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CIA Inspector General’s report: torture’s “intent” does not matter

Torture is not my beat.

That’s partly because I am unable to be stoic when reading documents like the just-released CIA Inspector General‘s report on “Enhanced interrogation techniques”–new ones in that report include mock executions and “prolonged diapering.” My throat and chest clench up. I yell at the computer and at people who happen to speak to me while I’m reading.

I am incapable of being “objective” on this issue. Some would say that makes me a lousy reporter. I don’t care.

I think that my outrage serves me well in these situations. If I didn’t get angry, have a physical gut reaction to descriptions that an interrogator “continuously applied large volumes of water to a cloth that covered the detainee’s mouth and nose” or that a detainee was “beaten. . . with a large metal flashlight” and later died, I wouldn’t be writing this. I wouldn’t have read the report, 109 pages of bad photocopy with thick black lines and boxes blocking out information that remains Top Secret. I do this because I care.

The 2004 report investigated claims that the CIA might be violating detainees’ human rights, even overstepping the permissive rules laid out by the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel in the original torture memos. Its release was made possible by an ACLU lawsuit.

The report makes clear that Eric Holder’s announcement of a Department of Justice investigation is not only eminently necessary but may not go far enough. CIA interrogators quoted in the report expressed concern over their actions; one said “Ten years from now we’re going to be sorry we’re doing this. . . [but] it has to be done.” Early on the report notes that the policy “diverges sharply from previous Agency policy and rules.”

Yet the authorization for those techniques came from the highest levels of the administration, not from the interrogators or independent contractors on the ground. It may be hard to feel sympathy for an interrogator who revved a power drill next to a detainee’s blindfolded head or told him they’d kill his children or implied they’d bring his female relatives in to be sexually abused, but it is entirely too easy for the government to create a few scapegoats and move on.

We are to simply believe the Obama administration’s assertions that it no longer tortures, just because they say so, and listen to the self-righteously centrist mainstream media analysts when they declare that an investigation will be overly politicized. We can read the memos that were released along with the IG report, the ones that Dick Cheney himself requested be declassified as they would prove the torture justified, and we are to believe the assertions in those memos that detainees provided valuable intelligence, even if nowhere in them does it prove that the intelligence provided was gained through torture and torture alone.

It’s not enough. And it’s not about Cheney or Bush, or about revenge or partisan cheering. It’s not about whether Khalid Sheikh Muhammad is deserving of our sympathy. It’s about simple human truths. If torture is justified to get a desired result, then how can we claim that on the other hand, it is unjustified when done to us?

Glenn Greenwald wrote:

The fact that we are not really bothered any more by taking helpless detainees in our custody and (a) threatening to blow their brains out, torture them with drills, rape their mothers, and murder their children; (b) choking them until they pass out; (c) pouring water down their throats to drown them; (d) hanging them by their arms until their shoulders are dislocated; (e) blowing smoke in their face until they vomit; (f) putting them in diapers, dousing them with cold water, and leaving them on a concrete floor to induce hypothermia; and (g) beating them with the butt of a rifle — all things that we have always condemend as “torture” and which our laws explicitly criminalize as felonies (“torture means. . . the threat of imminent death; or the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering . . .”) — reveals better than all the words in the world could how degraded, barbaric and depraved a society becomes when it lifts the taboo on torturing captives.

The report pointed out that the DOJ legal justifications for torture focused on the “intent” of the torturers—presumably American agents and the “contractors” they hire to carry out these deeds are pure of heart simply by virtue of being American. Arguing that intent matters is rather like arguing that it’s OK if Obama continues Bush policies of preventive detention or occupation or paying private contractors—it simply doesn’t matter who’s doing the torturing or what was in their heart, the actions are just wrong.

The appointment of a prosecutor to conduct an inquiry is a good first step. It opens up the possibility that there will be accountability for the actions listed in this report; that we can begin to acknowledge that the way we treat others has much to do with the way the world sees us. It will be painful, messy, and it will be a battle. It will not make everything all right again, but if a thorough investigation is conducted in the open, it could begin to allow the wounds created by these abusive policies to heal.

But that’s a big if.