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The report by the Post’s Joby Warrick and Dan Eggen, which describes Kiriakou’s experience in interrogating suspected terrorists, raises in an unusually direct way an abiding question: Should the United States of America be using forms of torture dating back to the Spanish Inquisition?
Nowhere is the mood of that infamous period better portrayed than in the famous Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky was unusually gifted at plumbing the human heart. While it has been 127 years since he wrote Brothers Karamazov, he nonetheless captures the trap into which so many Americans have fallen in forfeiting freedom through fear. His portrayal of Inquisition reality brings us to the brink of the moral precipice on which our country teeters today. It is as though he knew what would be in store for us as fear was artificially stoked after the attacks of 9/11.
In the story, Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor (the Cardinal of Seville) ridicules Christ for imposing on humans the heavy burden of freedom of conscience, and explains how it is far better, for all concerned, to dull that conscience and to rule by deceit, violence, and fear:
The Grand Inquisitor, in Brothers Karamazov
Kiriakou was one of the first interrogators to interview suspected terrorist Abu Zubayda in a Pakistani military hospital, where Zubayda was recovering from wounds suffered during his capture in early 2002. When he refused to provide information about al-Qaeda’s infrastructure, he was flown to a secret CIA prison where, according to Kiriakou, the interrogation team strapped Abu Zubayda to a board, wrapped his nose and mouth in cellophane, and forced water into his throat. In just 35 seconds, viola! Abu Zubayda starting talking. That is called waterboarding.
The 15 & 16 Century Spanish inquisitors were not squeamish, and had little need for circumlocutions or euphemisms like “alternative set of procedures” that are part of President George W. Bush’s lexicon. The Spanish called this procedure, quite plainly, “tortura del agua.” Lacking cellophane, they inserted a cloth into the victim’s mouth, forcing the victim to ingest water spilled from a jar starting the drowning process. Four centuries later, the Gestapo put out several technically improved releases of this operating system of torture, so to speak.
Abu Zubayda: Poster Child
The information from John Kiriakou confirms what has long been a no-brainer but not definitively established before; namely, that President George W. Bush’s “alternative set of procedures” for interrogation by C.I.A. includes waterboarding. Zubayda was given pride of place in George W. Bush’s remarkable speech of Sept. 6, 2006, in which he bragged about the effectiveness of such procedures and appealed successfully for passage of the Military Commissions Act. That law allows a president to define what set of interrogation procedures can be used by the C.I.A. This is Bush on Sept. 6, 2006:
Zubayda was questioned using these procedures, and soon he began to provide information on key al-Qaeda operatives, including information that helped us find and capture more of those responsible for the attacks on September the 11th. For example, Zubayda identified one of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s accomplices in the 9/11 attacks -- a terrorist named Ramzi bin al Shibh. The information Zubayda provided helped lead to the capture of bin al Shibh. And together these two terrorists provided information that helped in the planning and execution of the operation that captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Bush claimed that his interrogation program had saved lives, and Kiriakou says the use of waterboarding “probably saved lives.” We cannot know for sure if this is true. Off-the-record interviews with intelligence officials strongly suggest that there is much prevarication and exaggeration in president’s claims about lives saved and operations disrupted, and that the his assertions merit no more credulity than other claims—for example, that Iran’s nuclear weapons program poses a threat to the U.S., even though it has been stopped for four years.
Other U.S. intelligence officials take issue with the C.I.A.’s version of the questioning of Zubayda. Some say that initially he was cooperating with F.B.I. interrogators using a nonconfrontational approach, when C.I.A. assumed control and opted for more aggressive tactics. After that experience, the F.B.I. reportedly warned its agents to avoid interrogation sessions at which harsh methods were used.
This Is Oversight?
The past few weeks have witnessed an unseemly square dance in Congress, highlighting conflicting claims about what those who are supposed to be overseeing the intelligence community knew and when they knew it—about torture, about Iran, about many things. It is nothing short of an insult to the Founders that members of the House and Senate can find nothing more useful to do than wring their hands over their largely self-inflicted powerlessness.
Lawmakers have been so thoroughly intimidated by the White House that I get physically ill watching the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Jane Harman, Bob Graham, and Jay Rockefeller moan about how secretive and nasty the Bush administration has been. Harman complained recently that when she was ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee some of the material (on interrogations) was so highly classified that she had to take a “second oath” to protect it.
What about the solemn oath they all take to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic? Should not that oath transcend and govern others that an administration might require for access to secret materials?