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The Senate Torture Report: Was It Worth It?


In the 1975 spy thriller “Three Days of the Condor,” a hunted and betrayed Central Intelligence Agency analyst (played—of course—by Robert Redford) realizes he has discovered a rogue operation within the agency. With nowhere else to turn, he goes public. At the end of the film, Redford meets Cliff Robertson, who plays the CIA functionary assigned to bring him in, on a Manhattan street. “Go home,” Redford tells the career spook. “They’ve got it all. Don’t you know where we are?”

Robertson looks up and realizes they’re standing in front of The New York Times’ offices. “You dumb son of a bitch,” he says, in a heavy, pained voice. “You’ve done more damage than you know.”

“I hope so,” Redford answers coolly.

I don’t want to believe that anyone associated with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on torture thinks that way. I want to believe that outgoing SSCI chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein released the report because she and some of her colleagues believe they were following a moral imperative to do so, not in order to maximize the damage to the CIA.

The only problem is that I can’t figure out for the life of me what the goal might be, other than to enjoy a moment, like Redford’s fictional whistleblower, of massive anti-CIA Schadenfreude. If prisoners were still being tortured and opponents of these methods had failed in all other efforts to stop it, it might make sense to take the case public as a last resort. (At least in “Condor,” Redford’s character was trying to stay alive ahead of the CIA cabal’s efforts to make the conspiracy he’d uncovered vanish forever.) Likewise, if torture were a systematic practice still acceptable as a matter of U.S. policy, this might be the only way to spark more debate.

I Object Both to Torture and to Releasing Damaging Intelligence

None of those explanations, however, makes much sense. This was not a systematic policy, even at the time. These practices were hotly debated – again, even at the time. The public knew a great deal about it, maybe even more than they should have. Anyone who paid attention to the news after 9/11 knew what “waterboarding” was, to the point where the word has entered our common lexicon and even our sexual slang. (Don’t ask.) All of it ended years ago, and the worst examples noted by the Senate Democrats took place over a decade ago.

So why release this report now? Or, ever?

More than 70 percent of the American public thinks torture is acceptable at least some of the time.

Let’s clear something up right away. Personally, I am opposed to torture, and I don’t want my government to use it. This might seem an obvious position, but it isn’t. In fact, I’m actually in the minority on this. More than 70 percent of the American public thinks torture—and let me repeat, torture, not “enhanced interrogation”—is acceptable at least some of the time. I’m not sure if torture “works,” and I don’t care. I am opposed to torture by government entities for the same reason I am opposed to the death penalty: there are things I do not want done in my name as a citizen of a liberal democracy.

But my objection to torture as an instrument of interrogation has nothing to do with my apprehension at the release of this report. I can object to torture and to the sensationalized and damaging release of intelligence materials at the same time. It is sanctimony beyond comprehension to argue that opposition to the release of damaging information about the United States is therefore equal to support for torture. This the stupidest of all stupid arguments about the report, so let’s dismiss it and move on to more substantive problems.

For Feinstein, Politics Trumps America’s Interests

Great harm will come from the release of this report, and the only question worth considering is whether enough good will come from it to balance those obvious harms. The Feinstein Report will be studied in minute detail by foreign intelligence services, and they will no doubt learn much from reading it. Enemy groups and governments will use it for its propaganda value. (That’s already begun.) Allied governments will rightly wonder what the hell we’re doing, and whether steady hands are guiding our institutions.

So there’s no public outcry to reveal the secrets of the 1960s, but the torture report had to come out right now?

We’re still in the middle of a war with global jihadism, yet we’ve rushed our post-9/11 policies into public view. So if we’re going to spill our guts about our wartime behavior, then we should have some sort of compelling reason to do so. Other than Fox commentator Brit Hume’s speculation last night that Feinstein is just generally angry at the CIA, I cannot imagine what those compelling reasons are. Meanwhile, consider this: many of our Cold War operations, some of them pretty ugly affairs in themselves, are still classified, and in some cases, justifiably so. So there’s no public outcry to reveal the secrets of the 1960s, but the torture report had to come out right now? That makes no sense.

It makes no sense, that is, unless you’ve been following the political news. As The New York Times reported, Feinstein wanted the report out before the Republican majority arrives in the Senate. The logic is obvious: a new GOP intelligence chair might not have released it. Is that really reason enough to plow ahead with a flawed report, despite the explicit concerns of the White House and the intelligence community?

Recounting Dirty Details Doesn’t Serve the Public

Many advocates of releasing the report rest their case on the “public’s right to know.” This is the shallowest of all rationales. The public already knew, the debate was already exhausted, and the policy was already ended. What the public didn’t know, and didn’t need to know, was the gory details. Alas, we live in a time when people who lack even basic political literacy nonetheless insist on knowing every classified detail of every U.S. operation, even if those operations are over. Why? Because it makes us all feel important and informed to be told the secret, ugly stuff, even as many of us cannot identify which party controls Congress.

We live in a time when people who lack even basic political literacy nonetheless insist on knowing every classified detail of every U.S. operation, even if those operations are over.

The specific recounting of individual cases of torture serves no public interest. It only inflames the public’s morbid imagination, at least for the brief time the public will focus on it. Indeed, if the goal was to change the national news cycle, if only for a week or two, away from the serial disasters of current U.S. foreign policy and instead to return to the liberal comfort zone of re-litigating the policies of the George W. Bush administration, then the Feinstein Report was a terrific success. Beyond that, however, there is no clear policy recommendation attached to any of this except a general caution to “never do this again.”

“Never again” is apparently the cornerstone of Feinstein’s rationale for the release of the report. Her speech on the floor of the Senate was undeniably powerful and compelling, although not as moving as that of Sen. John McCain, a man who has earned the right to say anything he wants about torture. Now that Americans know just how awfully the CIA treated its prisoners, the argument goes, no one will ever do this again.

In my view, however, the “never again” meme is either disingenuous or naïve, and the Feinstein Report will harm, not advance, the cause of intelligence reform. (Has nothing been learned from the fizzling out of the Snowden scandal?) No report, especially one issued with such obvious partisanship and over the objections of our own Secretary of State, will avert the American public’s deep, often irrational, and almost always contradictory insistence on absolute security.

We’ve Lost an Opportunity for Genuine Discussion

One thing we know—or should have learned—from the history of U.S. foreign policy is that Americans recoil in horror at stories like this right up until the next attack or atrocity, at which point we inevitably tell our intelligence services to do whatever they must. Our history is to cheer the whistleblowers only temporarily, then to think better of it later. (Don’t believe me? Check your encyclopedia for the entry under “U.S. President Frank Church.”)

Americans recoil in horror at stories like this right up until the next attack or atrocity, at which point we inevitably tell our intelligence services to do whatever they must.

This belief in “never again” is a cherished liberal fantasy, based on the idea that self-righteous outrage can change human instincts, even the instinct for self-preservation. This is because liberals believe in the essential malleability of human nature; conservatives, more cynical but more realistic, know better. Showy, short-term political victories do not produce long-term changes in political behavior, especially on things that matter. That kind of change takes longer and quieter deliberation. Those discussions, however, have now been short-circuited thanks to the issuance of this report, perhaps for years to come.

At the end of “Three Days of the Condor,” Robertson’s CIA agent asks Redford a final question. “How do you know they’ll publish it?” Redford answers: “They’ll publish it,” with the certainty of a man who believes a story in the Times is about to change the world. As Redford turns to walk away, Robertson asks, with a bit more confidence: “How do you know?”

Good question. In this case, the report has been published. Whether it will do any good, outweigh the damage done, and change the world for the better remains to be seen. Personally, I doubt it.

Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. His most recent book is “No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (Penn, 2014).” The views expressed here are entirely his own.