So it’s out in the open now. Central Intelligence Agency Director Gen. Michael Hayden admitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that the CIA used the coercive interrogation technique known as waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, on three al-Qaida operatives in 2002 and 2003.
The technique is widely viewed as torture, which is prohibited by U.S. law and international treaties. Gen. Hayden said it has not been used since 2003 but the CIA could use it again if approved by both the attorney general and the president.
The Justice Department is investigating the destruction of videotapes of the interrogations of two detainees held in Thailand who were reportedly subjected to waterboarding and other coercive interrogation techniques to determine whether destroying the tapes amounted to obstruction of justice.
Public disclosure of these incidents should lead to a firm U.S. policy preventing government operatives from using torture in the future.
Perhaps the best thing about the emergence of Sen. John McCain as the Republican presidential frontrunner is that Sen. McCain, who was tortured by the North Vietnamese while a POW during the Vietnam war, has expressed his firm opposition to the use of torture by the U.S. He has said that one thing that helped him endure his imprisonment was the knowledge that our side doesn’t engage in such barbarity.
Torture is sometimes justified as the only way to extract information from detainees when an attack is deemed imminent, and Gen. Hayden said in 2002 and 2003 that everybody expected an attack on the U.S. following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But most experienced interrogators say that torture seldom if ever produces reliable intelligence, that while other techniques may take longer, they generally produce better information.
At a more fundamental level, the use of torture blurs the line between civilized societies and ruthless barbarians. In the larger struggle with jihadist terrorism and those tempted to support or harbor them, the perception that the United States has a certain moral authority is invaluable. Moral authority was a key factor in the long, twilight struggle with aggressive communism we call the Cold War. Using torture undermines that moral authority.
It is dismaying, therefore, that on Wednesday White House spokesman Tony Fratto was still saying that waterboarding might be used justifiably in the future. It would have been better to acknowledge that in the wake of 9/11 the U.S. used coercive techniques, that one could understand the temptation considering the circumstances and the lack of knowledge about al-Qaida, but that we had renounced the practice.
It is telling that the firmest opponents of the use of torture tend to be military and former military people who understand the dangers to captured military personnel if it is widely believed that the U.S. still engages in torture.
Instead of spinning unlikely scenarios in which torture might be justified, the government should announce that America doesn’t do that any more and mean it.