The Problem with Senate Torture Report: We Ordered the Code Red

The Problem with Senate Torture Report: We Ordered the Code Red

I thought we already knew that we waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But apparently Senate Democrats thought we needed to spend $40 million to compile a massive report to tell us this news, and also to tell us that we did various nasty things to some other al-Qaeda linked detainees.

Which leaves me wondering: so what was the purpose of this report?

Well, its most striking aspect is its claim that the CIA was lying, refusing to tell political leaders the exact nature and extent of its use of torture. Particularly, the Senate Democrats’ report claims that the CIA was lying to—wait for it—Senate Democrats.

Ah, so that was the point. The real purpose of the report is not to condemn the use of torture, but to allow Senate Democrats to wash their hands of it, to say it wasn’t their fault and they had nothing to do with it.

Never mind that Bush administration and CIA officials deny that there was any cover-up or that the CIA misled its civilians masters. (They also dispute the report’s claim that it was ineffectual in yielding life-saving intelligence.) The fact is that we all knew what was happening and pretty much approved of it. We still do.

So this is a post hoc rewrite, for political reasons, in which Senate Democrats tell us that this thing they supported turned out to be really, really horribly bad, and that they didn’t really support it but were tricked into it by the CIA. Which we are all supposed to accept as a ready-made bad guy because we watched those Jason Bourne movies.

The whole debate seems like a weird parody of the famous scene in A Few Good Men, when Tom Cruise is trying to get Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup to admit to ordering a “Code Red,” a hazing of an underperforming Marine. Jessup spits back, contemptuously, that we “rise and sleep under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then question the manner in which I provide it.”

Except that in this case, we are the ones who ordered the “Code Red.” And the Senate Democrats’ report is trying to rally us to punish the evil people who made that decision.

For the record, the use of these techniques makes me uncomfortable. But it’s not because I have any sympathy for those on the receiving end. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has no rights we need to be concerned about, and it’s fair to say that his treatment at our hands is better than he deserves. It’s not like we trapped him in a burning skyscraper and forced him to jump to his death, and I’m inclined to think that anything less than that is getting off easy.

What makes me uncomfortable with torture is the fear of establishing a precedent. Experience shows that government will tend to expand its power whenever it is left unchecked. If you let them mistreat one very small category of prisoners, someone will eventually try to apply those techniques to others. But if this is a step down a slippery slope, it’s a very small step, and one that has not in fact led to a plunge down the slope. I think it’s acceptable to take the attitude that the government can get away with this sort of thing in a few very special cases, when the threat is urgent and the public is very angry—but our tolerance will wane quickly as we return to normal times. Which is precisely what happened here, since the “enhanced interrogation” program was ended long ago, under the Bush administration.

So grandstanding about the issue now is somewhat pointless—but not without consequences in the real world. Certainly, the next time we face an emergency like September 11, our allies will be far less inclined to cooperate with us, knowing that they will be left to twist in the wind the moment the emergency has passed. And our intelligence agencies won’t be as inclined to push vigorously to defend us if they know that their own political leaders will eventually betray them and expose them to prosecution for the very policies they approved. Certainly, Democrats can give up on their relationship with the intelligence agencies for another generation.

I think it’s good that torture is controversial, and we ought to be uncomfortable with it. But Senate Democrats are dishonestly trying to claim some moral high ground here for the sake of their own political imperatives.

Which raises the question: what is that political imperative? To whom is this report supposed to appeal? It is clearly designed as a gift to the party’s far-left, anti-war, blame-America-first base. It appeals to those who want to claim that America has no moral high ground in the battle against terrorism, and who want to foreclose the use of aggressive techniques in the future.

But as for the politics of this issue for the common man, I agree with Jonathan Tobin. This is another good opportunity for Democrats to demonstrate their peculiar genius for supporting things the public opposes and opposing things the public supports.

It’s not likely to go over well, because we ordered the Code Red. You’re g–damn right we did.

Follow Robert on Twitter.

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