CIA employees “are among the best and brightest our nation has to offer,” CIA Director John Brennan said last week.
It’s also true that some of them committed torture.
With the approval of agency supervisors and George W. Bush administration officials, federal workers engaged in horrendous acts in the name of protecting a nation reeling from terrorist attacks. In the process, they shamed the United States, shocked its citizens and poisoned its moral authority.
For those who did it, supervised it and authorized it, there already may have been consequences — emotional ones, at least.
And as the public continues to learn about activities that the CIA engaged in, those consequences could resurface and intensify.
The Senate Intelligence Committee report last week outlined some of those techniques used against terrorism suspects, such as waterboarding and “rectal feeding.”
Ellen Gerrity, a psychologist at the Duke University School of Medicine, said those who participated may “be having trouble coping with it.”
The Bethesda resident, who has written about torture, said guilt, shame and depression are often part of the aftermath.
Even those who believe what they did was right and have had none of those symptoms might feel them later as the disparity between their actions and public revulsion grows, she said.
Still, Gerrity does not consider CIA employees or contractors who tortured to be victims. “They were perpetrators,” she said. “But they were in — put in — a situation created by others.”
How do patriots become torture perpetrators? How does a nation that thinks it is exceptional allow its employees to do the despicable?
Jerrold M. Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University, cited three conditions — authorization, routinization and dehumanization — that “permit this kind of violence.” A doctor and professor of psychiatry, he spent 21 years with the CIA, where he founded and directed the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior. He would not discuss his former agency work.
His article, “Crimes of Obedience,” in the journal Democracy and Security, examines “the capacity of ordinary people to participate in extraordinary evil.”
Post wrote that “when acts are ordered or sanctioned by authority, the willingness to perpetrate immoral acts is enhanced.”
The article, written with Lara K. Panis, focused on prisoner abuse by Americans at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.
The perpetrators thought they were authorized to torture because, as Brennan said, “enhanced interrogation techniques” were “duly authorized by the Bush administration.”
Euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation technique,” reduced to EIT by Brennan, help abhorrent deeds seem like routine or accepted practice, Post said.
If EIT stood for “employees implementing torture,” my term not his, fewer of them might have been willing to engage.
Dehumanization is the most disgusting of the conditions, the “most chilling of all,” Post wrote. It allows the perpetrators to see their prisoners as less than human. The perpetrators think “they are doing something positive about these evil people,” he added in an interview.
Dehumanization at Abu Ghraib was symbolized by pictures of prisoners in humiliating and torture positions, reminiscent of black victims of lynching who were photographed with white, racist terrorists who posed by the corpses.
But evidently, unlike Abu Ghraib several years ago and public lynchings several decades ago, the torture did repulse at least some of the CIA perpetrators. In August 2002, at somewhere called Detention Site Green, CIA personnel found the torture “visually and psychologically very uncomfortable . . . some to the point of tears and choking up,” according to the Senate report.
The personnel, employees and contractors were not just television’s Jack Bauer types, but government physicians and psychologists, whose credentials lent authority to torture techniques. Gerrity co-authored a 2007 Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues resolution calling for sanctions against psychologists who “participated in the design or conduct of interrogations that have made use of torture.”
Sanctions by a professional organization are one thing, criminal prosecution is another.
At the moment it seems unlikely that CIA personnel will be charged, though there is precedent for that in the case involving Abu Ghraib soldiers.
“Torture is illegal,” said Jo-Marie Burt, a political science professor at George Mason University. She researches criminal prosecutions of human rights violators in Latin America.
“U.S. law says it is illegal, international law says it is illegal,” she added by e-mail. “Not just the Geneva Conventions, which has clear guidelines about the treatment of prisoners, but the Convention against Torture, which the United States signed in 1988 and ratified in 1994. This treaty bars the use of torture; but moreover it obligates party states — of which the United States is one — to prosecute instances of torture. It is interesting to note that the United States actually led the campaign to have the Convention against Torture ratified. . . . The United States cannot claim to promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, if we flagrantly violate the rule of law and no one is ever punished for it.”
Post doubts there will be any prosecution, calling it a “complicated sticky wicket. After all, you are also talking about the people who bear the scars of 9/11.”
Post, however, paraphrased a question that interrogation trainees at Fort Huachuca, headquarters of the Army Intelligence Center in Arizona, are told to consider before using certain techniques: “If this was done to you would you consider it a war crime?”
The answer for the CIA perpetrators should have been yes.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.