American Torture and Lack of Accountability

CIA TortureI watched the Frontline episode Secrets, Politics, and Torture. It’s sad that the show now has to be so careful, but even still, the whole thing is outrageous. I was literally talking to the screen while watching it. And there really wasn’t anything in it that I didn’t already know. I suppose the hard part about watching it was seeing these people who clearly should be prison for the rest of their lives. And I have a policy idea that I’ll discuss in a bit.

Not surprisingly, most of the CIA didn’t show up to be interviewed. The main representative was for Deputy Director John McLaughlin. And despite all his apologetics and, frankly, outright lies, his position was summarized in this quote, “We were at war; bad things happen in wars.” That’s so true. But that didn’t stop us from trying and executing Nazis. But of course, the statement itself is disingenuous. We were at war, but that wasn’t what the torture program was all about. Obviously, the CIA’s torture program eventually infected the military, but it didn’t start there.

Regardless, the torture program was not a matter of some agents getting out of hand — over-eager in carrying out their duties. This was a clear plan — decided at the top. It was implemented with eyes wide open. And that is clear from the other representative of the government CIA Acting General Counsel John Rizzo. He did everything he could to get political cover for the torture program and lay the legal foundation for it. I don’t especially blame him; he’s a lawyer, after all. But the fact remains that the torture program was no accident of war.

Rizzo claimed that he had never heard any complaints about the program not working or being, you know, wrong. I believe him. Why would he have been told? I do think it most likely that he did everything he could to avoid hearing anything. But the others knew. And they didn’t care. Or more accurately, they didn’t care what they were doing to other people; they loved the program. Perhaps we can say that George W Bush was just misinformed. But clearly, the top people in the CIA pushed the program and lied about its effectiveness to keep the torture going. They should all die in federal prison.

A very telling part of the documentary is the story of Abu Zubaydah. After his capture, FBI agent Ali Soufan was brought in to use the standard — and highly effective — technique of rapport building. And Zubaydah was very helpful. But the CIA were certain that they could get more from him if they just got tough. Think: Tom Clancy Combat Concepts. So the CIA took over and began to torture him, using two charlatans who had no actual experience with interrogation. And in the end, they got nothing. This is largely due to the fact that the opportunity costs of torture greatly outweigh any possible benefits. But also because they had always been wrong: Abu Zubaydah was not a high ranking member of Al Qaeda. But that didn’t stop Deputy Director McLaughlin from repeatedly claiming that the torture was necessary because Zubaydah was a “psychopath,” who wouldn’t be truthful — even though he had been!

I have an idea for how we can avoid these things. As we saw at Abu Ghraib, even when people are held to account, it is just low level people. What was done at that prison was nothing compared to what the CIA did for years. So I say we hold top people accountable for systemic “failures” like this — because they aren’t failures. Sure, there will be the occasional “bad apple.” But what happened at the CIA was not a case like that. In fact, it seems that many if not most of the agents being forced to do the torture didn’t want to — at least in the early days. So when Jose Rodriguez erased the torture tapes, he should have been arrested, tried, convicted, and spent the rest of his life in jail. So should John McLaughlin and George Tenet and Dick Cheney and many others. Will that mean that people are reticent to take those jobs? Sure. But who cares? All the high level people will have a great incentive to not allow anything to get out of hand.


The documentary ends with a discussion of the Panetta Review. It is a “top secret” document that apparently shows that internally, the CIA agrees with everything the Congressional investigation found. The main thing I thought while watching it was that none of it or any of the other documents will come out in my lifetime. But the reason that they won’t is the same reason that the United States probably won’t be a great nation in a century. Like all great empires, we spend most of our time just trying to hang onto power and save face. Meanwhile, there are countries out there that are actively working to improve themselves. There is too much power consolidation in the United States. And power will do whatever it can to maintain that power in the short term. And inch by inch, our country is destroyed. The day will come when our economy just can’t bear to spend almost as much on our military as the rest of the world combined. And after that, what do we have?

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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