Yesterday’s long-delayed release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s years-long torture program provided a much-needed moment of clarity. The report’s findings on the brutal and appalling techniques employed by interrogators, the manifold errors that plagued the program, the gross incompetence with which it was administered, and the lack of useful intelligence gleaned from the interrogations should make it all but impossible to defend the Bush administration’s post-9/11 moral and policy failings.
“Should” is, of course, the operative word there. Much of the Republican Party and the conservative movement – animated by partisan loyalty and “war on terror”-inspired obeisance to the national security apparatus – are standing in defense of torture and of the former administration, even with documentary evidence in hand of its wholesale abandonment of longstanding American values. They know we inflicted gross physical harm upon detainees and violated every commitment to human rights that is supposed to set us apart from the people we’re fighting. The greater wrong, they argue, is to talk about it in public.
Thus you have would-be political leaders like Sen. Marco Rubio – a probable 2016 presidential candidate and Senate Intelligence Committee member – staking out positions that excuse the worst abuses of the Bush White House and the intelligence community.
In a statement put out on Monday, Rubio and Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) lashed out at the Democrats on the committee for releasing report, saying: “The American civilian and uniformed personnel who worked tirelessly in the days and months after the September 11, 2001 attacks on our nation to keep us safe and prevent another mass casualty event deserve our eternal gratitude, not politically–motivated attacks.”
This is shallow excuse-making for gross failures at every level of the national security apparatus, from the civilian leadership to the operators on the ground. The Bush White House willed this torture program into existence and then closed themselves off from any information about it out of political concerns. The CIA slapped together an interrogation program and the people they put in charge of administering it had no idea what they were doing. They interrogated people who shouldn’t have been detained in the first place, they lied to the White House about the effectiveness of the program, covered-up or destroyed the evidence of their abuses, and generally got away with everything up to (and perhaps including) murder. This went on for years. You can’t just wipe that away with “we were scared after 9/11” or “they kept us safe.”
For Rubio specifically, the issue is especially relevant, given his strong record of speaking out against human rights abuses in other countries. The same day he released his statement calling for “eternal gratitude” for intelligence officials who tortured terrorism detainees, Rubio released a statement celebrating the passage of the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014. “This is a long overdue but important step to demonstrate America’s commitment to the human rights and democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people in both words and actions,” Rubio said.
Last month Rubio co-wrote an Op-Ed for the Daily Beast denouncing the Iranian regime for “continuing the ‘widespread and systematic use’ of psychological and physical torture to obtain confessions.” Rubio, who is of Cuban descent, is a loud critic of the Castro regime and the many human rights violations it visits upon the Cuban people.
Rubio’s record is clear on this – he will not countenance gross violations of human rights committed by governments… except when that government is his own. When you demand accountability and consequences for the abuses of foreign regimes, and then sweep away your own country’s abuses as an understandable (or necessary, or laudable) component of a national security strategy, you come across as something of a hypocrite.
For the conservatives reading this, I know what you’re going to say: how dare I draw a moral equivalence like that – those governments repress innocent people, we were attacked by terrorists! Well, that’s actually kind of the point. Forgive the sanctimony but I don’t know how better to put this: We’re not them. We’re better than them. We show we’re better than them by adhering to our ideals, even when we’re under terrible strain. The price of maintaining that higher standard is less room for failure, and the CIA’s torture program was an unquestioned moral failure. We don’t torture people and we don’t make excuses for torturing people. If anyone is guilty of shifting us closer to the moral plane of the globe’s bad actors, it’s the Bush administration.
The fact that at least some entities within our government were willing to investigate, compile, and release all this information about our own sordid dalliance with torture is something that does set us apart from the despots and strongmen who sit comfortably in violation of international norms for human rights. There may not be much accountability for the people involved, but at the very least we’ve come out and said “here’s what we did.”
But even that is too much for people like Marco Rubio who prefer to maintain secrecy and preserve the fiction that America has nothing to account for in its pursuit of security in the years following 9/11.