonder: These public servants at the CIA had dutifully carried out mandates from the President and Congress.”
So we come back to the question with which we began this essay. To what purpose was this report written and released to the public at this time? If it was to stop enhanced interrogation should America be massively attacked again in the future it was probably an exercise in futility. Enhanced interrogation was stopped by executive order years ago. But when someone is tasked with stopping a massacre of Americans they will probably and willingly do what they have to do knowing they may suffer the consequences later. Saving lives may well trump the protocol of gentle and civil questioning. Excesses, deplorable as they may be, have always and will always emerge in the fog of war or during a moment of emergency. The CIA is not populated with thugs as the Senate report might suggest to many. The agency is overwhelmingly populated by decent men and women who are tasked with the job of stopping incredibly indecent horrors.