Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Blaming the CIA for Our Sins

A lot of the early headlines about the Senate's report on torture after 9-11 paint the CIA as some sort of rogue agency, violating the rules set for them by the White House and then lying about it.

This makes me roll my eyes. The President authorized the use of waterboarding, which is torture under US and international law. The President authorized the use of sleep deprivation, which has been described by victims as the worst possible torture. The whole program of "enhanced interrogation," which is the exact phrase used by the Gestapo, was pushed by Dick Cheney and his pals and enthusiastically embraced by a big swath of official Washington.

The Senate Intelligence Committee was kept informed about all of this and did nothing.

When the people learned, there was no outcry. A majority of Americans still supports the waterboarding of suspected terrorists.

Pinning this on the CIA is a disgusting evasion of responsibility by the Senate in particular and the rest of America by imputation.

Ok, so CIA agents went beyond the rules set by the IG. That's what field agents do; they would hardly be good agents if they didn't bend the rules when they thought it mattered. The leadership on this came from the top, and the agents were only doing what they thought the President wanted. The fault for their acts lies first with Bush and second with America as a whole, and then down through the whole chain of command. Blaming the agents is pathetic excuse for morality.

I see a clear parallel with things that happened in Vietnam. The military brass formulated the policy that made the body count the main measure of success, and the President approved it, and officers all through the theater made it clear to their men that they wanted dead bodies and since anybody might be Viet Cong, every dead body counted as Viet Cong. The My Lai massacre should have surprised nobody, and in fact it did not surprise most people who had served in Vietnam. Given the overall American policy and the way officers habitually spoke about the Vietnamese, it was inevitable.

This is why the top leadership should be drawing clear moral lines, not messing around with arbitrary distinctions between this stress position and that one. The instructions from the top always get fuzzy as they work their way down. What matters is not the fine points of the legal logic in memos drafted by the White House counsel; what matters is taking a clear moral stand. Torture is wrong. American presidents from Washington to Ronald Reagan all took that stand. In practice, of course, American agents and soldiers have regularly bent the rules and sometimes flagrantly broken them; that happens in wars. But it happens a lot less when the leadership at the top makes it very clear what is expected.

I am glad that the Senate has published a record of the crimes done in our name. But to the extent that they are trying to shift the blame from themselves to the CIA, they are moral frauds.

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