The report by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding CIA interrogation essentially accuses the agency under George W. Bush of war criminality. Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., appears to offer some extenuation when she reminds us in the report’s preamble of the shock and “pervasive fear” felt after Sept. 11.
It’s a common theme (often echoed by President Obama): Amid panic and disorientation, we lost our moral compass and made awful judgments. The results are documented in the committee report. They must never happen again.
It’s a kind of temporary-insanity defense for the Bush administration. And it is not just unctuous condescension but hypocritical nonsense. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, there was nothing irrational about believing that a second attack was a serious possibility and, therefore, everything should be done to prevent it. Indeed, this was the considered opinion of the CIA, the administration, the congressional leadership and the American people.
Al-Qaida had successfully mounted four major attacks on American targets in the previous three years. The pace was accelerating and the scale increasing. The country then suffered a deadly anthrax attack of unknown origin. Al-Qaida was known to be seeking weapons of mass destruction.
We were so blindsided that we established a Sept. 11 commission to find out why. And we knew next to nothing about the enemy: its methods, structure, intentions, plans. There was nothing morally deranged about deciding as a nation to do everything necessary to find out what we needed to prevent a repetition, or worse. As Feinstein said at the time, “we have to do some things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., then ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, was briefed about the interrogation program, including the so-called torture techniques. As were the other intelligence committee leaders. “We understood what the CIA was doing,” wrote Porter Goss, Pelosi’s chairman on the House committee. “We gave the CIA our bipartisan support; we gave the CIA funding to carry out its activities.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., while the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was asked in 2003 about turning over Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to countries known to torture. He replied: “I wouldn’t take anything off the table where he is concerned.”
There was no uproar about this open countenancing of torture-by-proxy. That demonstrates not just the shamelessness of Democrats today denouncing practices to which, at the time and at the very least, they made no objection. It demonstrates also how near-consensual was the idea that our national emergency might require extraordinary measures.
This is not to say that in carrying out the program there weren’t abuses, excesses, mismanagement and appalling mistakes (such as the death in custody – unintended but still unforgivable – of two detainees). It is to say that the root-and-branch denunciation of the program as, in principle, unconscionable is not just hypocritical but ahistorical.
A nation attacked is not a laboratory for exquisite moral experiments. It’s a trust to be protected, by whatever means meet and fit the threat.
Accordingly, under the direction of the Bush administration and with the acquiescence of congressional leadership, the CIA conducted an uncontrolled experiment. It did everything it could, sometimes clumsily, sometimes cruelly, indeed, sometimes wrongly.
But successfully. The CIA kept us safe.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.