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Guest opinion: Senate report on torture a sad chapter for U.S.

Cornell W. Clayton

“I would absolutely do it again,” said a defiant Dick Cheney.

This in reaction to the Senate Intelligence Committee report detailing how the CIA tortured suspected terrorists in a brutal program that violated American laws and produced little valuable intelligence.

The report is disturbing. The reaction to it is worse.

The former vice president’s remarks came when asked about Gul Rahman, an innocent Afghani man arrested by mistake. Rahman was beaten, soaked in cold water, and chained to the concrete wall of a freezing cell where he died of hypothermia. Cheney had “no problem” with this. “I am more concerned with bad guys who were let out and released than a few that were innocent,” he said.

We now know that at least one in five of the 119 detainees in the CIA’s secret program were innocent people mistakenly caught up in what program defenders say was the “fog of war.” But the torture program was not carried out on the battlefield. It transpired over a four-year period at secure black sites around the world (to avoid legal restrictions against torture).

Torture techniques were debated at the highest levels of the government. Detainees were subjected to beatings, waterboarding, hypothermia, sleep deprivation, stress positions, forced nudity and rectal feeding. They were tortured in a deliberate, premeditated way that the government sought to keep secret.

John Yoo, the Justice Department lawyer who concocted legal rationales for the torture program, now says he was not told how brutal the practices actually were. His legal opinions, though, were so poorly reasoned that the Justice Department was forced to rescind them.

Karl Rove, on Fox News, attempted to distinguish CIA interrogators from the Japanese soldiers prosecuted for waterboarding American GIs, arguing that the CIA kept the feet of detainees “more elevated” while forcing water into their lungs.

Then there are James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the Spokane psychologists paid $80 million to develop the CIA torture techniques. Mitchell says waterboarding is neither morally right nor wrong, it’s just “another tool in the bag.”

Mitchell and Jessen directed the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded 83 times, deprived of food and sleep, confined in a coffin-size box for 266 hours, and had his head repeatedly slammed against walls. Zubaydah lost an eye in CIA custody. The interrogations were so brutal that the CIA’s own personnel reported being emotionally traumatized by them. In the end, the CIA concluded that virtually all useful intelligence Zubaydah provided came from traditional interrogation techniques prior to CIA torturing.

The Senate report makes clear that torture failed to produce any significant intelligence. Cheney and CIA Director John Brennan dispute this finding, but they provide no counter evidence. Indeed, Brennan does not argue that torture works, only that it’s impossible to know that it doesn’t.

The tragedy, however, isn’t that torture failed. It’s that Americans resorted to it.

Nations are not individuals or even extensions of individuals. A nation is its values and what it stands for. This is especially true of America, which has never been defined by a shared ethnic or religious identity, but only by our common ideals. Chief among these is the belief in human rights, the rule of law, and the dignity of the individual. Torture is an affront to these ideals.

Those who insist that brutal terrorists who kill innocent civilians forfeit the right to humane treatment miss the point. It is not about who they are, but who we are. America is an exceptional nation because it embraces – often imperfectly – exceptional values. We lose if we abandon those values.

The Nuremberg trials provided a powerful reminder of America’s ideals. At the end of WWII the United States might have acted with impunity against a heinous enemy that posed a far greater threat than today’s jihadists. Instead, it treated them with dignity and the rule of law.

“Judgment at Nuremberg,” the classic film depicting the trials, has Spencer Tracy playing an American judge who must sentence an otherwise decent man who cooperated with the Nazi regime only because he feared for his country’s survival. “Survival as what?” Tracy asks. “A country isn’t a rock. And it isn’t an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for, when standing for something is the most difficult!”

America isn’t a rock. It’s what we stand for in difficult times. That is why the Senate report about Americans torturing, and the shameful justifications offered in defense of those practices, should offend and sadden us all.

Cornell W. Clayton is the Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of Government, and director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University
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