Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Monday, October 24, 2016

Blame it on Hollywood.

Too many spy movies and post-9/11 television dramas have featured a hard-charging protagonist whose mission is to stop the evildoers by any means necessary. Torture is an oft-used weapon in his arsenal. Just think of 24’s Jack Bauer, who rarely paused before subjecting a suspect to all manner of brutal and ghastly techniques, supposedly to glean live-saving information.

Then there was Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliantly executed Zero Dark Thirty, which purports to tell the true story (Hollywoodized, of course) of the capture of Osama bin Laden. After a detainee is brutalized, he gives up bits of information that eventually lead to bin Laden’s hideout.

Given the popularity of such dramas, it’s no wonder that so few Americans seem troubled by the Senate’s report on the CIA’s use of torture, a damning document that makes it perfectly clear that the United States violated international treaties, flouted our own laws and lost our moral compass. Yet 53 percent of Americans believe that torture against suspected terrorists can often or sometimes be justified to extract important information, according to a Pew Report from 2011.

Will the new report change that? Can we Americans stand to look deep into the abyss and see ourselves reflected back?

In 1984, Ronald Reagan’s signing statement on the United Nations Convention Against Torture said, “Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.” Will Reagan’s party now stand up for his values?

It’s unlikely. While one or two brave Republicans — Arizona Sen. John McCain, chief among them — have assailed the use of torture since the report’s release, most conservatives have painted this as just another partisan battle.

What happened to the nation that sees itself as exceptional, as the “shining city on a hill”? What happened to a people who believe we set a righteous example for the world?

Fear was a great part of our moral collapse. After the stunning atrocity that took the lives of nearly 3,000 people, Americans were terrified that other attacks were in the offing. We were willing to close our eyes to the CIA’S tactics as long as they purported to keep us safe.

But here’s one important way that Hollywood’s version differs from real life: Torture doesn’t work as a tactic of interrogation. Initially, the CIA’s experts in interrogation were leery of it, having concluded years earlier that it frequently led to bad information. The Pentagon wanted nothing to do with it. (The reluctance of military men to engage in torture might help explain the email mentioned in the report that predicted that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell would “blow his stack” if he were informed about what was going on.)

The Senate report is replete with cases in which torture turned up nothing useful, including in the most famous CIA coup of all: the capture of bin Laden. Bigelow was used by the agency for propaganda purposes. The most useful clues were obtained in other ways. In fact, several detainees who were tortured went out of their way to give misleading information about bin Laden’s whereabouts. Other detainees just said what they thought their captors wanted to hear.

Think about it. If you were being waterboarded — which is simulated drowning — or “fed” through your rectum, wouldn’t you say anything to get your oppressors to stop?

As bad as the CIA’s use of torture was, there is something that is even worse: Its representatives repeatedly lied to the elected politicians whose job it is to keep an eye on clandestine operations. Just like every B movie you’ve ever seen about some rogue operation by a secret government agency, the CIA prevaricated, covered up and even destroyed documents to keep members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from finding out what it was up to. The agency even lied to the White House.

That’s really all you need to know about how morally corrupting torture is: It represents a threat to democracy itself. Now that’s the plot that deserves a place on the big screen.

Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at [email protected]

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

  • Dominick Vila

    Torture has never been an effective method to obtain reliable information or change the minds of the victims. A person that is tortured will say whatever his/her tormenters want to hear, and once released are more likely to become our most mortal enemies than a converted friend.
    The irony, when we hear all the excuses being made to minimize the importance of what we did, is that a few decades ago we – the United States of America – championed legislation to end torture and establish a difference between what “evil empires” were doing as recently as in the 1980s and the way we treated our prisoners. I wonder how President Reagan, whose UN Ambassador pushed for the 1984 UN Treaty Against Torture, would feel if he knew that three decades later, the perpetrators of one of the most inhumane and ineffective acts was none other than the USA.
    The congressional report did not reveal anything the rest of the world did not already know. All we have to do is look at the bright orange outfits the ISIS thugs made the American hostages wear before beheading them, and look at the attempts by Turkish people to put paper bags over the heads of Americans, to understand the disgust and hatred elicited by the practice of torture in Guantanamo and at overseas rendition sites. I suspect that Sen. Feinstein’s decision was influenced by a desire to come clean, admit wrongdoing, and put this embarrassing incident behind us. Her decision demonstrates courage, and confirms her confidence in the strength of our democracy, our values, and our ability to lead. Unfortunately, her efforts will achieve nothing if there is no accountability. Ignoring what this report reveals would be interpreted as condoning what happened, and a sign of weakness. Widespread prosecution would undermine the effectiveness of the CIA and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The most likely step to take is a combination of prosecuting a couple of senior CIA officials, and pardoning senior administration officials. I doubt President Bush will be pardoned or prosecuted. The Obama administration will probably say that there is no evidence indicating any involvement on his part in what transpired.

    • Billie

      No president is going to prosecute another president. That would leave him wide open for being prosecuted on some trumped charge by the opposing party.

      • sleepvark

        Maybe it’s time for a change. Special prosecutors have been in fashion for a long time now. Gather the evidence and use it in a court of law. Nothing new about that either. The president doesn’t need to play the part of prosecutor. Hell, I’d gladly do that myself, and I’d go for the death penalty.
        Gathering evidence is a no brainer in this case, given the numerous public statements made by the top 3 in the previous administration.
        Hell, they can’t even travel to most parts of the civilized world for fear of being arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced and executed by almost any court of law currently in existence.

      • sigrid28

        Perhaps the viable option of prosecuting George W. Bush and Cheney and others in his administration for war crimes will serve as a brake on the far-right’s urge to proceed with its attempts to impeach President Obama for Benghazi or for whatever other cooked up charges Republicans try to bring up against him. Or are they too stupid to see that far ahead?

  • sleepvark

    Having actually worked as an interrogator I can tell you that this report is right on. The stain on our nation’s honor will not soon wash out. Terrorist thugs don’t scare me. But our government agencies being turned loose to use such interrogation tactics at will scares the willies out of me.
    Torture only works as a tool for evil self gratification. A sadist will get off on it. There is no other use. It is done by evil people for evil purposes. It disgusts me that this was done in our collective names. It makes me ashamed to be an American.
    Anyone who approves of torture is a coward. There is no other way to describe them. Scared silly, afraid of their own shadows, pleading like scared little girls to be protected from danger but unwilling to step up and act in defense of themselves. Anyone who defends the use of torture can go to hell, they are not worthy of American citizenship. They are a stain on humanity.
    Stronger words to follow.
    It’s the old nose of the camel thing. You can’t let any part of these despicable actions loose in our society because they will all too soon become the new norm, to be used on a whim on any citizen caught up by the constabulary for any reason, or even no reason whatsoever. History is replete with examples. We are by no means immune.

    • Billie

      But the Evil Cheney thinks it was okay. I wish someone would grab him and torture him. Try water boarding.

      • idamag

        Cheney is the reason I took my name off the organ donor list. There was a young father, in our community, who needed a liver transplant. He didn’t have the money up front so the community was trying to raise the money for him. He died before there was enough money. Cheney got two hearts. Well, he’ll never get mine. He is pure evil.

        • latebloomingrandma

          He really gives me the creeps. His evil spawn of a daughter, also.

          • idamag


        • angelsinca

          Another young father that could have used an organ will die because you have personal grudge toward someone you have never met. Revealing.

      • angelsinca

        So because you are appalled by torture, you want someone tortured. Makes sense.

    • sigrid28

      Unfortunately, the local constabulary in many of our communities have been militarized, as the demonstrators in Ferguson, MO, and the rest of us were startled to learn.

  • charleo1

    The thing is, if memory serves me right, there was this discussion on torture, right after 9/11. As small teams of very courageous CIA. and Special Forces teams were dropped into Afghanistan. Their dual mission was to direct U.S air power, and to elicit the support of the various War Lords, and Tribal Chieftains, that had fled from the Taliban into the Hindu Kush Mountains (They also took a considerable amount of cash, to help in this.) And part of that cash was paid out in the form of a bounty, for any Al Qaeda members that were turned over to us. As it was widely assumed, 9/11, was only the opening salvo. And the military, as well as the Bush Administration were convinced more attacks were on the way. But, the questions were, where, and how? In no time at all, the, “combatants,” started to pour in. But, the problem now became, how do we quickly ascertain if they are indeed Al Qaeda? And what methods do we use, to get them to talk, before the next attack is carried out? And to make matters even more desperate, we knew almost nothing about the configurations, loyalties, beefs between tribes, and so forth, And we also found we had precious few trained interrogators that even spoke the language. I’m pretty sure we did try to bribe them. And I’m pretty sure it wan’t long before we found out the information garnered in this way, wasn’t worth a plug nickel. So now what? In Congress. and in the media, we had the very same conversations about torture then, presumably before we resorted to it. As we’re having now, after the fact. The only thing is, there’s a lot more vociferous, and dead certainty, that we should never, ever, torture today. Than there was in the late Fall of 2001. It goes to the courage of one’s convictions. When they count, is when under the gun. Recall that theoretical question, that seemed to sum up our predicament in a nut shell? It went something like this. If we knew thousands of American lives were at stake, and we had the man that knew where the dirty bomb was, and how to disarm it, would torture in that instance, be justified? Forgive me, but I think we said, yes. Well, not all of us. To be fair, one Senator John McCain, was especially adamant under the withering fire of a scared stiff Nation. That also wanted to dish out a good portion of comeuppance on the bastards that hit us.

    • plc97477

      There were still some of us that said no. Unfortunately we were not heard or heeded.

      • charleo1

        Very true. As I’m sure there were those who rightly spoke
        out against the interment of Japanese-Americans in the
        wake of Pearl Harbor. Hysteria trumped the Constitution,
        and every safeguard so provided within, to uphold it. I’m
        not sure if the Bush Administration’s decision to torture was
        borne out of a failure to learn from the past. Or, the failure
        to appreciate the strong impulse to abandon our values for
        any perceived expediency, in the face of fear. Your thoughts

        • plc97477

          My personal opinion is that Cheney is a sadist and got his jollies off with the torture. Mostly because of the way he is defending it as well as the leer on his face while doing so.

  • George Ramos

    Perhaps the greatest challenge facing mankind is that of distinguishing reality from fantasy, truth from propaganda, and science from fiction.

  • plc97477

    If you have to lie to keep others from finding out what you are doing then what you are doing is not good nor honorable.