The aftermath of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation policies after 9/11 has set off a spasm of self-righteous condemnation of these procedures and the agency by most of the mainstream media. At the same time, the partisan nature of the report, which was rejected by the Republicans on the committee, has turned it into something of a political football. But as shocking as the details about the treatment dished out to captured terrorists may be to many citizens, the most damning piece of the report may be the allegation that the agency lied to the president and other political authorities. But that charge rests almost completely on the allegation that “at no time” did intelligence gleaned from such interrogations prevent a terror attack. This is thoroughly refuted by both the minority report and the statements of former CIA directors, and deputy directors who were shockingly never interviewed by the committee, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Former CIA Directors George J. Tenet, Porter J. Goss, and Michael V. Hayden and former CIA Deputy Directors John E. McLaughlin, Albert M. Calland, and Stephen R. Kappes explain in their piece how the controversial interrogations provided information that disrupted terrorist plotting that made it difficult if not impossible for attacks to be planned or executed as well as leading to the capture of important terrorists. They also provided invaluable knowledge about how al-Qaeda worked.
How could the Democrats on the committee and their staff claim that the intelligence gleaned from these sessions was of no use?
First, they adopted a narrow definition of their utility by saying that they did not directly prevent a ticking bomb from going off. That may be true but there is more to a war against a brutal enemy that such an instance. The task the CIA was handed on September 12, 2001 was not merely to prevent a last-minute intervention against the next attack on the American homeland but to wage a campaign that would ensure that we never again came close to such a disaster. Their efforts largely ensured that there was never another 9/11.
Most critics of the report have rightly complained about the lack of context in these condemnations of tough treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners. Intelligence officers could not operate with the knowledge we may have now about the ultimate outcome of the battle with the group but only with what they knew at the time. However, as much as all those who are revolted by the details of the torture report should not judge these agents with hindsight, we also should judge them in terms of ultimate results. The conflict with al-Qaeda wasn’t a police investigation of a local, if horrific, crime but a war in which a crafty enemy determined to kill as many Americans as possible.
What we ought never to forget when discussing how the war on al-Qaeda was fought is that the ultimate judgment that the CIA worried about in 2001, 2002, and 2003 was not second-guessing by congressional partisans or moral preening by the New York Times editorial board. Rather, it was the possibility that they would fail, as they had failed prior to 9/11 and that al-Qaeda would not merely pull off another attack but that the group would be able to further entrench itself in the Middle East as a permanent factor destabilizing the region as well as using it as a base for future atrocities against the West. In short, once you realize that the methods were not ineffective, the talk about lies is exposed as partisan bunk.
We can’t know for certain exactly how much the torture of prisoners aided efforts to prevent that from happening but the assertion that it was of no utility is pure ideology, not derived from the facts. The spirit that permeates the Senate report is the notion that because torture is a wrong thing about which no one should feel happy or comfortable, it must perforce also be ineffective. To understand that it can be, at one and the same time, both immoral as well as effective and, in the context of a war for the survival of the West and democracy, essential, is to embrace a moral complexity that those writing the report or penning impassioned anti-CIA editorials are incapable of comprehending.
Just as important, the intelligence and operational failures of U.S. policy in the Middle East in the past few years gives the lie to bold assertions about it being safe enough now for Americans to think they don’t need human intelligence or to play rough with terrorists. The rise of ISIS, which now has achieved more on the ground in Iraq and Syria than its al-Qaeda rivals ever dreamed of, is impossible to imagine outside of the context of an American retreat from the region that is rooted in part by an unwillingness to go on fighting hard against the Islamist enemy.
Seen not only in the perspective of time but also from the understanding that talk of lies is sophistry, the report is particularly regrettable. Committee Chair Senator Dianne Feinstein’s desire for score settling with a CIA that had repeatedly clashed with her is obvious. So, too, is the political left’s passion to demonize the George W. Bush administration and to retroactively delegitimize the successful war it waged on al-Qaeda. But whatever one may think about torture, it is important to remember that there was no real political divide about what to do about al-Qaeda on 9/12/01. It may be that the general moral revulsion against torture is such that even those who understand, as even President Obama does, that the CIA was reacting to the needs of the moment, will insist that it never again be used. But those who think they can erase the moral ambiguity of war with a phrase or a self-righteous editorial are wrong. While we can pray that we never again find ourselves in such a situation, wise observers understand that if we do, the CIA will not be able to pretend that it can defeat the enemy with strictly moral methods.