Dianne Feinstein’s report on CIA torture is part of a long history of choosing “justice” over solutions, something Israel is all too familiar with.
The western world is aghast at a newly released report on the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11 · But underneath the moral hand-wringing is a permanent and painful dilemma of governance – the often binary choice between past justice and future reform · It is a dilemma Israel knows very well · On committees, partisanship and puritanism
A disgraced President, still considered a “war criminal” by many, is out of office. The press is overflowing with stories and rumors of misdeeds by government agencies meant to defend the United States. A newly Democratic Congress is out to clean house with the oppressive organs of an “Imperial” Executive Branch. The year is not 2010, but 1975.
Barely a year after Richard Nixon resigned from office, both the Senate and House of Representatives, led by Democrats, established committees to conduct a thorough and transparent examination of all the federal agencies – FBI, CIA, NSA – tasked with the protection of America from enemies foreign and domestic. Known as the Church and Pike Committees after their heads, Senator Frank Church and Congressman Otis Pike, their goal was to discover or confirm abuses of power by these bodies, as well as examine their success in carrying out their tasks as a whole.
From start to finish, the committees were split between two kinds of people: reform-minded liberals who genuinely appreciated the agencies’ work and merely wished to increase legal and budgetary oversight, and radicals who would likely have preferred to abolish or at least greatly shrink the lot of them. The radical side had much support among politicians who had cut their eye-teeth in the anti-war years of Vietnam as well as the press, and it was probably unclear to many whether the committees were interested in fixing problems or seeing heads roll.
Agranat and Church
All this would sound depressingly familiar to veteran Israelis. There are scary similarities between the Church and Pike Committees and the Agranat Commission established in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. Then, too, the Committee faced the problem of how to ensure that a disaster like the Yom Kippur War, for which the IDF was horribly unprepared, would not happen again. But much like in the USA of 1975, thousands also wanted to see commanders and politicians pay for Israel’s bloodiest military engagement since 1948. They wanted justice.
The problem was that justice (some might say vengeance) and reform of the IDF were almost mutually exclusive. As senior Israeli historian Yoav Gelber – who served as an academic researcher for the commission – pointed out, seeking legal justice and learning the historical truth require two different methods of inquiry. Legal justice requires lawyers’ advice, depositions and trials. It includes the right to remain silent and withhold or suppress incriminating information, even the kind that could be crucial to repairing a broken system. Reform requires at least a tacit acceptance of criminal immunity to get at the truth and prevent future disaster.
In the end, the Commission satisfied no-one. Not enough heads rolled, especially those of politicians, and army reform took place piecemeal, usually many years after the Commission finished its work. But the most toxic result of the Commission and the atmosphere which surrounded it was that the IDF was now an army always looking over its shoulder for the next Agranat. From then until now, the IDF has been far more concerned with how it would justify itself to the next Agranat Commission or a domestic or international court of law than how it could win wars and defeat Israel’s enemies.
Something similar happened to the CIA and other agencies in the wake of Church and Pike. The actual recommendations of the committees were reasonable and measured. They included much-needed oversight from both Congress and the courts, and they even included praise for agencies which did their best under often very difficult circumstances. But the toxic public atmosphere, and the constant threats and insults did their work. The CIA got the message loud and clear: you, not the communists, are the enemy, and you are now on notice.
The result was a massive organizational hunkering down: many gifted people were let go, an attitude of ‘small-mindedness’ – what we call ‘Rosh Katan’ in Israel – took over, and domestic and foreign agencies more afraid of another inquiry than foreign enemies wouldn’t dare share information with each other. Part of the blame for not stopping 9/11 can be laid at the door of Church and Pike.
Moral grandstanding is not policy
All of which brings us to the “CIA Torture Report” everyone’s been talking about these past few days. The story itself has been known for at least a decade: the CIA, massively unprepared for 9/11 and under tremendous pressure to prevent another one, had to establish interrogation teams almost from scratch (why they had no core professional teams to begin with is a question far more worth pursuing, but will likely be ignored) and often made a hash of it. They also took suspected terrorists to secret locations abroad (‘rendition’) and in perhaps 300+ cases, subjected them to pressure and torture of various kinds to elicit intelligence on possible attacks.
The report itself does not add anything more than some of the more gruesome details of the torture used and its effects. It does, however, add two key arguments: that the CIA deliberately and fundamentally misled both the Bush Administration and Congress about what they were doing, and that the torture led to no real intelligence. The first claim is literally unbelievable, and is a frankly ridiculous attempt on the part of Democratic Senators to claim their hands are clean. The second claim is endlessly debatable and frankly a red herring, given that members of the Feinstein committee would object to torture even if it did produce intel.
Even so, the publishing of the report is a key sign of the difference between seeking justice or vengeance and ensuring reform. If the conciliatory language of the CIA response is any indication, there was no need to publish the report to ensure institutional change. While the responders disputed that they had thoroughly deceived the government and Congress or that torture had not resulted in any good intel, the authors readily conceded that they had been massively unprepared for their task, had handled the cases badly, and that they were open to pursuing and refining non-torture methods. But when it came down to it, the Senators preferred what they consider justice over solutions.
Publishing the report accomplished little positive and ensured much damage. No-one with any sense thinks that those involved will see trial. Only people with no historical knowledge whatsoever will accept Dianne Feinstein’s hyperbolic claim that the CIA renditions were one of America’s historically lowest moral points. A CIA that may have been willing to work with the Senate has – once again – been effectively publicly called out as a malevolent government body accountable to no-one, and is likely to revert back to ‘small-mindedness’. Foreign allies, whose redacted identity can easily be deduced, will be far more reticent to work with America on critical intelligence issues to the detriment of all. ISIS will have a recruiting field day. And since the torture was known and has long since been stopped, there is nothing for this ‘sunlight’ to disinfect.
A Left-Wing Civil War
Many on the right have blasted the report for its “partisan” nature. I agree with them, but not in the way they think. The publication of the report is a partisan act, but not just against the right but within the left. Like during the time of Church and Pike, the global political left-wing is torn between the moderate left-wingers who care about the good of their country and wish to balance moral concerns and national security and a radical, puritan minority, usually dominant in the media and NGOs and among the internet commentariat, who care nothing for real-world consequences so long as their sense of justice is satisfied. If the report is any indication, the latter side is winning by a mile.
Then as now, the left has many legitimate moral points to make and which are worthy of discussion. But then as now, they are drowned out in a sea of hateful invective; it is common to see the CIA compared to the SS or worse. Moderate leftists try to find reasonable solutions; the solutions proposed by the puritan sect are so extreme and fantastical – some would probably shut down the CIA and/or NSA altogether – that aside from a few fawning articles about “principles” no real change is accomplished. Then as now, Israelis know the feeling all too well.
The political left wing of the western world, America and Israel included, must decide to start pursuing realistic and reasonable solutions rather than putting heads on a pike for the angry mob. Otherwise, next time – and there will be a next time – we’ll do this all over again, to as much effect as before.