Dana Gould (one of my favorite comedians, who once-upon-a-time I used to actually sort of know) put it best on Real Time With Bill Maher: all the arguments in favor of torture say that it makes us a safer country, but no one ever says it makes us a better country.
The release of memos from the thankfully-departed Bush/Cheney regime shouldn’t shock anyone, at least with respect to what was being done in our name. We more or less knew this already, though some of the details are more frightening than anyone’s paranoid delusions. What they do show, however, is the absolute depth of incompentence in that Administration. If you’ve ever read the opinions of the Supreme Court (which are available online for all to see), you get an idea of good legal writing consists of. The best opinions read like a history lesson. The Supremes are big on historical precedence, and they frequently take into account the preponderence of non-legal history in considering their rulings.
Contrast that with the legal memos prepared by the Bushies. A cursory Google search would have turned up the fact that proposed torture tactics were borrowed from such upstanding moral sources as the Japanese during WWII and the North Koreans during the Korean War. We prosecuted those crimes as war-crimes. The memos could have traced the history of water boarding back to its invention by the Spanish Inquisition, and would have turned up that torture is considered useless by most interrogation experts. Instead, the memos read like what they are: an attempt to wrap blatantly illegal practices in some “fig leaf” of legal reasoning.
Lately, there has been a parade of officials who could have provided the evidence that using these “harsh interrogation techniques” would only harm efforts to develop real intelligence. Writing in NY Times, Ali Soufan (the FBI interrogator who actually got information out of Abu Zubaydah) reports that all the useful information was gleaned through traditional interrogation. The FBI was convinced that Zubaydah had told them everything he knew (including naming Kalid Shaikh Mohammad as the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks and Jose “The Dirty Bomber” Padilla), but back at CIA headquarters, they were convinced he must know more. After hundred of sessions of waterboarding and other “enhanced techniques,” no more information was produced.
Philip Zelikow, that wild-eyed radical who served as Condolezza Rice’s deputy at the State Department has also written in the Times about how torture techniques didn’t reveal any significant information. Cheney and the defenders of torture always refer to the “ticking bomb and this guy knows where it is” situation, but that only happens on TV. Then again, considering the number of times that Jack Bauer has been cited by Republicans in Washington and elsewhere, perhaps they really do have a hard time telling reality from fiction. (They do realize that Jack Bauer is a fictional character, don’t they?) In the real world, that “ticking time bomb” situation pretty much never happens. (And how does anyone know that someone has critical information ? — see above re: Zubaydah).
It’s not a question of “being safer” or “being better.” The evidence keeps piling up, higher and deeper, that our national descent into the netherworld not only didn’t make us safer, it also didn’t make us better. Far from it.