Ethics & Public Policy Center

Putting the “Torture Report” In Historical and Moral Context

Published in Commentary Magazine on December 10, 2014



When I worked in the Bush White House and revelations about enhanced interrogation techniques became public, I spoke with several people, both within and outside the administration, to discuss and grapple with its moral implications. (Because of my faith perspective, some of the conversations were placed in an explicitly theological context.) I was uncomfortable with what was done, as were virtually all of my colleagues, but understanding of it and at the time supportive of it. It was for us a complicated moral issue, weighing ends and means, and not, in my judgment, self-evidently defensible or self-evidently indefensible. Like so many issues confronting people in public life, there were competing arguments, upsides and downsides to each course of action. And for people serving in the White House and our intelligence agencies, it was not simply an abstract, academic debate. A lot depended on what we did, or what we failed to do.

I understand now, as I did then, the argument of those who on principle opposed EITs; and I’m open to the case that in retrospect we should have pursued a different path. (The early implementation of the program was certainly flawed.) I must say, thought, that the refusal of many critics of EITs to place this debate in a broader context–to treat it as simplistic Manichean drama, pitting the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness–is discouraging and counterproductive.

For one thing, they ignore the context of the times. By that I mean that many of them fail to take into account not only the widespread fear and pervasive panic that characterized the months after the 9/11 attacks, but they fail to take into account that (as this op-ed points out) the evidence we had that al-Qaeda was planning a second wave of attacks on the U.S.; that we knew Osama bin Laden had met with Pakistani nuclear scientists and wanted nuclear weapons; that there were reports that nuclear weapons were being smuggled into New York City; and that our intelligence agencies had hard evidence that al-Qaeda was trying to manufacture anthrax. In addition, we had very little information on al-Qaeda. We were scrambling to catch up, including not being sure of what we didn’t know. That needs to be taken into account.

So does the context of history. I know it’s fashionable to say that the EITs constitute a “dark chapter” for America. It’s therefore worth pointing out, perhaps, that our history is replete with actions during the “good war”–including the firebombing of Tokyo (which killed between 80,000-130,000 Japanese civilians) and Dresden (estimates vary from 25,000 to 135,000), dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (estimates are that roughly 150,000 people died), and Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in World War II–that certainly raise more morally problematic issues than an enhanced interrogation program that involved 119 detainees held in secret prisons, of which three were subjected to waterboarding. That doesn’t by itself justify the EIP; but it does put things in a more reasonable setting.

Many critics of the CIA’s interrogation program also ignore the here-and-now. As other commentators have pointed out, President Obama has overseen an expansion of a Predatory Drone program that targets and kills suspected terrorists without a trial–and in the process hundreds of innocent children in Pakistan and elsewhere have died. They are “collateral damage” of a program proudly championed by a liberal president who has sermonized repeatedly about the immorality of waterboarding three known, high-value terrorists. Are targeted, lethal attacks that kill many more innocent people, including many more innocent children, really that much of a moral improvement from what came before it? And a decade from now, will some of those who now defend drone strikes turn into their fiercest critics, which is what happened to Senator Dianne Feinstein on EITs? (Ms. Feinstein, along with other members of Congress, were briefed by the CIA on our interrogation program. According to three former CIA directors and three former deputy CIA directors, “The briefings were detailed and graphic and drew reactions that ranged from approval to no objection. The briefings held nothing back. The reactions from members of Congress ranged from approval to no objection.” And in 2002, Senator Feinstein said (my emphasis), “I have no question in my mind that had it not been for 9/11 — and I’d do anything if it hadn’t happened — that it would have been business as usual. It took that real attack, I think, to kind of shiver our timbers enough to let us know that the threat is profound, that we have to do some things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves.”)

It might elevate the public debate a bit if critics of enhanced interrogation techniques wrestled in an intellectually honest and fair-minded way with a set of questions they like to avoid, such as: If you knew using waterboarding against a known terrorist may well elicit information that could stop a massive attack on an American city, would you still insist it never be used? Do you oppose the use of waterboarding if it would save a thousand innocent lives? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? What exactly is the point, if any, at which you believe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques might be justified? I simply don’t accept that those who answer “never” are taking a morally superior stand to those who answer “sometimes, in extremely rare circumstances and in very limited cases.”

“The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject any thing, is not whether it haveany evil in it; but whether it have more of evil, than of good,” our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, said. “There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost every thing, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.”

That was true in the time of Lincoln, a man who struggled with the moral implications of his own actions as commander in chief. It’s true in our time, too. It would be a service to us all if, in the debate about the CIA’s interrogation programs from a decade ago, there was a little less moral preening and little more serious moral reflection.

Peter Wehner is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center

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