WASHINGTON – Though they preside over the world’s most important nation, our leaders in Washington can be startlingly oblivious to the audiences beyond our shores that watch and listen closely to whatever we say or do.
That’s the only rational explanation for why – 13 years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 – Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats issued a graphic, self-flagellating report about the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” methods in the frightening days, weeks and months after that fateful day.
With its provocative detail splashed across the TV screens, front pages and websites of our leading media, the report will undoubtedly endanger American lives by giving terrorists one more rallying cry to attack U.S. interests, strengthening terrorist recruiting efforts and forcing other governments and intelligence services to show that they’re keeping their distance from Uncle Sam.
To be clear, the report was revealing only in its raw detail of CIA activities against particular detainees, not in the broad subject matter. We’ve known for many years that the CIA used unsavory methods.
In fact, when news surfaced years ago that the CIA deprived suspects of sleep, chained them to walls, threatened them with gruesome death and so on, government officials, opinion leaders and the broad public began a serious and cathartic national debate over whether the United States should ever torture.
Despite the outliers, we even reached a general consensus that we should avoid anything that smacks of torture and consider employing it only in the most extreme cases – such as when the United States faces the imminent threat of a catastrophic attack that could kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
That’s all fine years after the fact but, as the Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Diane Feinstein (D-California) acknowledged in her “Forward” to the report, the days after September 11, 2001 were not ones in which our government and intelligence services could take a leisurely approach to national security. Instead, they were days of overwhelming fear that much greater attacks were coming.
In fact, Feinstein noted that, after September 11, the CIA “was encouraged by political leaders and the public to do whatever it could to prevent another attack,” and that, as a general matter, the “Intelligence Committee as well often pushes intelligence agencies to act quickly in response to threats and world events.”
That, by the way, is no different than how our nation’s leaders have behaved at other perilous times, such as when Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War. What later seems heinous often seems vital at the time.
Feinstein says that she hopes the report will serve as a warning for the future, as a preemptive measure to ensure that, even when facing national security perils, the United States never again abandons its values.
Indeed, she and her Democratic colleagues were so determined to render their judgments against the CIA’s post-September 11 methods that they never even interviewed the officials whose activities they judged so harshly.
Now, the terrorists of al-Qaida, the Islamic State and other dangerous groups who plot every day to attack America and its global interests will have one more rallying cry and recruiting tool. That means more terrorists with more motivation to plot and launch more attacks against more Americans.
Now, governments and intelligence agencies with which Washington has worked regularly, whether in Europe, the Middle East, or elsewhere, will hesitate before aligning themselves too closely with the United States. That means less intelligence from around the world will flow to Washington, leaving us more vulnerable to plots that our intelligence services lack the information to prevent.
America debated torture and rendered its judgment long ago. Rather than advance that debate, the committee’s report is just making American deaths more likely.
Lawrence J. Haas, a former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. Readers may write him at AFPC, 1112 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036.