The CIA's Original Sin

The CIA's Original Sin
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One noteworthy response to the Senate report on the CIA's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" was penned by Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr., and published in the Washington Post. Rodriguez, a former director of the National Clandestine Service of the CIA, chides the report's authors for making a scapegoat of the CIA. Political authorities, including prominent Democrats, had been aware of the agency's use of methods of torture or had been willfully ignorant. Moreover, the political climate of the first years of the war on terror created pressure for those on the front lines to do whatever was necessary to protect the United States from new terror attacks.

Rodriguez's argument opens some broad and important issues regarding the resort to violence in the protection of the political community.

Rodriguez is on the mark in implicating the political community as a whole in the effectuation of a system of torture. It was not just the CIA or the Bush administration who were to blame. American society broadly accepted it as a necessary evil in order to prevent the greater evil of another large scale terrorist attack. That is not to deny that many individuals and institutions, including the Catholic Church, condemned all uses of torture.

But until the graphic photos of Abu Ghraib were published, and several years had passed after 9/11, they fell far short of being a critical mass. How else could one explain public acquiescence in Agent Jack Bauer's repeated use of torture to foil evil deeds on the popular television series 24.

Rodriguez's argument goes too far in suggesting that CIA officers were thereby absolved of all guilt, or ought to be. As the ultimate executors of policy, they were the ultimate makers of policy. A fundamental if not sufficiently appreciated law of politics is that public policy is what the bureaucracies do in implementing laws. They inevitably must exercise much discretion in when and how they enforce laws or choose not to enforce them. It is right to demand of them that they object to morally objectionable commands and, if they cannot get them waived, to refuse to carry them out or to carry them out in such a way as to mitigate and thus resist their full effects.

What Rodriguez alludes to is that the operatives placed in an extremely stressful situation. They are under pressure from their superiors to extract critical information as quickly as possible. They are under internal pressure, too, as they desperately want not to be responsible for a failure to prevent a disaster. They believe also that getting the information by whatever means necessary is what their country wants. They are faced by uncooperative prisoners who the agents believe are culpable of evil deeds, done, planned or prospective. The prisoners seem like degraded beings, less than human, really.

Is there any reason to be surprised that the agents use violence against the prisoners? 

But this dynamic is not unique to torture. It is analogous to other situations in which agents of states use violence. Tragically, resort to violence seems to be a default setting for human beings when placed in stressful or dangerous situations. Facing harm, we strike out at those who harm us. Or we threaten to strike out, in order to coerce them. Violence seems to be a near instinctive response of human beings (though it certainly is the case that some individuals are more prone than others).

One of the first recorded acts of humanity after its fall was Cain killing Abel. Our violent streak is part of our heritage of original sin.

Because of our proclivity to violence, unambiguous, absolute prohibitions are needed. When they are violated, they must be reaffirmed lest they erode. Those who violated them must be punished, even if the punishment is just to carry a burden of guilt. Vice President Dick Cheney has asserted that the CIA agents were heroes. That may have been the case, taking all into consideration. If they were, though, it was despite their infliction of torture.

But it is not just those men who bear guilt. We all do, in proportion to the extent to which we encouraged or facilitated torture.

Patrick Callahan is an emeritus professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

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