Torture Report: "How America Lost Its Moral Authority"


The Senate "torture report" and the reaction to it (both critical and positive) are part of a far-larger problem of legitimacy facing American government, I argue in a new Daily Beast column:

We need to be clear about the ultimate import of the torture report, which covers a period from late 2001 through 2009 and whose release was unconscionably delayed for years. It won't be the cause of lowered international esteem for America or even attacks on overseas personnel. No, that's all due to the same old failed interventionist foreign policy, massive and ongoing drone attacks, and the proliferation of "dumb wars" over the past dozen years under both Republican and Democratic presidents and Congresses.

The torture report is simply the latest and most graphic incarnation of an existential leadership crisis that has eaten through Washington's moral authority and ability to govern, in the way road salt and rust eat through car mufflers in a Buffalo winter. "America is great because she is good," wrote Tocqueville back in the day. "If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great." We've got a lot of explaining to do, not just to the rest of the world but to ourselves. How much longer will we countenance the post-9/11 national security state, which Edward Snowden's ongoing revelations remind us are constantly mutating into new forms and outrages?

This is all far bigger than the run-of-the-mill awfulness of the past decade-plus of bipartisan blunders, mud-slinging, and scandals.

For most of the 21st century, faith in government has been fading like the last light sent off by a star that had died long before we even knew of its existence. Record low numbers of Americans trust the government to do the right thing and record high numbers see it as the biggest threat to the future. The 2000 presidential election was essentially decided by a coin toss, an unnerving reality from which we have never fully recovered. If the highest office in the land is governed by such caprice, maybe all of government is equally unmoored to anything other than a will to power and sheer luck. George W. Bush went into Iraq under specious

circumstances. Under the most charitable interpretation, his administration was simply mistaken. Elected on a promise to undo Bush's record on civil liberties, state surveillance, and foreign policy, Barack Obama arguably has been worse on every score. Is it any wonder that control of Congress is swinging back and forth like a tetherball?

The leadership in both parties is laughable and ineffective, incapable even of pushing a budget through in the official manner while missing no opportunity to sermonize on the real and imagined evils of their legislative adversaries. The torture report taunts both sides equally because in the final analysis, the difference between "How could you support this?" and "How could you let this happen?" is morally null and void.

Read the whole thing.

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  1. The thing I keep going back to on this torture report is, how would we feel if another country did this to our citizens? We would say it’s ok, it’s just the way it goes when you are in a war? Or would we be outraged?

    Do we want our country to represent he highest standards, or the lowest standards? Seems to me the ones defending this are all about “American exceptionalism.” When our agents do things like this, our country isn’t all that exceptional, is it?

  2. What’s good for the goose…

    You know, I’ve been struggling today thinking about all of this talk about torturing suspected terrorists. I have decided that I just don’t care. Do you know why? Because to me torture is going to sleep every night and waking up every morning wondering what the last thoughts going through my child’s mind were in the moments before he was beheaded on video for the world to see or the constant ache of knowing my loved one chose to jump off a top floor of the World Trade Center rather than burn to death. I’m sorry but to me that’s torture. I know some of you say “but these are human beings too” and to that I say no way! A person who could do this to anyone is a monster!! I’m sorry if you think this makes me a bad person but I just don’t care how we get information from these monsters. They lost the right for me to care. Have at ’em

    1. “…and, in the end, we all end up sightless and toothless…”

    2. Somebody must be punished. Doesn’t matter if it’s the right somebody.

    3. A person who could do this to anyone is a monster!! I’m sorry if you think this makes me a bad person but I just don’t care how we get information from these monsters. They lost the right for me to care. Have at ’em

      So their lives and rights are forfeit because you’re an emotional wreck. Who’s the real monster?

    4. An actual case of begging the question.

  3. We should just be up front about it, and put, The End Justifies the Means on our currency.


      1. Ignorance is Strength.

        Please refer to the rant several posts above for an example.

  4. Still having trouble believing the thing. Maybe I ought to make an exception and believe Feinstein this once – but I’m finding it difficult. Sounds like this is a partisan hit and the truth is somewhere in between her and Cheney.

    1. I don’t get the doubt. It basically confirms everything from the Schlesinger Torture Report from ten years ago.…

      That report confined itself, mostly, to how enhanced interrogation techniques torture incorrectly migrated from Guantanamo (where those procedures were approved for use on non-POWs) to Abu Ghraib (where they were used on real POWS, who had been captured in uniform).

      But what the polices were, how they were implemented, what “techniques” were used, etc. has been public knowledge by way of that report for ten years.

      Other than the photos that emerged from Abu Ghraib, we didn’t have much in the way of evidence of people following these polices–those photos were sold to the public by the Bush Administration as if the individuals in them had gone rogue and were acting alone.

      But why should we doubt that the CIA was actually following the policies we’ve know all about for more than ten years?!

  5. I reflect on this and admit – I can imagine that in the fog of war, etc. etc. men will do the horrific things that men do. And I won’t judge soldiers for that – I haven’t been there, I truly don’t know what I’d do or not do, and it is a bit much for me to propose, “Well, I’d never do THAT…” etc. etc. as some are wont to say.

    However – I do think this simply points out why it’s SO FUCKING IMPORTANT that we make damned good and sure that when we DO go to war we know why, where, when who, what’s “winning”, and so on. Cause when we put troops out there to kill, they will, and savagery will ensue.

    So make good and God damned sure it’s necessary and we know why we’re doing it.

    Which I don’t think the US has done since at least WWII. We could have avoided a SHIT TON of post hoc navel gazing by not sending our boys off to fight wars better fought by Korean Vietnamese Bosnian Somali Iraqi Libyan Syrian boys others, or no one at all.

    Fuck politicians. They cause others to do evil in the name of the state.

    1. I agree. Bad things happen on battlefields and circumstances should be taken into account with the punishment. Torturing a captive and claiming to have legal authority to do it is a whole different situation and is inexcusable. People should be going to jail for this.

      1. But according to Cytotoxic, torture is only a tool!

        I guess you could say Cytotoxic and torture have something in common, if that’s the case.

        1. Snap! Do the kids still say snap?

        2. I’ll admit, I laughed. But this just seems like more evidence that you’re a projection of one of the commenters and not a real person.

          1. How so?

            Admittedly, the only reason I said it is because he and I had a small debate about it. I left for lunch and came back to see that he had “accepted my surrender.”

            If that’s not enough justification for me to think he’s a tool, I’m not sure what would be.

        3. They’re both Canadien?

          Whew! Uncle Sam is off the hook.

  6. What is this “Moral Authority” you speak of? If we ever had it, it was lost long before I was born.

    Maybe when…
    Slavers helped found this nation
    The Union won the war against States’ Rights
    The New Deal turned the Constitution into a joke
    FDR tossed American citizens into concentration camps
    Millions of laws and militarized police turned the U.S. into a police state…

    1. It’s a sliding scale depending on how bad the surrounding nations and great powers are compared to us. Sadly, by that metric we still have “moral authority”.

    2. We’ve been pretty famous for the good treatment we give to our prisoners–going all the way back to George Washington, who offered land to captured Hessian soldiers if they’d join the cause of the American Revolution (many of which stayed and became Americans).

      More directly, the release of those photos marked an absolute turning point in the Iraq occupation. Before those photos were released, whether the Americans were a force for good and stability was still much more of an open question. Once those photos were released, the insurgency gained a ton of moral support.

      Here the U.S. is trying to justify to the people of Iraq that we bombed, invaded, and occupied their country, not because of the oil or anything else; we did it to free them from the clutches of an evil tyrant!

      Meanwhile, we’re torturing Iraqis–in the same damn prison where Saddam Hussein used to torture his political prisoners, too?!

      How could that NOT be a loss of moral authority?

  7. So make good and God damned sure it’s necessary and we know why we’re doing it.

    What are you saying? Winning elections is important. You wouldn’t want Peter King to have to get a real job, would you?

    1. Peter King in any capacity is a frightening thing.

  8. Just for the record…

    “During the American Revolutionary War, George Washington and his Continental Army put the laws of war into practice regarding prisoners of war unlike their opponents who did not. The British believed that Colonial American soldiers were traitors and not entitled to POW status and would treat them as unlawful combatants and subject them to execution on the battlefield if captured as what happened at the Battle at Drake’s farm during the Forage War. The Americans took a different view. They believed that all captives should be taken prisoner. After winning the Battle of Trenton on Christmas Day 1776, Washington found himself left with hundreds of Hessian troops who had surrendered to the Americans. Washington ordered his troops to take the prisoners in and “treat them with humanity,” which they did. “Let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army,” Washington said.[16]”….._prisoners

    1. Washington’s treatment of captured prisoners was the American standard since–right up until the Bush the Lesser Administration. No doubt, this standard wasn’t always lived up to in practice, but no one’s arguing that men in battle have always been exemplary models of moral behavior.

      But there are a few things Americans have traditionally taken pride in. We give people fair trials–even if they’re guilty. We let people write and speak, even if what they say is awful. Hell, we even let people own guns, even if they can be misused. And as a matter of official policy, we don’t torture our prisoners–even if doing so might be helpful. And any Americans who would go against that are a disgrace to their country and its traditions.

      There’s a word for abandoning your principles out of fear: it’s called “cowardice”. Traditionally, America has not been a cowardly nation, but George W. Bush did his best to make cowards of us all. Warrantless wiretapping, torture, etc., all in the name of saving us from our principles? If presidents are properly judged by how well they defend the principles of the Constitution, then George W. Bush was a traitor.

      1. We’ve been drifting towards cowardice for a while now. But it sure does seem to have accelerated in the last decade and a half.

        1. Fear is the mind-killer.

          It seems so silly to think that we stripped thousands of American citizens of their property and their rights and held them behind barbed wire and under armed guard–men, women, and toddlers–because they were Americans of Japanese ancestry.


          It seems silly to all of us now because we’re not afraid of them anymore. Fact is that when a lot of people are afraid, they basically lose their minds and their principles–cowardly people are easily manipulated by fear and patriotism.

          People who were manipulated into supporting torture in a forum like this were basically manipulated the same way. And those who supported it at the time feel doubly bad–cowards can’t stand seeing themselves in the mirror. There must have been some other explanation for torture is okay!

          1. Ken,

            As usual, your comments were well articulated. However, I think this is the first time I can agree with just about everything you’ve written on a particular topic.

      2. CIA has been torturing for a long time:

        CIA ‘Torture’ Practices Started Long Before 9/11 Attacks

        The CIA’s Vietnam interrogation centers, jointly run in most cases with its South Vietnamese counterparts, were chiefly designed to extract information from captured Communist guerrillas, spies and suspected underground political agents, in order to launch attacks. Sometimes, however, a confession was used to then parade an apostate through South Vietnamese-controlled neighborhoods, like a trophy.

        And prisoner abuse, including torture in so-called “tiger cages,” was common, according to many witnesses and other sources over the years. In 1969, the Army filed murder charges against the commander of the Green Berets in Vietnam and seven of his men after they used hallucinogenic drugs on a suspected double agent and killed him after he failed to confess. The charges were eventually dropped after a fierce lobbying campaign by then-CIA director Richard Helms, who feared a trial would expose abuses under the agency’s secret Phoenix assassination program.

        1. I’m not saying no one ever tortured anybody.

          There’s a big difference between that and making torture official U.S. policy.

          If you read the Schlesinger Report I linked above, it details the process by which our official policy on torture was changed.

          If official U.S. policy changes tomorrow and states that bribe taking politicians will no longer be prosecuted, does the fact that some politicians have always taken bribes in the past mean that there’s been no change in U.S. policy?

      3. I still would like to hear what Bush has to say about all this.

        Not Bush the Younger – the Bush that was actually head of the CIA before becoming VP and then President. How much of this stuff was going on back then or was the Church Committee actually an effective leash for a short time?

      4. Washington’s treatment of captured prisoners was the American standard since–right up until the Bush the Lesser Administration.

        No. Extraordinary Rendition started under Clinton. The CIA ran interrogation centers in Vietnam where they engaged in highly questionable practices. I bet shit went on during the Korean War as well.

        1. Why was extraordinary rendition necessary?

          1. I never claimed it was necessary.

            1. Well somebody must have thought it was, right?

              Why didn’t they just torture people themselves?

              Why was extraordinary rendition necessary?

              1. I’m not sure why you think I would want to defend rendition. I used it as an example of lack of moral authority pre-dating GWB.

                1. There was a definitive loss in moral authority when torture became perfectly alright according to official U.S. policy.

                  There’s a difference between a cop pulling off a bank robbery, and the law being changed to give cops the right to rob banks.

                  It’s one thing when a rogue actor or agency violates U.S. policy. Quite another when official U.S. policy prescribes what should be rogue behavior.

                  If the holocaust had simply been a result of poor oversight, or abuse of office, that would be one thing. But the holocaust wasn’t something that happened becasue somebody wasn’t doing what they were supposed to do. It was official policy–hence the total collapse of moral authority.

                  1. “Ken Shultz|12.11.14 @ 12:19PM|#

                    There was a definitive loss in moral authority “

                    Aside from browbeating china in the UN, i’d like some examples of our past ‘moral authority’, and how much utility it actually served with anyone who mattered.

                    I’m just saying = people like Cuba and Venezuela or Iran have never had a particularly high opinion of American Moral Superiority; who exactly were we trying to impress? and can you provide any real measure of its relative value?

                    I’d argue that this thing called ‘moral authority’ is largely a tool of american politicians to wield against the American voter to convince them that their policies have only the most Noble intentions; but then i’m a crusty cynic

                    1. To cheat a little =

                      i think the best example of Moral Authority working in our favor (sort of) was in WWII/maybe even gulf I, and how enemy troops would RUN to surrender to Americans as soon as they saw the uniforms because they knew we served the Best Food and were (slightly) less likely to turn them over to the Russians than the British

                    2. “I’d like some examples of our past ‘moral authority’, and how much utility it actually served with anyone who mattered.”

                      I think our moral authority mattered when we were fighting both the Nazis and the Japanese. Why were we so often treated as liberators by the locals when they were treated as oppressors.

                      I think our moral authority mattered, especially, at the end of the Cold War. The people in those countries in Eastern Europe wanted freedom like the west had.

                      When Reagan said to Gorbie, “Tear down this wall!”, that was our moral authority resonating:

                      “As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner, ‘This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.’ Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.”[12]””

                      Yeah, Gorbachev could SAY the same thing–but he had no moral authority for it to make a difference.

            ! #The_speech

                      I’ve also mentioned that I think…

                      As much as I was against the invasion of Iraq, I wanted to be wrong and for it to succeed. When we lost our moral authority with the Iraqi people, we lost Iraq. …and that happened with the publication of those torture photos from Abu Ghraib.

                    3. I could give plenty of other examples. The pro-democracy movement in Iran lost tons of steam after the Abu Ghraib photos were released. We lost our moral authority with those people, and that may have made a big difference to American security going forward.

                    4. reasonable. Iran certainly.

                      I still think the idea that “Moral Authority” is such a tangible asset unrelated to the ‘immorality’ of the enemy is a bit of a stretch.

                      The idea that the Iraqi Arab street was aghast at US treatment of prisoners is more likely mixed with equal surprise that WE were making such a big deal out of it ourselves. Name a single Arab state where the police havent used torture as standard practice going back to the Ottomans. Maybe they were disappointed we’d stooped to their level, however I fail to see how it had any effect on the ongoing Sunni/Shia rebellion.

                      Again = the main utility of American Moral Authority in the modern day has largely been to browbeat Cuba, China, Venezuela et al. in the UN. And none of them really gave a flying fuck to begin with.

                      Not to mention that they’re similarly overjoyed to see Obama widenening the ‘Authority undermining’ by showing utter contempt for State Surveillance of the population, and Spitting on the idea of Free Speech Protections re: Benghazi.

                      I fail to be convinced that this ‘torture’ stuff of – what? a dozen people? Has itself had the Moral Authority-Shattering Effect you seem to project.

                    5. I’d also add = how has American “moral authority” been improved since the ostentatious “ban” of enhanced interrogation…

                      ..and ramping up of the Drone Killings by 500% or so?

                      Just saying that the isolation of this example of US behavior as being particularly decisive in damaging US reputation may be somewhat overblown.

                      As a side note = I’m sure we can find plenty of examples of French people currently chastising us for utilizing practices they pretty much invented and utilized on industrial scale

                      Just pointing out that this ‘moral authority’ stuff is actually far more about ‘self-perceptions’ than any outside nation/population being significantly swayed by our Ostensible Moral Leadership

      5. “Washington’s treatment of captured prisoners was the American standard since–right up until the Bush the Lesser Administration. “

        uh, bullshit.

        Andersonville / Camp Douglas = 20-30% death rate?
        Indian Wars? Mexico?
        Philippines? Moro Rebellion?
        Central America?

        You’re being a little overly dramatic.

        1. And I’m not sure you’re talking about prisoner abuse, specifically, in all of those cases, either. In some of them, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

          Again, there were abuses of prisoners. Whether those were the official policy of the United States is another question entirely.

          In the Philippines, I suspect the locals would rather be captured by the Americans than the Spanish or the Japanese. Certainly in Europe, enemy troops would rather surrender to the Americans.

          1. “In the Philippines, I suspect the locals would rather be captured by the Americans than the Spanish or the Japanese. “

            The Philippine-American War happened before the japs and after the Spanish, FWIW

            I think what you probably meant was that they probably thought they’d have better chances w/ Americans rather than other Filipinos

            if you don’t know what i’m talking about in these specific cases, you can read about them.

            I think historical examples of horrific treatment of thousands of prisoners by American forces is at least as relevant as our ‘official policy’ regarding the rough handling of a dozen terrorists or so

            1. I don’t want to get lost in minutia here, but I’m saying that the Filipino experience with the Americans, as bad as it was, may have been favorable, in the national memory, compared to how they were treated under the Spanish and certainly the Japanese.

              At any rate, the torture ad harsh treatment of Filipinos was not the official policy of the United States. When the American people learned of our atrocities there, we were outraged. If there had been a change in policy that surfaced saying it was okay to torture prisoners, etc., we would have lost a lot more moral authority than we had.

              That issue is complicated by how our relationship with the Philippines evolved since. We granted them limited independence a decade or more before World War II, and then we liberated them from the Japanese. If that wasn’t enough, we gave them full independence after World War II…

              And after the Cold War, we gave them back Subic Bay. And when they asked us to remove all of our remaining troops and bases, we left at their request! We came back to fight Al Qaeda allied insurgents during the first part of the War on Terror, but the fact that they invited us back suggests we’ve, at worst, regained a certain amount of moral authority with them.

              Now there’s some moral authority at work! We have bases all over the world; in some places, people feel safer for us having military bases in their country. Sans whatever moral authority we have, isn’t that pretty counter-intuitive?

              1. Your sweeping generalization about American Moral Authority being uniquely undermined by the recent ‘torture’ of 12-15 people…

                (compared to a long history of sometimes morally-indefensible-behavior toward wartime prisoners)

                …does seems to have gotten lost in the minutiae

                1. “Your sweeping generalization about American Moral Authority being uniquely undermined by the recent ‘torture’ of 12-15 people…”

                  Then how come you still don’t get that it’s about making torture the official policy of the United States rather than about what happened to however many people?

                  1. “”the official policy of the United States””

                    You keep using that expression.

                    it was “approved directly by the president” in a dozen or so cases.

                    You seem to think this is significantly different than the cases where we actually let thousands die out of conscious neglect, or massacred people as “policy”?

                    this idea you articulated that we’ve behaved like ‘moral paragons’ to prisoners since the Revolutionary war is a patent falsehood; as is the idea that the recent, limited use of ‘torture’ in these cases somehow stands out as exceptional and egregious relative to other past historical attitudes re: “insurgents”

                    1. “This idea you articulated that we’ve behaved like ‘moral paragons’ to prisoners since the Revolutionary war is a patent falsehood”

                      Well, let’s look at what I actually said:

                      1) “No doubt, this standard wasn’t always lived up to in practice”.

                      2) “I’m not saying no one ever tortured anybody”.

                      3) “Again, there were abuses of prisoners”.

                      4) “The torture [and] harsh treatment of Filipinos was not the official policy of the United States. When the American people learned of our atrocities there, we were outraged”.

                      This is probably, at least, the fourth time I’ve said that there’s a big difference when it’s official policy.

                    2. “It was “approved directly by the president” in a dozen or so cases”

                      The manual was rewritten. That’s what the Schlesinger Report was all about. Don’t take my word for it! Read it from the Department of Defense’s website here:


                      The Schlesinger is all about how, why, and who by the policy and the manual was changed to include “enhanced interrogation techniques”. When they sent the people who were torturing “unlawful combatants” from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib in Iraq, they took the new manual with the newly approved techniques with them. That was verboten since many of the Iraqi prisoners had been captured in uniform and were legitimate POWs by anyone’s definition.

                      John Yoo did the work on this. Anthony Gonzales approved the new techniques–when he was White House Counsel (before he became AG). Donald Rumsfeld oversaw the rewritten guidelines–and signed off on them.

                      This is all in the report.

                      All three of them should all be tried for war crimes. The torture we saw happen wasn’t the act of some rogue agency or individuals.

                    3. When Lynndie England claimed that higher ups in psyops were telling her to do the things she was convicted for, I don’t see why we shouldn’t believe her–seeing as the revised torture techniques that Gonzo, Rummy, et. al. implemented were all consistent with what we saw in the photos.

                      Look at the report! Read it for yourself. This was new policy according to the Department of Defense’s own report. Why pretend it wasn’t new when everyone involved says it was?

                      Hell, Donald Rumsfeld resigned–rather than face hearings–when the Democrats won control of both the House and the Senate in 2006.

                      Other than wanting me to be wrong, why pretend these “enhanced interrogation techniques” weren’t official policy?

  9. I think people should also keep in mind =

    All these criticisms of use of torture* by the CIA can all still be entirely valid… and the senate intelligence committee report (or as it is referred to by many, ‘the Democrat Senate Committee report’) can still be a partisan hack job which makes lots of bullshit unsupported claims which should not be taken at face value. it is unsurprising that they chose to engage in this “throw the CIA under the bus”-Kibuki just as they are all being kicked out of their majority position in the committee.

    [*that is, however you choose to define ‘torture’; you can assert what the CIA did was *wrong*, and still not even need to call it ‘torture’ for legal purposes.

    Before they approved these ‘enhanced interrogation’ practices they went to great lengths to provide themselves legal cover which is unlikely to be proven insufficient in retrospect.

    One could engage in a non-legalistic theoretical debate about when ‘stress positions’ and ‘sensory deprivation’ actually cross the line into ‘torture’; as Mike Baker tried to engage Kennedy in the other night; it is mostly pointless. It would probably be more interesting to look at if – despite the Obama administration’s putative ‘Ban’ on these interrogation techniques – there has been any effort made to strip them of their technical ‘legality’.]

  10. “Lord Humungus|12.11.14 @ 11:32AM|#

    CIA has been torturing for a long time:”

    indeed = things like waterboarding were learned(then banned) in the Philippine-American war, and every generation has repeatedly re-confronted this issue

    More than this = many of our intelligence ‘partners’ are not signatories to the convention against torture, as we are; technically, it would be illegal for the US to detain anyone and THEN transfer them to the custody of these agencies; however, standard practice for many decades was to partner with either the recipient or a 3rd party agency to make the initial ‘snatch’, and then have them remanded to the men with the screws.

    This has likely what has resumed under the Obama admin, rather than any wholesale cessation of ‘forceful interrogation’ across the board.

    1. “This has likely what has resumed under the Obama admin, rather than any wholesale cessation of ‘forceful interrogation’ across the board.”

      I think Reason has run articles saying just as much. However, I think this fact is likely to be ignored, since this is, for many, about trashing Bush rather than really stopping this practice, especially when it means making Obama look bad.

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