Ethics will always play catch-up in the war on terror

Michael Cook
10 December 2014
Reproduced with Permission

Perhaps the most positive thing about yesterday's report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) about the CIA's detention and interrogation program is that the length of time for buyer's remorse to kick in might be decreasing.

As supporters of the CIA have pointed out, many of today's critics once implicitly or explicitly backed a philosophy of "whatever it takes". A few months after 9/11 the present chair of the committee, Senator Dianne Feinstein, said that it could no longer be "business as usual ." The attacks, she said, let us know "that the threat is profound" and "that we have to do some things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves."

A bit later, in 2003, the ranking Democrat on the committee, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV , was asked about what kind of treatment Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who planned the 9/11 attacks, could expect. He told CNN, "Getting that information will save American lives. We have no business not getting that information."

For several years after 9/11, torture was merely controversial, not unthinkable. A professor at Harvard Law School, Alan Dershowitz , openly advocated "non-lethal torture, say, a sterilized needle underneath the nail" to persuade terrorists to talk in an emergency. The headline over an article by an Australian academic, Mirko Bagaric , speaks for itself, "Not Enough Official Torture in the World? The Circumstances in Which Torture Is Morally Justifiable" . For several years after 9/11, the media was full of forums in which pundits debated how far detainees could be tortured. Remember 24, an award-winning Fox network series starring Keifer Sutherland which ran for eight seasons? It depicted torture as as effective, ethical and even glamorous.

After the horrendous scandal of Abu Ghraib Prison emerged in 2003, politicians began to realise the potential for human rights abuses and backpedalled. By 2006, the CIA's interrogation techniques had come under fierce attack. Grim determination gave way to scandalised repudiation.

Why is ethics always playing catch-up to necessary human rights abuses? For all the high-minded talk about human rights, perhaps the reason is that a deeply utilitarian mindset pervades American foreign policy.

This comes through very clearly in the angry defence of the CIA's treatment of detainees. Writing in the Wall Street Journal , a group of former CIA directors angrily said that "The al Qaeda leadership has not managed another attack on the homeland in the 13 years since, despite a strong desire to do so. The CIA's aggressive counterterrorism policies and programs are responsible for that success." They were supported by Republican dissidents on the committee in their minority report. They argued that the CIA had "saved lives and played a vital role in weakening al Qa-ida" but they failed to mention the words "human rights" even once in 167 pages.

The New York Times was correct to describe the report as "a portrait of depravity that is hard to comprehend and even harder to stomach". But it's easy to sit in judgement in hindsight. The problem is that the same panicky utilitarian arguments which were deployed after 9/11 will be wheeled out again in the next emergency and human rights will languish in a closet.

In fact, they are being deployed right now in America's drone strikes, a program which has flourished under President Obama. There are no exact figures, but Micah Zenko , of the Council on Foreign Relations estimates that the CIA has killed 3,500 people in non-battlefield drone strikes since 2002. This includes hundred of civilians and at least four American citizens who were effectively executed without trial:

"Today, these strikes are broadly popular with the public and totally uncontroversial in Washington, both within the executive branch and on Capitol Hill. Therefore, it is easy to forget that this tactic, envisioned to be rare and used exclusively for senior al-Qaeda leaders thirteen years ago, has become a completely accepted and routine foreign policy activity."

As Zenko suggests, there is more than a little inconsistency in the horror with which the SSCI study has been reported:

"If the 119 detainees who entered the rendition and interrogation program - 26 of whom were wrongly detained - deserve a public accounting, then don't the 3,500 who have been killed deserve this as well? Or, is the United States simply more comfortable with torturing suspected terrorists than killing thirty times more of them?"

The uncomfortable question for both Democrats and Republicans is how they will respond if the psychotic killers of the Islamic State succeed in launching a major terror attack which kills American citizens. Secretary of State John Kerry seems to be preparing the public for such a scenario. This week he asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to extend the authority of the President in the battle.

"We should not bind the hands of the commander in chief … None of us can imagine all of the circumstances that could arise. What happens if chemical weapons fall into the hands of ISIL?"

My guess is that there will be an immediate reversion to the utilitarian mindset. Politicians who are currently making hay out of the SSCI report will argue that barbaric methods are defensible against a barbaric foe like the Islamic State. Once again, human rights will be sacrificed to utilitarianism.