The recent release of the CIA Inspector General’s report has, once again, moved the issue of torture into the national spotlight. I have commented elsewhere regarding the reasons for my rejection of torture. Apparently, Attorney General Eric Holder is considering the matter of prosecutions. In a recent column in the Washington Post, attorney Jeffrey H. Smith cited six reasons not to proceed with them. I beg to differ with him. Smith’s reasons and my arguments for rejecting them are as follows:
1. “These techniques were authorized by the president and approved by the Justice Department… That alone will make prosecutions very difficult.”
If prosecutions are undertaken, their importance and significance will lie in the extent to which they are successful in establishing the rejection of torture, both legally and as an accepted national moral standard. For that reason, in this exceptional case, the question of whether the prosecutions will be difficult or not is insignificant. The question is not whether the Adolf Eichmann defense – “I was only obeying orders” – will stand up in a U.S. Court. The question is whether the United States, as a nation, will reject torture, or embrace it and accept Eichmann’s creed: “Now that I look back, I realize that a life predicated on being obedient and taking orders is a very comfortable life indeed. Living in such a way reduces to a minimum one’s need to think.”
2. “Prosecutions would set the dangerous precedent that criminal law can be used to settle policy differences at the expense of career officers.”
Failure to prosecute will set the far more dangerous precedent that career officers can, literally, get away with murder, not to mention torture, and never have to worry about the possibility they may eventually have to bear legal and moral responsibility for their acts. It would behoove career officers who are really capable of believing that the question of condoning torture or not is really just an insignificant “policy difference” to seek a less challenging occupation.
3. “After Justice declined to prosecute (under Bush), the CIA took administrative action, including disciplinary action against those officers whose conduct it deemed warranted such responses… If (Justice) declines to prosecute, the matter is sent back to the CIA for appropriate administrative action.”
Here Smith is attempting to apply the legalese argument that prosecution now would not be in accord with established precedent. In a case of such overriding importance, this is a matter of utter insignificance. Other than that, the Inspector General’s report, not to mention the overwhelming weight of credible evidence of brutality that preceded it, make it abundantly clear that the “established precedent” that it is unwise to put the fox in charge of the henhouse is still as valid as ever.
4. “Prosecuting CIA officers risks chilling current intelligence operations. This country faces an array of serious threats. A prosecution or extensive investigation will be an unmanageable expense for most CIA officers. More significant, their colleagues will become reluctant to take risks… And such reactions will be magnified if prosecutions focus only on the lower-ranking officers, not those in the chain of command.
It seems to me rather insulting to suggest that “most CIA officers” are irresponsible government stooges, incapable of appreciating the significance of the matter at issue, and possessed of such delicate sensitivities and fragile morale that they will all become mere time servers and ignore their duty to defend the country if anyone dares to question their actions in a matter of such overriding national and, indeed, international importance. As for the “serious threats” we face, there can be no greater threat to our security than the notion that, in order to “protect” our security, it is entirely acceptable for us to ignore established national and international moral codes and standards of conduct and jettison our national heritage and everything that can give any rational meaning to the term “Liberty.” Those who have read my previous posts may take note here of my rejection of the notion that, because morality is subjective, it must, therefore, be relative and pliable to suit the situation. That is, in fact, the version of morality that our current “conservatives” on the right are promoting, in defiance of their usual breast-beating pronouncements about moral absolutes. Regarding the matter of focusing on the lower-ranking officers, any prosecution that does so will be doomed in advance. The level of focus of any prosecutions should bear a direct relationship to the level of those involved in torture in the chain of command, starting with Bush and Cheney.
5. “Prosecution could deter cooperation with other nations. It is critical that we have the close cooperation of intelligence services around the world.”
One can only conclude from this “reason” that Smith is utterly oblivious to what has been going on in the world since 911. Our embrace of torture based on the irrational hope that it will enhance our national security has shattered our moral authority in the world, and provided our many enemies with a weapon against us that they have used to devastating effect. It is beyond me how anyone who lives outside a hermetically sealed box can have failed to notice this. The idea that anyone could really believe that these deep, self-inflicted wounds were somehow justified by the need to maintain amiable relationships with foreign intelligence services boggles the mind.
6. “President Obama has decisively changed the policies that caused so much damage. He recognizes that it is vital to our security to have an effective intelligence community that is not distracted by looking backward and coping with congressional investigations and grand jury subpoenas.”
Presidential terms are limited to eight years in the United States. It is, therefore, absurd to suggest that President Obama is capable of “decisively” changing policies by administrative decree. The next President may just as “decisively” change them back again. It is precisely because we must look forward, and not backward, that the prosecution of the foul acts of torture that have stained not only our reputation but our spirit as a nation is necessary and justified. We must decide whether we will continue along the path established by our forefathers in defense of Liberty, or abandon that heritage, embracing torture in pursuit of an illusory national security. May reason prevail.