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What's the Next Step to Stop Torture?

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Reprinted from Consortium News

Former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney.
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"I want you to listen to me," said George Tenet, lunging forward from his chair, his index finger outstretched and pointed menacingly at CBS' Scott Pelley, "We don't torture people; we don't torture people; we don't torture people; we don't torture people; we don't torture people!"

Appearing on "60 Minutes" on April 29, 2007, to hawk his memoir At the Center of the Storm, former CIA Director Tenet was imperiously definitive on the issue of CIA and torture. Could he have thought that repeating his denial five times, with the appropriate theatrics, would compel credulity? Is this the kind of assertion over reality that worked at CIA Headquarters during his disastrous tenure?

The frequently pliant Pelley seemed unmoved this time -- since the basic facts about the CIA's waterboarding and other torture of "war on terror" detainees were well known by then. You would have had to be deaf and dumb to be unaware that Tenet had eagerly embraced the role of overseer in the Bush/Cheney "dark side" torture centers after 9/11.

In the memoir -- a kind of apologia sans apology -- Tenet was less self-confident and pugnacious than on "60 Minutes." While emphasizing the importance of detaining and interrogating al-Qaeda operatives around the world, he betrayed some worry that the chickens might some day come home to roost. Enter the feathered fowl this week with the release of the Senate report on CIA torture and all the mind-numbing details about lengthy sleep deprivations, painful stress positions, waterboarding and "rectal rehydration."

One remaining question now is whether egg on Tenet's face will be allowed to suffice as his only punishment, or whether he and his deputy-in-crime John McLaughlin will end up in prison where they, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and several other senior officials properly belong.

The usual suspects are already crying foul over an extraordinarily professional investigation by Senate Intelligence Committee staffers and committee chair, Dianne Feinstein, who refused to chicken out and abandon her investigators despite political pressure to do so.

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Possibly dreading this day, Tenet wrote in his memoir:

"We raised the importance of being able to detain unilaterally al-Qa'ida operatives around the world. ... We were going to pursue al-Qa'ida terrorists in ninety-two countries. ... With the right authorities, policy determination, and great officers, we were confident we could get it done. ...

"Sure, it was a risky proposition when you looked at it from a policy maker's point of view. We were asking for and we would be given as many authorities as CIA ever had. Things could blow up. People, me among them, could end up spending some of the worst days of our lives justifying before congressional overseers our new freedom to act." (At the Center of the Storm, p. 177-178.)

Note, however, that Tenet didn't anticipate "spending some of the worst days of our lives" in a federal prison.

Now Squirming

Former CIA leaders are now squirming. And while they still enjoy the dubious services of a gruff and aging PR specialist named Dick Cheney, cries are again mounting that the lot of them, together with other former senior officials, be finally held to account in some palpable way.

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Many will recall that Cheney -- champion of the "dark side" techniques -- was the first senior official to express public approval for waterboarding. On Oct. 24, 2006, he was asked by a friendly interviewer, "Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?"

"It's a no brainer for me," answered Cheney, "but for a while there I was criticized as being the Vice President for Torture. We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in."

Cheney followed up in January 2009, telling AP that he had no qualms about the reliability of intelligence obtained through waterboarding: "It's been used with great discrimination by people who know what they're doing and has produced a lot of valuable information and intelligence," he said.

Thus, it was very much in character for Cheney, on Monday, to protest press reports about torture being a "rogue operation" by the CIA, calling that "all a bunch of hooey" and saying: "The program was authorized. The agency did not want to proceed without authorization, and it was also reviewed legally by the Justice Department before they undertook the program."

Yet, the trouble with Cheney's defense is that one can no more "authorize" torture than rape or slavery. Torture inhabits that same moral category, which ethicists label intrinsic evil, always wrong -- whether it "works" or not.

In other words, torture is not wrong because there are U.S. laws and a UN Convention prohibiting it. It's the other way around. The legal prohibitions were put in place because it is -- or used to be, at least -- widely recognized that humans simply must not do such things to other humans. For instance, after World War II, Japanese commanders were tried for war crimes because they used waterboarding on captured U.S. soldiers.

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
 

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