The United States does not engage in torture. So, at least, President Bush tells us, with great feeling and palpable indignation.
Two years ago, as Congress was crafting a new law to ban the torture of terrorism suspects, Vice President Cheney persuaded lawmakers to open a loophole for the CIA, which has reportedly overseen the interrogation of several "high value" terrorism suspects.
As a result, interrogation techniques such as "waterboarding" (in which a detainee is subjected to simulated drowning) are illegal if used by, for instance, the Army. But Congress gave the president the power to define "torture" with respect to the CIA.
This is what Bush said in 2005, even as Cheney was doing his back-room arm-twisting on Capitol Hill. "We are trying to disrupt (terrorists') plots and plans," Bush said. "Anything we do ... to that end in this effort, any activity we conduct, is within the law. We do not torture."
Former CIA Director George Tenet, interviewed by "60 Minutes" this year, echoed his former boss: "You know, the image that's been portrayed is we sat around the campfire and said, 'Oh, boy, now we go get to torture people.' We don't torture people. Let me say that again to you, we don't torture people. OK?"
This is, of course, the same George Tenet who famously told Bush that the evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk."
In the last week, Americans learned that the CIA had videotaped the "severe interrogation techniques" of at least two al-Qaida operatives. The tapes were made in 2002 and destroyed three years later as Congress sniffed for clues about the CIA's secret prisons, detentions and interrogation techniques.
The New York Times reported that the tapes were destroyed "in part because officers were concerned that video showing harsh interrogation methods could expose agency officials to legal risks."
Notably, the CIA kept the tapes secret from many who explicitly and formally asked for any such tapes - the Sept. 11 commission, a federal court, congressional overseers.
This week, a former CIA agent who participated in the capture and interrogation of the first al-Qaida suspect to be waterboarded recounted his experiences with The Washington Post. John Kiriakou, a former CIA interrogator in Pakistan, said that the interrogation of Zayn Abidin Muhammed Hussein abu Zubaida was captured on videotape.
Kiriakou said the waterboarding of abu Zubaida was like "flipping a switch," prompting the suspect to divulge information about his cohorts and their plans. That information "probably saved lives," Kiriakou said.
Kiriakou offered no support for the claim, and there is good evidence that abu Zubaida was a minor player who started talking to make the "harsh interrogations" stop. The former CIA agent said he now believes waterboarding is, in fact, torture. He added, "Americans are better than that."
That's the hope. But that standard is hard to uphold when the nation's leaders undercut it. Kiriakou noted that individual agents don't make "willy nilly" decisions about how far to push the envelope. "This was a policy made at the White House, with concurrence from the National Security Council and the Justice Department."
The White House is characteristically mum on CIA tape news. By speaking out, meanwhile, Kiriakou showed candor and courage. By repudiating torture, he evinced genuine respect for America's core values. If only the president showed similar virtue.
Clint Talbott, for the Daily Camera editorial board
© 2007 Daily Camera and Boulder Publishing, LLC.