Yes, it was torture, and yes, conservatives need to put it behind them

When Jeb Bush began sending out presidential feelers earlier this year, many Republican insiders reacted with glee. Jeb, of course, was a Bush, a hawk, and a compassionate conservative, just like his brother. As Peter Beinart reported, “Inside the GOP establishment, the Bushes represent responsible conservatism.”

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Following the release of yesterday’s torture report by the Senate Intelligence Committee, here are some of the things that responsible conservatism is responsible for: detainees waterboarded to the point of vomiting, stripped down, chained to the floor and ceiling, blasted with loud noises, force-fed through their rectums, threatened with sexual assault against their mothers, standing sometimes for 180 hours at a time, one of whom died of hypothermia, at least 26 of whom were wrongfully held, often at a shadowy CIA dungeon called the “Salt Pit,” all of it frequently unsupervised, unauthorized, and illegal.

The Republican elite is a strange and counterintuitive collection of people who endorse more transparency in spending and then sit by passively while we bribe foreign countries with millions of dollars to use torture techniques on their soil in order to obtain little to no valuable intelligence. And leading Democrats, who were briefed on the torture program too, are no better.

It’s been reported that President Bush wasn’t aware the CIA was torturing prisoners at black sites until he was briefed in 2006, and that he expressed discomfort at the image of a detainee chained from the ceiling who had soiled himself. The second part may well be true, but the first part is specious. According to Barton Gellman’s book Angler, Dick Cheney began hosting gatherings with much of the Bush administration cabinet in 2002 to discuss enhanced interrogation techniques:

The vice president led meetings with [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld, [Secretary of State] Colin Powell, and [Attorney General] John Ashcroft, among others, to decide which torments exactly would be inflicted on “high-value detainees.” According to one source, [CIA Director George] Tenet and his briefers gave details of each method employed, sometimes showing photographs. …Bush’s advisers, [a] participant said, “didn’t want the president talking about these techniques,” but they briefed him in detail. “He was fully knowledgeable.”

Maybe those briefings omitted just how sanguinary those interrogations were, but Bush clearly knew that his legal team was twisting the definition of torture into unprecedented contortions. He wasn’t a victim of the CIA, as many reporters have implied.

Since the enhanced interrogations came to light, the CIA and the Bush administration have persistently justified them by saying that they produced valuable intelligence. The Senate report disputes this, but what we do know for sure is that enhanced interrogation techniques did produce bad intelligence.

After Ibn Shaikh al-Libi was captured in Afghanistan in 2001, he was shipped off to Egypt where he was waterboarded. Under duress, he told interrogators that Osama bin Laden had deployed two al Qaeda members to Iraq for chemical weapons training, a claim repeated by Colin Powell in his infamous speech to the UN making the case for deposing Saddam Hussein.

Al-Libi later admitted it was all a fabrication. “They were killing me,” he said. “I had to tell them something.”

Now the Senate report is challenging other instances in which enhanced interrogation supposedly produced active intelligence. Abu Zubaydah—who was waterboarded 83 times during an interrogation so brutal that it brought several of his CIA handlers to tears—did not provide information that led to the capture of 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Mohammed’s location came from a tip by an anonymous source. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—who was waterboarded 183 times—did not give up Osama bin Laden’s hiding place in Pakistan. That was determined through old-fashioned agency gumshoeing.

Of course, if the CIA wanted to challenge the committee’s findings, it could have released Zubaydah’s interrogations, which were videotaped. But it can’t: the agency mysteriously destroyed the tapes back in 2005. Why? Because officers were worried, according to the New York Times, “that video showing harsh interrogation methods could expose agency officials to legal risks.”

So to summarize: a government program has been accused of horrific abuses. No one denies this, but its defenders claim that it produced results. The supposed evidence of these results is either nonexistent or unavailable to the public. The agency responsible for the program has stonewalled and lied about it for years. Now it’s admitted that it doesn’t know whether a less abusive program might have produced the same results.

Does that sound transparent? Worthy of taxpayer funding? Like something conservatives should support?

In order to fight terrorism, Dick Cheney said after the 9/11 attacks that America would have to “work through sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world.” Those shadows would ultimately consume Cheney and the administration he worked in. Today the darkness is lifting, but the last decade still seems shrouded in a hazy miasma at which we stare and rub our eyes and wonder how the hell we let all that happen.

“Torture doesn’t work,” Mark Fallon, who worked on the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, wrote in Politico on Monday. We should listen to him. “The United States of America is awesome,” said Andrea Tantaros in defense of the CIA on Fox News yesterday. We should listen to her too. America is awesome—which is why using cruel torture techniques is beneath us.

What do you think?

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