September 22nd, 2021


Putting America's important virtue at risk

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published December 9, 2014

    Putting America's important virtue at risk

Efficiency was once a precious American virtue. America is great because America is good, in the words once credited to Alexis de Tocqueville, and when America is no longer good it will no longer be great. Whether he actually said them or not, the words are true.

That goes double for the virtue of efficiency. America is great because it works. When it becomes as inefficient as much of the rest of the world, America won't any longer work. And then what?

This the message that has never got through to a succession of directors of the CIA and the presidents who appointed them. That's the message in the reprise of the row over what the agency calls, with the perfumed language government agencies use to disguise stink, its "Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) Program." This program includes (spray a little more perfume over here, please) the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

The linguists at the CIA insist that these techniques, some apparently borrowed from interrogators in "interrogation rooms" in Havana, Hanoi and Osama bin Laden's Baghdad, do not constitute "torture." The surviving remnants of the tortured might not agree. The punishments are surely as cruel and as unusual as the punishments, whatever they may be, prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, which governs the behavior of American officials wherever they go, even to Romania or Afghanistan, whether they like it or not.

The evil doers subjected to these enhanced interrogation techniques no doubt deserved harsh punishment for what they had done — although the Senate report says several of them were later cleared of suspicion, perhaps having lost nothing more that their fingernails. A summary court martial before standing a suspect against a fence post and administering a bullet without even a last cigarette, would have imposed a death more defensible than death by torture, or by "EIT," as the intelligence bureaucrats prefer to call an enhanced interrogation technique.

But by many accounts, such interrogations are, in the words of one informed critic, "slow, inefficient, morbid and ineffective." Andrew Napolitano, a retired state court judge and author of seven books on the Constitution, observes that these interrogations, however enhanced, violate basic inalienable rights derived from natural law and protected by the Constitution that government agencies, even the CIA, are sworn to uphold.

John O. Brennan, the director of the CIA, and other fans of the enhanced interrogation techniques insist that but for waterboarding, hanging prisoners on the wall by their hands, depriving them of sleep for a week, the republic would have fallen, grievously wounded. Perhaps even stripping prisoners of their clothes, requiring them to answer questions in the nude, was necessary beyond giving the interrogators a tingle and a thrill of watching all those fine young bodies writhing in the altogether.

But there's ample evidence that it's the work of the electronics wizards of the CIA and other intelligence agencies who have prevented further damage to "the homeland," using painstaking methods of piecing together bits and snips of stolen emails and conversations to identify a threat. These have been the claims of the intelligence agencies on other occasions. No one credited the water board and the garden hose with foiling the underwear bomber.

The men who administer the CIA know that abusing terrorists will always be popular with the masses, usually with Congress and sometimes even with presidents. Anyone who attacks the United States deserves what he gets. The nation must be protected by any means necessary; nobody can argue with that. The argument is over what is necessary — what is efficient, not necessarily the most emotionally satisfying to the interrogators.

Critics of the CIA who argue that torture deprives the nation of the moral high ground have got it wrong, too. In the long run, and even in the short run, governments never argue from the moral high ground because there is no morality among governments, only protection of interests. It's the individuals in the government who have the responsibility of imposing moral values on others in or acting for the government.

The release of the findings of the Democrats in the Senate was not motivated by morality, but by politics. These Democrats will be shorn of power and authority with the expiration of the 113th Congress, which can't come too soon, and this was their last opportunity to embarrass George W. Bush and the Republicans.

Their report included no recommendations about what to do to prevent such episodes in the future, because the future and what to do about it was not the point of the disclosure. Some of the findings about the abuse of prisoners were warmed over sensations from an earlier news cycle. The indictment of the CIA is that it devalues efficiency, and that's not protecting the homeland.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.