Are Americans Really 'Better Than That?'

A boyish, inquisitive face with an innocent look peered out from the Washington Post's lead story yesterday on torture. It was well groomed, pink-shirted John Kiriakou, a CIA interrogator who could just as easily pass for the local youth minister.

The report by the Post's Joby Warrick and Dan Eggen, which describes Kiriakou's experience in interrogating suspected terrorists, raises in an unusually direct way an abiding question: Should the United States of America be using forms of torture dating back to the Spanish Inquisition?

Nowhere is the mood of that infamous period better portrayed than in the famous Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov . Dostoevsky was unusually gifted at plumbing the human heart. While it has been 127 years since he wrote Brothers Karamazov , he nonetheless captures the trap into which so many Americans have fallen in forfeiting freedom through fear. His portrayal of Inquisition reality brings us to the brink of the moral precipice on which our country teeters today. It is as though he knew what would be in store for us as fear was artificially stoked after the attacks of 9/11.

In the story, Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor (the Cardinal of Seville) ridicules Christ for imposing on humans the heavy burden of freedom of conscience, and explains how it is far better, for all concerned, to dull that conscience and to rule by deceit, violence, and fear:

"Didst thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil?...We teach them that it's not the free judgment of their hearts, but mystery which they must follow blindly, even against their conscience.... In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet [and] become obedient...We shall tell them that we are Thy servants and rule them in Thy name.... we shall be forced to lie.... We shall tell them that every sin will be expiated if it is done with our permission."
The Grand Inquisitor, in Brothers Karamazov

Kiriakou was one of the first interrogators to interview suspected terrorist Abu Zubayda in a Pakistani military hospital, where Zubayda was recovering from wounds suffered during his capture in early 2002. When he refused to provide information about al-Qaeda's infrastructure, he was flown to a secret CIA prison where, according to Kiriakou, the interrogation team strapped Abu Zubayda to a board, wrapped his nose and mouth in cellophane, and forced water into his throat. In just 35 seconds, viola! Abu Zubayda starting talking. That is called waterboarding.

The 15 & 16 Century Spanish inquisitors were not squeamish, and had little need for circumlocutions or euphemisms like "alternative set of procedures" that are part of President George W. Bush's lexicon. The Spanish called this procedure, quite plainly, "tortura del agua." Lacking cellophane, they inserted a cloth into the victim's mouth, forcing the victim to ingest water spilled from a jar starting the drowning process. Four centuries later, the Gestapo put out several technically improved releases of this operating system of torture, so to speak.

Quick; someone please tell newly confirmed Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who told reporters yesterday he still cannot decide whether waterboarding is torture.

Abu Zubayda: Poster Child

The information from John Kiriakou confirms what has long been a no-brainer but not definitively established before; namely, that President George W. Bush's "alternative set of procedures" for interrogation by C.I.A. includes waterboarding. Zubayda was given pride of place in George W. Bush's remarkable speech of Sept. 6, 2006, in which he bragged about the effectiveness of such procedures and appealed successfully for passage of the Military Commissions Act. That law allows a president to define what set of interrogation procedures can be used by the C.I.A. This is Bush on Sept. 6, 2006:

We believe that Zubayda was a senior terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden...[and that] he had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained...We knew that Zubayda had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking...And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures...The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful.... But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary.

Zubayda was questioned using these procedures, and soon he began to provide information on key al-Qaeda operatives, including information that helped us find and capture more of those responsible for the attacks on September the 11th. For example, Zubayda identified one of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's accomplices in the 9/11 attacks -- a terrorist named Ramzi bin al Shibh. The information Zubayda provided helped lead to the capture of bin al Shibh. And together these two terrorists provided information that helped in the planning and execution of the operation that captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Bush claimed that his interrogation program had saved lives, and Kiriakou says the use of waterboarding "probably saved lives." We cannot know for sure if this is true. Off-the-record interviews with intelligence officials strongly suggest that there is much prevarication and exaggeration in president's claims about lives saved and operations disrupted, and that the his assertions merit no more credulity than other claims-for example, that Iran's nuclear weapons program poses a threat to the U.S., even though it has been stopped for four years.

Other U.S. intelligence officials take issue with the C.I.A.'s version of the questioning of Zubayda. Some say that initially he was cooperating with F.B.I. interrogators using a nonconfrontational approach, when C.I.A . assumed control and opted for more aggressive tactics. After that experience, the F.B.I. reportedly warned its agents to avoid interrogation sessions at which harsh methods were used.

As for credibility, never has a U.S. president's word been so cheapened as it is today. In late July 2007, we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity joined with Justin Frank, MD, psychiatrist, professor at George Washington University Hospital, and author of "Bush on the Couch," to search for insight on how President Bush thinks. See "Dangers of a Cornered Bush,"from which we excerpt the following:

His pathology is a patchwork of false beliefs and incomplete information woven into what he asserts is the whole truth...He lies-not just to us, but to himself as well...What makes lying so easy for Bush is his contempt-for language, for law, and for anybody who dares question him.... So his words mean nothing. That is very important for people to understand.

This Is Oversight?

The past few weeks have witnessed an unseemly square dance in Congress, highlighting conflicting claims about what those who are supposed to be overseeing the intelligence community knew and when they knew it-about torture, about Iran, about many things. It is nothing short of an insult to the Founders that members of the House and Senate can find nothing more useful to do than wring their hands over their largely self-inflicted powerlessness.

Lawmakers have been so thoroughly intimidated by the White House that I get physically ill watching the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Jane Harman, Bob Graham, and Jay Rockefeller moan about how secretive and nasty the Bush administration has been. Harman complained recently that when she was ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee some of the material (on interrogations) was so highly classified that she had to take a "second oath" to protect it.

What about the solemn oath they all take to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic? Should not that oath transcend and govern others that an administration might require for access to secret materials?

Senator Dick Durbin of the Senate Intelligence Committee has complained that he was aware that classified information did not justify the conclusion in 2002 that Iraq had unconventional weapons, but he could not say anything because it was classified! Durbin explained:

...We're duty-bound once we enter that room to respect classified information. Everything you hear is supposed to stay in the room...I certainly had enough to know that the statements that were made about mushroom clouds were not the conclusions of someone in the administration who was really being honest about the full debate. But you really know, walking in the room, what the rules of the game will be.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has admitted knowing for several years about the Bush administration's eavesdropping on Americans without a court warrant. She was briefed on it when she was ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee when Bush and Cheney took office. One key unanswered question is this: Was she told that within days of their taking office-that is, seven months before 9/11, the National Security Agency's electronic vacuum cleaner had already begun to suck up information on Americans-the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, not to mention the Constitution, be damned?

In a Washington Post op-ed of Jan. 15, 2006, Pelosi proudly advertised her uniquely long tenure on the Intelligence Committee and acknowledged that she was one of the privileged handful of lawmakers who were briefed. "This is how I came to be informed of President Bush's authorization for the NSA to conduct certain types of surveillance." She then proceeded to demonstrate the bowing and scraping characteristic of her subservient attitude toward the Executive Branch:

"But when the administration notifies Congress in this manner, it is not seeking approval. There is a clear expectation that the information will be shared by no one, including other members of the intelligence committees. As a result, only a few members of Congress were aware of the president's surveillance program, and they were constrained from discussing it more widely."

And so too, may we assume, with respect to torture? This is oversight?

Neutered Watchdogs: Rockefeller and Reyes

What can we expect from the current Senate and House oversight chairmen regarding the recently disclosed, deliberate destruction of two tapes of harsh interrogations of Abu Zubayda and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri? (Al-Nashiri is thought to have played a role in the attack on the USS Cole.) On the Senate side, expect nothing of Mr. Milquetoast Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who, it is said, is so afraid of his own shadow that he only ventures outdoors at night or in bad weather.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes has a different kind of problem, and should recuse himself. He has been fawning all over JosAf(c) Rodriguez, the former CIA Deputy Director of Operations who ordered the tapes destroyed.

On August 16, 2007 Congressman Reyes told a conference in El Paso he considered Rodriguez "an American hero," proudly adding that, "with a few liberties that Hollywood takes, the exploits of JosAf(c) Rodriguez are documented in the FOX TV series "24." I am told that almost every episode of "24" includes at least one scene glorifying torture, usually with lead man Jack Bauer playing a main role. Reyes made it clear he is a big fan of Bauer and "24."

Were that not enough, after Rodriguez' role in destroying the interrogation tapes became public, Reyes immediately cautioned against allowing investigations to find just one "scapegoat" (no secret to whom he was referring). And so, unless Reyes does recuse himself, look for a "complete and thorough" investigation of the kind favored by the Nixon White House. (Just when you may have thought it could not get any worse!)

Torture as Technique: Stark Differences in View

On Sept. 6, 2006, the very day Bush bragged about his "alternative set of procedures for interrogation" and appealed for legislation allowing the C.I.A. to continue using them, the head of Army intelligence, Lt. Gen. John Kimmons, took a very different tack. Conducting a Pentagon briefing shortly before the president gave his own speech, Kimmons underscored the fact that the revised Army manual for interrogation is in sync with the Geneva treaties. Then, conceding past "transgressions and mistakes," Kimmons updated something I learned 45 years ago as a second lieutenant in Army intelligence:

"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."

Grabbing the headlines the following day, was Bush's admission that the CIA has taken "high-value" captives to prisons abroad for interrogation using "tough" techniques prohibited by the revised Army field manual-and by Geneva, for that matter. Gen. Kimmons displayed uncommon courage in facing into that wind.

How About- Stop Torture Because It's Wrong?

Have you noticed the shameful silence of our institutional churches, synagogues, and mosques? True, on occasion a professor of moral theology will speak out. Professor William Schweiker of the Chicago Divinity School, for example, has heaped scorn on the scenario of the lone knower of the facts whose torture is thought to be able to save millions of lives. He notes that such is "the stuff of bad spy movies and bad exam questions in ethics courses." Schweiker warns Christians, in particular:

"Not to fall prey to fear and questionable reasoning and this continue to support an unjust and vile practice that demeans the nation's highest political and moral ideals, even as it desecrates one of the most important practices and symbols (Baptism) of the Christian faith."

And, to its credit, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a coalition of 130 religious organizations from left to right on the political spectrum, yesterday issued a strong call for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the C.I.A.'s destruction of the videotapes of harsh interrogation techniques. NRCAT's founder, Princeton Theological Seminary professor George Hunsinger told the press that "to acknowledge that waterboarding is torture is like conceding that the sun rises in the east," adding:

"All the dissembling in high places that makes these shocking abuses possible must be brought to an end. But they will undoubtedly continue unless those responsible for them are held accountable. Clearly a joint probe by the Justice Department and the CIA -- agencies that are both seriously compromised -- is not enough. A special counsel is an essential first step."

But where are the official voices of the institutional churches, synagogues, and mosques in this country. In effect, they are ordaining Jack Bauer with their silence.

This Happened Before

With very few exceptions, the institutional churches in Nazi Germany kept a shameful silence, denying believers the moral authority and leadership so needed to stand up to Gestapo torturers. Indeed, many of the bishops-like military leaders, and jurists-swore a personal oath to Hitler. For his part, the Nazi leader moved quite quickly to ensure that there was a pastor-whether Evangelical or Catholic-in every parish in Germany. He saw this as a source of support and stability for his regime. And, sadly, it was.

While the Nazis were systematically torturing and even murdering defenseless victims, they kept repeating assurances that not a single hair of anyone's head would be harmed. (Shades of the familiar refrain "we do not torture.") And the propaganda machine under Joseph Goebbels made a fine art of what President Bush calls the need to "catapult the propaganda."

Sebastian Haffner, a young German lawyer in Berlin during the thirties kept a journal that his children subsequently published in book form as "Defying Hitler." His fascinating account of Germany in the thirties provides many thoughtful insights into prevailing attitudes and the lack of moral leadership. Haffner's journal depicted the kind of ambiance in which the approach of the Grand Inquisitor would, and did, flourish -"in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet [and] become obedient:"

"The weather in March 1933 was glorious. Was it not wonderful to...merge with festive crowds and listen to speeches about freedom and homeland? (It was certainly better than having one's belly pumped up with a water hose in some hidden secret police cellar.)"

Breeding and Breakdown

Haffner closes his chapter on 1933 with observations that, in my view, apply much too aptly to America today:

"The sequence of events is, as you see, not so unnatural. It is wholly within the normal range of psychology, and it helps to explain the almost inexplicable. The only thing that is missing is what in animals is called 'breeding.' This is a solid inner kernel that cannot be shaken by external pressures and forces, something noble and steely, a reserve of pride, principle, and dignity to be drawn on in the hour of trial. It is missing in Germans. As a nation we are soft, unreliable, and without backbone. That was shown in March 1933. At the moment of truth, when other nations rise spontaneously to the occasion, the Germans collectively and limply collapsed. They yielded and capitulated, and suffered a nervous breakdown."

C.I.A.'s John Kiriakou says he is now convinced that waterboarding is torture and he is against it. He adds, "Americans are better than that."

But Are We Better Than That?

Sadly, that remains to be seen. With virtually all religious institutions, politicians, and educators all squandering what moral authority they have left, the Jack Bauer culture threatens to win out in the end. We cannot let that happen.

The upcoming duel on the missing interrogation tapes will again bring the issue of torture front and center. And, strangely, waterboarding and other Jack Bauer tradecraft tools still enjoy a strong constituency.

Here's where we come in; for we are the ones we've been waiting for. As one of my intelligence alumni colleagues noted recently, this is about our country losing its soul. Let's rise to the occasion and stop unconscionable policies like torture. True patriotism goes well beyond a flag-on-the-lapel. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, "Sometimes you have to put your body into it." Besides, we need to keep the water hose from pumping up our bellies and those of our loved ones. I only wish that were as remote a possibility as it was before President Bush and his associates came up with their "alternative set of procedures."

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He was an Army officer and then a C.I.A. analyst for 27 years, and now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

This article appeared first on

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.