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Assigning Blame and Taking Responsibility for What’s in the Senate ‘Torture Report’

Assigning Blame and Taking Responsibility for What’s in the Senate ‘Torture Report’

The release of the Senate report on the interrogation of al Qaeda suspects following the 9/11 attacks on the United States raises important questions about the conduct of American foreign policy, the responsibility of civil servants to implement policies, partisan politics, and the need for discretion in the conduct of state affairs.

Much of the discussion following the release of the Senate report has at its heart questions about how to conduct foreign policy. The constitution leaves the president significant foreign policy latitude, but international and domestic laws constrain him, as do moral standards. In authorizing the use of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques, President George W. Bush followed the law as interpreted by his team of legal scholars. In weighing the balance between defending the nation by taking every measure available to prevent a recurrence of terrorist attacks and staying on the right side of his obligation to uphold moral principles in the conduct of foreign policy, he reached the decision that these interrogation methods were justified.

Critics disagree, however, and argue that in the end enhanced interrogation techniques produced no useful intelligence. That argument sidesteps the point that the president has to decide, based on the best advice he can get, whether to try one technique or another. It is a given that enemy captives may lie or obfuscate regardless of the method of interrogation. Thus determining what method of interrogation to use based on whether it produces a truthful response is important but insufficient. As Commander-in-Chief, President Bush approved enhanced interrogation based on conclusions drawn by psychologists who said it might work and lawyers who said it was legal. His own moral judgments led him to believe it should be tried. He resolved the balance between harsh interrogations and putting U.S. citizens at risk in favor of the former, thus fulfilling his responsibility as president.

A second important set of questions revolves around the responsibility of civil servants to implement policies. It should come as no surprise that the CIA and other elements of the U.S. intelligence community hire U.S. citizens who are not unlike the rest of us. They are employed to carry out clandestine collection and analysis in service of U.S. foreign policy; they don’t make policy, they implement it, just as government employees do throughout the executive branch. When the president decides that it is legally allowable and morally defensible to take certain actions, it is their job to implement his policies. When conscience prevents them from carrying out a policy, however, there are multiple opportunities to dissent, to request transfer, or to find another career. This is a constant issue for foreign service officers, who stand at the front line of U.S. diplomacy and are asked to defend policies they sometimes find difficult to understand or distasteful to implement. It is the same in the military — “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die,” in the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Now comes this report and accusations that civil servants hired to carry out U.S. policy have lied and committed illegal acts. This is not only grossly unfair, it undermines the U.S. government’s ability to function, and calls into question the service of all federal employees. The implication of the accusations against the intelligence community’s workforce does not stop at the perimeter fence around the CIA headquarters. If individuals are to be accused and harassed because they implemented policies developed by the president and his hand picked (and Senate confirmed) executive branch, the government’s ability to function will be fundamentally challenged. The wisdom and purpose behind a policy is not always evident at the point of implementation. Should individual civil servants now seek legal advice prior to implementing the president’s policies lest they later be condemned for their service and implicitly threatened with prosecution?

A third question that arises is whether we are witnessing another unpleasant round of partisan politics rather than a constructive debate about American values and objectives in foreign policy. A constructive debate is always healthy but in this case in particular, it should have remained behind closed doors. I will say more on that in the next paragraph, but the decision to release the report now, just days before the Senate leadership switches from Democratic to Republican control, suggests that the two parties are at odds again over foreign policy and how it ought to be conducted. It is not entirely partisan because the president for the past six years has been a Democrat who resisted releasing the report, while the policies being criticized were implemented under his Republican predecessor. To the extent that it helps to sharpen the thinking and therefore the choices available to policy makers and legislators, partisanship is necessary and positive for the country. But if the objective of public service is achieving the nonpartisan goals of enhancing American security, improving the lives of U.S. citizens, ensuring robust give and take about the nature of the republic and the proper place for morality in the conduct of its affairs, then public blaming, name-calling and accusations about lying are not helpful.

Finally, a fourth issue is the role of discretion and secrecy in the conduct of state affairs. It is normal for government officials and civil servants to disagree about policy. Water boarding looks like harsh interrogation to one person but amounts to torture for another; electronic surveillance looks like defense of the nation to one but a violation of civil liberties for another; preventive war looks like aggression to one but legitimate defense for another. Debates about policy will continue and must be conducted; indeed they are the subject of countless public exchanges in academic fora, in the media, on the web, in think tanks, in Congressional hearings, and so on. Opening such debates to public scrutiny is necessary and constructive — necessary because a democracy must have an informed citizenry and constructive because flawed analysis, incoherent logic, biased assumptions, and a host of other intellectual shortcomings can thus be exposed and eliminated before a decision is made.

The problem revealed in the publication of the report on interrogations, however, is that once a decision is made, the need for classification becomes apparent. The point of foreign policy is to protect the nation, maintain international law and principles, enhance people’s lives, and contribute to international peace and stability. Every policy is intended to achieve these objectives but not all of them do; when policies fall short or the efforts to achieve them are flawed, it is essential to examine the merits of the policy and the means to achieve them. But doing so in public can easily undermine the very objectives foreign policy seeks to achieve and foreclose opportunities to correct and improve in the future. Everything contained in the Senate report merits discussion and debate; failing to keep the discussion classified, however, runs the risk of empowering those who wish to harm the United States and destroy international peace and stability. We don’t improve performance by advertising failure, no matter how much we want to blame someone else rather than assume responsibility for what we all share.

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