How To Handle Revelations About CIA Torture

As 2014 draws to a close, one of the country’s greatest controversies is the recent revelations regarding the human rights violations committed by CIA agents in the form of torture. Some people are playing these revelations off as no big deal. Others are calling for prosecutions. With that in mind, I would like to lay out exactly how I think this situation should be handled. Firstly, if any innocent people were tortured, they should receive a public apology and a massive amount of money in damages. Secondly, from now on, nobody in U.S. custody should be tortured under any circumstances, and nobody in U.S. custody should be handed over to countries that do practice torture. Some acts are inherently immoral and should never be committed, even if they may have utilitarian benefit. Torture is one such act, and indeed, its utilitarian benefits are questionable, since a person being tortured may well say whatever they think will make the torture stop. Thirdly, CIA agents involved with the torture program should receive a criminal pardon. As immoral as torture is, prosecuting the people who inflicted it would also be inadvisable. Given the support of many politicians for “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and Dick Cheney’s cavalier reaction to the release of the torture report, it seems quite likely that the Bush Administration was aware of what the CIA was doing and accepted it as necessary. It would be unjust to punish government employees for doing what their higher ups allowed or even ordered them to do without also punishing the higher ups. So, the argument goes, why not prosecute Bush and Cheney? The Justice Department certainly could file charges against Bush and Cheney, but be careful what you wish for. If Bush and Cheney are prosecuted, fairness requires an investigation to determine whether Senators and Representatives also knew about the torture. A few years ago, a controversy emerged as to whether or not Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi knew about certain violent interrogation techniques of terrorist suspects. Did she know? Did any other Democrats? It is hard to say. But consider this: for a year or so after 9/11, blind patriotism was probably the highest it had been since before the Vietnam War. If George W. Bush said a policy was in the interest of national security, most Democrats in the House and Senate were willing to go along with it. When the Orwellian Patriot Act was hastily passed the month after 9/11, only one Senator, the great Russ Feingold, voted against it. In the House, more Democrats, such as the great John Lewis, Tammy Baldwin, Jim McDermott, and Barney Frank, voted against it, but they were outnumbered in their own party by more than two-to-one. It was not until Bush prepared to invade Iraq that a high level of Democratic opposition to his War on Terror policies emerged. Is it really hard to imagine that many Democratic Senators and Representatives were aware of the torture program and considered it a necessary evil in light of 9/11? How many Americans are really willing to have an investigation of the House and Senate and let the chips fall, even if it means their favorite Democrats end up in the dock? I myself am forced to admit that I am unwilling. People who know me may be surprised to find out my views on prosecuting Bush and Cheney, since I have no problem stating that Richard Nixon should have faced a criminal trial and that Ford’s decision to pardon him was wrong. Yet while the torture that occurred in the Bush Administration was heinous, it was at least arguably undertaken out of a desire for national security. That does not make it acceptable, but it does distinguish this torture from the actions of Nixon, which were undertaken for political gain. This difference needs to be taken into account. A criminal pardon would acknowledge that torture is criminal behavior without launching a series of prosecutions that will take us down a path most Americans are unwilling to go on.


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