Torturers undermine American values

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceApril 2, 2014 

We begin by lifting today’s bottom line right to the top.

After years of ducking, dodging, disclaiming and self-deceiving, Washington is about to be ramrodded into finally confronting, under democracy’s spotlight, the central war and peace controversy of our post-9 / 11 times:

Whether our nation is tough enough to commit itself to practice the core values it preaches about what makes America exceptional in times of war, as well as peace.

The longstanding bitter battle between the CIA and Senate exploded all over our front pages this week, as McClatchy and other media organizations revealed that a five-year investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee had discovered a number of new brutal interrogation practices, some of which go beyond the well-known practice of waterboarding inflicted upon prisoners by CIA operatives.

And most important, the Senate investigators reportedly concluded that the CIA operatives did not obtain new vital information from prisoners who were subjected to these previously undisclosed interrogation techniques that the world would see as torture. CIA officials dispute that conclusion, but the whole controversy has so far been inconclusive since the details are so far still classified.

The central players in the angry and by now bitter war-between-the-branches are CIA Director John Brennan, who by the way was a key player in years in which President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney instituted the policies at the heart of today’s controversy, and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

But the conscience of our nation’s capital in this epic clash is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was among our military’s finest who heroically withstood years of torture by North Vietnamese jailers in what became known as the Hanoi Hilton. While he has demonstrated that he has the grit to do what is needed to keep Americans safe, McCain has worked to chart a course of global respect for congressional colleagues by proclaiming torture has no place along America’s path to peace.

“What I have learned confirms for me what I have always believed and insisted to be true – that the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners is not only wrong in principle and a stain on our country’s conscience, but also an ineffective and unreliable means of gathering intelligence,” he told the Senate in 2012.

McCain’s message has long been that torture has nothing to do with toughness. Having been among the POWs who endured terrible abuses by captors, he speaks with an authority that demands our attention. Especially when he and so many others warn that when Americans inflict abuses upon their prisoners, it will inevitably lead future enemies to do the same to captured Americans.

Perhaps you have noticed that over the decades, the CIA seems unable to prevent itself from blundering into controversies with Congress (see also: controversies the CIA cannot win, and never does). Most recently, Senate Intelligence Committee investigators worked out an agreement with then-CIA Director Leon Panetta to work at a secured facility, where they were given computers the CIA promised it would not invade.

But then somehow one of the CIA’s most secret internal documents – especially one detailing what CIA officials listed for their bosses as their agency’s most controversial episodes – showed up on the Senate probers’ computer. Then it disappeared, leading Feinstein to go understandably, senatorially apoplectic at what appeared to be a CIA breaking and entering of the Senate’s computer.

Now the Senate intelligence chair wants the summary of the committee’s completed report declassified. And the CIA director wants to keep its findings and conclusions secret – no surprise, since it seems to contradict repeated no-problem assurances given by his Bush-Cheney era colleagues.

“If the Senate can declassify this report,” Feinstein said recently, “we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.”

She is right. McCain is too. And mainly, America is better than those who jettisoned our core values by torturing our enemies in dark places in the intelligence netherworld.

America is also better than those who authorized and concealed those fundamentally un-American activities in their misguided zeal to safeguard us all.

Martin Schram is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune. Email him at martin.schram@gmail.com.

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