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March 27th, 2017

Insight

When the big news isn't news

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Dec. 18, 2014

    When the big news isn't news

Last week the papers were overflowing with stories about a Senate committee's report on the Central Intelligence Agency's use of torture to extract information from terrorists -- known or just suspected terrorists.

Those stories were shortly followed by others reporting the responses of CIA types and other knowledgeable sources critical of the Senate committee's report. Plus a few words from unhelpful types like Dick Cheney, our former vice president who is still playing word games, and John Yoo, who wrote the notorious Torture Memo(s), and is still defending their torturous language. Torture? That ain't torture, to hear Messrs. Cheney and Yoo tell it, but only "enhanced interrogation." With supporters like these, the CIA needs no further embarrassments.

In the end, as the dust settles and the public's fickle attention span moves on, it becomes clearer that last week's Big News wasn't really news at all. The bipartisan Constitution Project's fair and thorough examination of the same subject, released last year, ran 602 pages and went over the same ground and more. That investigation was co-chaired by the judicious Asa Hutchinson, who was a congressman then and is now the governor-elect of Arkansas. Agree or disagree with the Constitution Project's conclusions, its authors interviewed witnesses on all sides of the issue, unlike those who wrote the Senate committee's report.

By this week, the big story in the news was the latest hostage-taking, this time in Australia. Now that's torture -- and real news. Faux news, like this one-sided report out of a Senate committee, doesn't stay news long.

The best response to the Senate committee's partisan report (the Republican members of the committee wouldn't have anything to do with it) came from the CIA's current director, John Brennan, who admitted, to use a phrase Ronald Reagan did during the Iran-Contra snafu, that mistakes were made. But the CIA's director also pointed out that the CIA "did a lot of things right" -- like preventing another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11.

Director Brennan noted that there were "no easy answers" to the terrorist threat back in 2001 when Americans were thrown into a state of confusion, not to say panic, by the most dramatic sneak attack on American territory since Pearl Harbor, and the whole country was declared a no-fly zone. Remember? It is hard now to re-create the atmosphere of those fearful days -- not that this report out of the Senate committee's all too partisan "investigators" even tried to do that. Their approach was to judge first, look at the cherry-picked evidence later. Result: The committee's accusations against the CIA were not only partial and partisan and predetermined, but context-free. Which is no way to write history, or to judge it.

The second best response to the Senate committee's report came from Bob Kerry, who's still worth listening to. You may remember him: war hero of the Vietnam era (Navy SEALs, Medal of Honor), former Democratic governor and U.S. senator from Nebraska, not to mention presidential contender and university administrator (the New School in New York City). To quote Bob Kerry: "I do not need to read the report to know that the Democratic staff alone wrote it." For the Republicans on the committee "determined that their counterparts started out with the premise that the CIA was guilty and then worked to prove it."

The purpose of a real congressional investigation, as Mr. Kerry pointed out in a piece for USA Today, is "to stand above the fray and render balanced judgments," but the Senate committee "departed from that high road."

The committee's staff didn't even bother to interview those in the CIA they were smearing. Even a rookie reporter would have known better than that, and tried to get both sides of the story. Not these partisans. Their excuse? Some CIA agents were under investigation and unavailable. Bob Kerry wasn't buying it. He knows that the officials that the CIA report accuses of misconduct are not being investigated, or if they were at one time, were cleared by 2012 -- two years ago. Not even Eric Holder's fast-and-furious Justice Department, which investigated their conduct, could find any illegal activity on their part. Nor did the committee's Democratic staffers bother to recommend any changes in the future, which is supposed to be the purpose of having congressional investigations.

The most guilty party in this whole fiasco misnamed an investigation is the Senate committee's chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who was kept informed of what the CIA was doing to combat terrorism, approved it at the time, and either knew or should have known about whatever tactics the CIA was using to do its job. But her idea of oversight turns out to be second-guessing. After serving as a generally competent and even vigorous head of her committee, she now joins those sandbagging the CIA's agents. Et tu, senator?

The one thing clear in this cloudy controversy over how our snoops, spies and other undercover types at the CIA conducted themselves in the wake of September 11th is that they prevented another one. At least so far. Their reward? They get badmouthed by a bunch of partisans on a Senate committee staff. A medal would be more fitting, but it's one of the rules of politics and life: No good deeds go unpunished.

Even if the CIA did resort to torture to get information from some suspects -- and there's no doubt it did -- did it work? Was torture effective? Did it yield any information that couldn't have been obtained by other, less questionable methods? The answer to those questions is: We don't know and can't know. For in seeking answers to such questions, we leave the realm of fact and enter the world of speculation. Or as CIA Director Brennan put it, all of that is "unknown and unknowable."

But this much is known or should be: Even if torture were an effective way to obtain intelligence, it should never be codified in the laws of a country that calls itself civilized. To propound legal rationales for torture demeans a virtuous society, or any society that aspires to be. This debate isn't about just a nation's policies, but its soul.

The low point in the last administration's conduct of this continuing war on terror had to be when its hapless attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, approved that infamous Torture Memo specifying just how much cruel and unusual punishment could be inflicted on a suspect to make him talk. But always call it "enhanced interrogation." The use of such euphemisms was a sure tip-off that something shameful was being done in our name, that of We the People, for words are telling -- especially those that are transparent attempts to avoid telling the truth.

But what if a CIA operative believes that another terrorist attack is imminent -- as a lot of Americans feared and even expected in the immediate wake of 9/11 -- and using torture is the only way to prevent it? Even if that were true, torture should never be codified, and made a legal precedent for more torture. The road to Hell is paved not just with good intentions but bad laws.

If a CIA agent is really convinced that an evil act is the only way to avoid a greater evil, then he must follow his conscience, just as any conscientious objector does, and be prepared to take the consequences -- whether that means punishment or praise or both in turn. But the law should not be made an accessory to its own violation. Torture is no part of American law, tradition and certainly not American values. Nor should it ever be -- officially, unofficially or by any other name like "enhanced interrogation." Torture is torture is torture.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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