History Can Be Unpleasant
The terror attacks of 9/11 changed the lives of every American old enough to remember where they were at the exact moment they heard that an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center. Although it existed, the internet was not what it is today; there were no smartphones or iPads and televisions were of “normal” size. In the initial hours of the attack, ‘normal’ Americans watched their fellow citizens dazed, and covered in white dust as they stared at the towers – on fire and about to collapse.
250 miles southwest of New York a third plane crashed into the Pentagon. Finally, the fourth plane, destined for the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after the passengers fought the hijackers for control. I remember watching coverage of that fourth crash in my company’s boardroom, at that time no one knew if the attack was complete. We were all scared and confused. Terrorism was not new – the world had experienced hijackings throughout the 80s and 90s. But this-this was different.
Average Americans were unprepared for 9/11 and out of fear and grief we made some rather irrational decisions. But it was policymakers, especially those in our intelligence services, that made the most grievous of errors, first blowing multiple warnings of an impending attack on the homeland and then overcompensating by invading and bombing Islamic nations that had nothing to do with the attack on our country (Iraq).
And then there was the CIA’s torture program.
A longer post will review The Looming Tower and Hubris (among other post-9/11 works), both detailing the how’s and why’s of 9/11 and the post 9/11 period. But given today’s Senate hearing on Gina Haspel’s nomination to be Director of the CIA, it is important to point out an unpleasant period in our relatively recent history. In the years following 9/11, the CIA set up black op sites where they interrogated “high-value targets” using “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
That means: As our military and intelligence services pursued al Qaeda, and specifically those that masterminded the 9/11 attacks, suspects were apprehended and spirited off to secure and secret prisons on foreign soil. While in these facilities, the CIA tortured them, filmed it, and then eventually destroyed the videos when news broke of the program. The Bush Administration had plenty of their attorneys write memos giving cover to the interrogators who performed barbaric acts; acts that had been outlawed by one or more of the Geneva Conventions decades earlier. These tactics included waterboarding, feeding detainees via the rectum, and refusing to allow a prisoner to sleep. Further investigations showed that psychological trauma and PTSD in prisoners who had experienced these “advanced interrogation methods.”
Contrary to Vice President Cheney and now President Trump’s opinion – the experts agree, that torture does not wield accurate intelligence. Humans will say anything to make the pain stop.
It is at this point that a good number of Americans argue that we had to do whatever was necessary to keep the homeland safe. Moreover, these prisoners were hardened terrorists – radical Islamists no less, devoted to Allah. They were willing to die for their cause so of course torture was justified. And then there is the matter of the 3,000 people they killed on 9/11. Don’t they deserve justice? Some may even throw in a bit of Islamaphobia and state that “Islam is not a peaceful religion. It only understands violence.”
Notwithstanding that torture is a violation of international law, the problem with all of these justifications is that they are bullshit. Intelligence experts have stated repeatedly that torture is ineffective in gathering information (refer back to the previous point – you’ll say anything to make the pain stop) and even if it worked, it’s immoral. Torturing another human being is wrong. It does not matter what that person may have done – or what you think he did. Torture is immoral and inflicts long-term scars on all involved.
Gina Haspel ran a black site in Thailand and was responsible for it at the time that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the supposed mastermind behind 9/11 was tortured by CIA operatives. Later, she wrote a cable at the direction of Jose A. Rodriguez, the then director of the National Clandestine Service at the CIA, instructing officers to destroy torture videos as Rodriguez was concerned that they showed evidence of international war crimes. She is currently acting Director of the CIA and today, sat for her confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. If confirmed, she would be the first woman to head the agency. Given her history with the torture program, the final vote will be close.
I was unable to listen to the full hearing and only caught a portion of her opening statement. I was disappointed.
Acting Director Haspel: Please do not cite the “context” of 9/11 to justify the decisions our government made in the days, months and years following that horrible September day. Yes, the world was in disarray and Americans were frightened. We know now that our intelligence services, including the CIA and the FBI failed to heed multiple warnings, and were too busy fighting each other for jurisdictional control than with sharing vital national security information. At any number of points, the 9/11 conspiracy could have been thwarted. Your agency failed. And yet you did not add that to your “context story” nor did you accept responsibility for your agency’s panic and irrational logic and reaction. We counted on our government – the bureaucrats to act responsibly. But that did not happen.
We were not prepared for 9/11 and when it happened, our intelligence agencies reacted illogically. They played catch-up while dropping bombs and kidnapping people that they hoped would talk about the next attack. They ginned up phony intelligence to invade a country (Iraq) that had nothing to do with 9/11, stood by while vagrants looted cities and towns, and kept dropping bombs, killing numerous civilians. The CIA’s torture program was an irrational reaction to getting punched in the face in front of the world.
All Haspel needed to do today was apologize and admit that torture was immoral. But from what I read of the hearings, she obfuscated. And that is unfortunate because I have no doubt that she is qualified and has the experience to lead the agency. I suspect that she will be confirmed, but the vote will be extremely close. I was also disappointed and surprised by Senator Manchin of West Virginia. Granted, he has a re-election coming up this November, but his rationale for voting to confirm was poorly articulated. During an interview this evening, he justified his decision by a) citing the context of the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and b) I think trying to make the point that what the CIA did was not as bad as forcing Japanese-Americans into concentration camps after Pearl Harbor. While he did not say this specifically, that was the direction he was going before Chuck Todd saved him with another question.
(As a side – if it is necessary to compare “torture” to “confiscation of property and internment of American citizens in a concentration camp because of race and/or ethnicity,” then I maintain that the two are equally abhorrent. As such, we should have learned from the mistakes made in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. If throwing 110,000 American citizens into concentration camps was not enough of an embarrassment to disincent a repeat performance, I would have thought the billion dollars in reparations our government had to pay would have done the trick.
I do want to see more women in leadership roles, but elevating Gina Haspel given today’s testimony would be an anathema to American values. We made a mistake in torturing detainees after 9/11 and we make a mistake every time we refuse to acknowledge it. Understanding context provides color, but it is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card and in this case, particularly with this president, if Haspel is unable to condemn herself and her colleagues for the mistakes of the past, then how can we trust that she will not repeat those sins in the future? All she had to do was admit the immorality and apologize.
A final thought: if investigative journalists had not discovered these black site prisons, would they still be active? Would CIA interrogators continue to use torture to force detainees to talk? I wonder if anyone asked Gina Haspel that question today.