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Barack Obama's presidency

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Why the Blasé Attitude about Torture

By Ray McGovern
November 11, 2009

Editor’s Note: Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern was invited to give a series of talks about torture in the Seattle/Tacoma/Olympia area from Nov. 12 to 16 – and his inviters, the Washington State Religious Campaign Against Torture, suggested that he write an op-ed on the topic for The Seattle Times, the city’s sole surviving daily newspaper.

However, The Seattle Times turned down the article, which was also meant to advertise that McGovern would be speaking about torture in the Pacific Northwest. So, we are publishing the article below:

“We’re going to talk about the policy of torture,” the radio producer said when she called me five years ago. “And you’ll have ten minutes to defend your side.”

“There’s another side?” I asked.

“Of course,” she answered, and the other person will also have ten minutes.” 

My protest that torture is not a “policy,” but rather a crime, made no impact.

It was then that I began to understand in a more tangible way what the post-World War II Nuremberg Tribunal meant in referring to “the accumulated evil” that flows inevitably from what it termed the “supreme international crime” — a war of aggression.

History, including recent history, has shown torture to be one of those accumulated evils.

“But it works,” many say, reducing what is first and foremost a moral problem to a utilitarian one.

Just for the record, no experienced intelligence professional I know will tell you it works. Just the opposite.

For example, on Sept. 6, 2006, just before President George W. Bush held a press conference to extol the advantages of what he called “an alternative set of procedures” for interrogation, Army Intelligence chief Gen. John Kimmons told reporters:

“No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices.  I think history tells us that. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tells us that.”

That message was among the first things drummed into me when I came on active duty as an Army infantry/intelligence officer 47 years ago this week. My 27-year subsequent service at the CIA reinforced that learning.

In the fall of 2005, then-CIA Director Porter Goss heeded Vice President Dick Cheney’s call to join him in descending on Sen. John McCain to demand that the CIA be exempted from his amendment on torture. For me, that was the last straw.

I decided to hand back the Intelligence Commendation Medallion given me at retirement for “exceptionally commendable service,” saying I did not wish to be associated, however remotely, with an agency openly engaged in torture.

This Veterans Day I am reminded that I am twice a veteran — proud to have served in uniform, but filled with a sense of shame that the agency in which so many have served honorably has been stained by the willingness of its leaders and operatives to carry out Bush/Cheney instructions for torture.

Euphemisms cannot wash torture clean. Not “an alternate set of procedures;” not “enhanced interrogation techniques;” not “extraordinary rendition” masking kidnapping for the purpose of torture. 

Sabrina de Sousa, one of the 23 CIA operatives convicted in absentia and sentenced by an Italian court last week for kidnapping Egyptian cleric Abu Omar off the streets of Milan complained on TV:

“Clearly, we broke the law, and we’re paying for the mistakes right now of whoever authorized and approved this.”

De Sousa recognizes that she has become one of the proverbial “rotten apples at the bottom of the barrel” — like the equally guilty but hapless Lynndie England of Abu Ghraib. 

It is clear that those who “authorized and approved” the kidnapping expect to get off scot-free. And they will, if we do not insist that our justice system hold them accountable.

It is a telling irony that the orderly procedures of the independent judiciary in Italy owe so much to the power of (earlier) American advocacy.

As international law attorney Scott Horton noted in Harpers on Nov. 6, it was U.S. jurists who advanced for the first time (in 1946-48) the view that seizing people, holding them without recourse to law, and subjecting them to torture is “a particularly serious crime.”

Horton adds that “disappearings” are now widely recognized — and not only in Italy — as a “crime against humanity and thus not subject to statutes of limitation or capable of being ignored.”

Why, then, the blasé public attitude toward torture; why the lack of moral leadership in our religious institutions? I will be in the Seattle/Olympia area this week to discuss such questions.

At the University of Washington-Seattle on Thursday evening, Nov. 12, I shall address “Why Accountability for Torture is Crucial for Human Rights, Our Security and Our Souls.”

At UW-Tacoma Sunday evening, Nov. 15, my talk will center on: “Does Torture Work? ‘Let’s Have Both Sides of the Story.’”

Both events are sponsored by the Washington State Religious Campaign Against Torture.  (Details at .)

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington, DC.  An Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 30 years, he now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).  

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