Politics, Hypocrisy, and Torture

April 23, 2009

  CONTRARIAN ALERT.  I suspect the views expressed below may be contested by not a few in the CFI community, so first, let me state that I consider waterboarding torture, and second, I have not voted for a Republican for any political office since 1972, nor have I ever in any other way supported a Republican candidate.

Good, now that we have those issues out of the way, let me get to the subject of this post, and that is the concern I have that the calls for prosecution of various Bush administration officials for their approval of waterboarding and other objectionable methods of interrogation may derive as much from partisan politics as moral outrage. Reasons for my concern?

Extraordinary rendition.

This term refers to the transfer of suspected terrorists into the custody of other countries—countries not known for humane treatment for prisoners. Essentially, it prevents U.S. hands from getting dirty by outsourcing torture. So was this a Bush administration initiative? No, the Bush administration increased the use of extraordinary rendition, but the program started under Clinton. See the testimony of Michael Scheuer, former Chief of the CIA’s “Bin Laden” unit, beginning at page 12 of the   Report on Extraordinary Rendition from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Having a third party torture prisoners at our behest is as objectionable as doing the job ourselves. So where is the demand for prosecution of Clinton and his officials?

Knowledge by Dems of waterboarding.

The CIA is required to brief special oversight committees in Congress on its activities. In September 2002, Nancy Pelosi and John D. Rockefeller, both Democrats, were among those briefed on the CIA’s use of waterboarding, according to the   Washington Post . Neither objected to the practice. If the rationale for prosecuting various Bush administration officials is that they approved of the use of torture—why not call for the resignation of Pelosi and Rockefeller? (It is doubtful they could be criminally prosecuted because of the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause.)

Why did Pelosi and Rockefeller not object to the practice? Don’t know for sure, but if you recall the climate of this country in 2001 and 2002, most politicians—and most Americans—were not experiencing tender feelings towards suspected terrorists. Which perhaps explains why the Bush Justice Department lawyers were so amenable to writing memos authorizing interrogation tactics once used by the Spanish Inquisition. The authorizing memos were written in August 2002, at the height of our concern over terrorism.

Many in the country felt seriously threatened by terrorists in 2001 and 2002, and people who feel seriously threatened tend to dehumanize those seen as posing the threat. Is the intentional burning of a human being torture? Seems like it could be so described. In WWII, the U.S. and Britain relentlessly fire-bombed German and Japanese cities with the express intent of gruesomely killing and inflicting severe pain upon civilians. Hundreds of thousands were incinerated or suffered crippling, painful injuries. Bomber pilots were feted as heroes, not condemned as torturers. (Actually, the Germans did describe the pilots as war criminals—but, of course, Germany lost the war.)

Perhaps the real surprise from the August 2002 memos is that they reveal the Bush administration at least paused to consider the issue of appropriate interrogation methods.

None of the foregoing should be interpreted as condoning torture, or the role Bush administration officials played in approval of torture in interrogations. I am grateful that President Obama has expressly repudiated this policy. But whatever moral credibility the U.S. has gained through its repudiation of torture will be lost if partisan politics results in the selective prosecution of government officials. Moreover, prosecution of Bush administration officials will have the long-term consequence of making future elections much more divisive. Peaceful transition of power may not seem especially desirable to those in the outgoing administration who will fear being prosecuted by the new administration.

Either we should forgo prosecution or we should hold everyone accountable who was complicit in this policy—Democrats and Republicans alike. Moreover, we should pursue those Clinton administration officials who first circumvented due process by shipping terrorists overseas, placing us on the path to acceptance of torture.