How far the United States came from the “patient justice” promised by President George W Bush, in his first speech after the horror of 9/11, has finally been traced on the moral map.
President Bush always spoke with two faces. From the text of that speech, written for him by State Department officials mindful of America’s role in having helped to construct the rule of international law after the Second World War, he spoke of the principles of justice. Off the cuff, in a news conference, he spoke of “bad people” who would be hunted down, “dead or alive”.
We can now see – in the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s huge, still-classified report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation programme – what most of the world has known for a long time: that America, the wronged party on 11 September 2001, chose to forfeit the moral high ground.
We have known that “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding constituted torture. Now the Committee has confirmed it. This is not just a breach of the solemn and absolute prohibition of torture to which the US has committed itself in international treaties; it is a terrible political and moral mistake. And it is a mistake not just because it is hard to rally support for America’s campaign against al-Qaeda if the US fails to live up to its own professed values, but because torture does not work.
One of the important findings of yesterday’s report is that the CIA concealed from the American people the failure of its torture to produce any useful intelligence. The information obtained by torture is inherently unreliable. It is worse than useless. It was shocking yesterday that the CIA defended itself on the publication of the report by saying that its use of torture – a word it still refuses to use – had helped to foil terrorist plots. We have no way of knowing on what these claims are based, but the reality is that every time such claims have been investigated, as they were in yesterday’s report, no evidence of the effectiveness of torture has been found.
This has been a long and dreadful story. That it has taken so long for such a definitive report to be compiled, and for even this redacted summary to be published, is a depressing indictment of America’s much-vaunted system of checks, balances and separation of powers. Just as worrying has been the feebleness of the response of so many of America’s allies, the UK included. Tony Blair, as British Prime Minister, and Jack Straw, as Foreign Secretary, seem to have chosen not to ask too many questions about what the CIA was doing with suspects handed over by our intelligence services, or about what CIA aircraft were doing on their way in and out of UK bases.
Torture is very simple. There are definitions of it in treaties which the US has signed, but most human beings can recognise the intentional infliction of “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental”, when they see it. The legal prohibition on it is absolute, and the attempts by Bush administration lawyers to evade their legal and moral responsibilities by arguing that CIA techniques were lawful were shaming.
But the most important message from yesterday’s report is that torture is counter-productive. Even if there were a brutal, cynical, pragmatic argument for torture – which there is not – the report has destroyed it.
The Bush administration’s response to 9/11 looks every bit as bad a mistake as the decision to wage war in Vietnam. The moral legitimacy of that struggle too was undermined by torture and war crimes. Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate committee, claimed yesterday that the US does at least admit its mistakes, eventually. The truly depressing thing, however, is that successive US administrations seem incapable of learning from them.Reuse content