This is the most important thing to understand about the Republican and conservative response to this report’s release, and it raises a vital question for the future of U.S. policy. It’s a question pundits should answer, but much more importantly, it’s a question policymakers — particularly those who would like to be president — must address.
The question is this: If you think, as most conservatives are arguing, that the CIA’s torture program was legal, morally defensible, and effective, do you also think it should be reinstated?
The program was abandoned in the final years of the Bush administration. But if it was so terrific, are conservatives saying we should bring it back? And if not, why not?
I won’t bother refuting for the umpteenth time their insistence that the torture techniques the CIA used were not in fact “torture,” other than to say that when conservatives can supply a definition of torture which would not include centuries-old methods like waterboarding and stress positions, I’ll be happy to listen. As of yet they haven’t done so, and the most they ever attempt is to simply repeat that what we did isn’t torture, because it isn’t. That dispute isn’t actually relevant to this question: whether you call it by the obscene euphemism “enhanced interrogation,” or you call it torture, or you call it happy rainbow hugging, if you think it was a great success then why wouldn’t you want to bring it back?
Some of the torture apologists might say, “Well, in the immediate days after September 11, things were much more urgent.” But al-Qaida still exists, and conservatives are always eager to say that the next threat that emerges is more horrific than the last; for instance, Lindsey Graham said that we had to stop ISIS “before we all get killed back here at home” (for the record, Graham has said the torture techniques the CIA used were “counterproductive”). If conservatives would now argue that the dangers posed by terrorism are actually quite manageable and do not constitute an existential threat, and therefore we can tone down our response to those dangers, that would be evidence of a remarkable return to reason. But that is most definitely not what they argue. They argue that the threat is as grave as ever. If that’s true, then shouldn’t we start torturing prisoners again?
Most of the people contemplating runs for president have not yet spoken about the report and their future intentions on the use of torture. I was not able to find any comments since yesterday from Hillary Clinton, Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley, Rick Perry, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, or Scott Walker. But it’s been less than a full day — they may have something to say soon. Ted Cruz issued a statement criticizing the report’s release with a combination of typical Cruzian anti-Obama bombast and a few phrases suggesting he may be opposed to the program itself (he referred to tactics “which have since rightly been outlawed”).
One whose opinion is clear is Marco Rubio, who sits on the Intelligence Committee. He criticized the release of the report and signed on to the Republican minority’s dissent. Here is that document’s conclusion:
The CIA called the detention program a “crucial pillar of US counterterrorism efforts, aiding intelligence and law enforcement operations to capture additional terrorists, helping to thwart terrorist plots, and advancing our analysis of the al-Qa’ida target.” We agree. We have no doubt that the CIA’s detention program saved lives and played a vital role in weakening al-Qa’ida while the Program was in operation. When asked about the value of detainee information and whether he missed the intelligence from it, one senior CIA operator told members, “I miss it every day.” We understand why.
To repeat, Marco Rubio signed on to this conclusion, which could hardly be more emphatic in its support of the torture program. It would be positively bizarre for anyone to express that kind of enthusiasm for the program yet not believe it should be restarted. At the very least, Rubio ought to be asked if that is what he believes, and if not, why not.
Rand Paul is the one potential Republican candidate who came out strongly against torture in his comments about the report:
“It’s important that people take a stand and representatives take a stand on whether they believe torture should be allowed. I think we should not have torture,” Paul said. “Transparency is mostly good for government. The only thing I would question is whether or not the actual details, the gruesomeness of the details, will be beneficial or inflammatory.”
It isn’t just the candidates, of course; you can search the most aggressive defenses of the torture program (for instance, see here or here) in vain for the point where the defender says, “And that’s why we need to start doing this again.” If the program was so spectacularly successful and so morally unproblematic, why can’t they bring themselves to advocate for its return?
For a pundit or a former official, that question is a matter of intellectual consistency. For a potential future president, it’s a matter of our nation’s future. If a candidate defends the program but says he won’t renew it, we might criticize him for not having the courage of his convictions, but that’s a relatively minor sin. Nevertheless, we need to know.