As we await the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Bush-Cheney torture program, some of those likely to go down in history as war criminals are gearing up for a self-defense. George Tenet, we are told, is among them. Here is how he once defended himself:
Mr. Tenet flashed his anger at these accusations in 2007, when he was asked about the interrogation program during an interview with the CBS program “60 Minutes.” Wagging a finger at the correspondent, Scott Pelley, Mr. Tenet said over and over, “We don’t torture people.”
“No, listen to me. No, listen to me. I want you to listen to me,” he went on. “Everybody forgets one central context of what we lived through: The palpable fear that we felt on the basis of that fact that there was so much we did not know. I know that this program has saved lives. I know we’ve disrupted plots.”
There are two defenses here: it wasn’t torture (even though it looks like it); and it was justified given the terrible intelligence failures of Tenet’s CIA operatives, who had no idea where the next attack might be coming from. It’s worth recalling in that context the actual words of the UN Convention Against Torture, which was signed by Ronald Reagan and torn to shreds by Dick Cheney. It guts both lines of Tenet’s purported defense. First up, there can be no attempt to craft techniques that are close to torture but designed to slip through a legal loophole. The Treaty’s full title is, for example, “Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment“. The definition of torture is this:
any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
Intimidation and coercion are also expressly forbidden, when implemented and authorized by an officer of state. President Reagan included the broad definition in his signing statement:
The United States participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of the Convention. It marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.
In other words, the entire point of the Convention is to prevent any wriggle room around what torture is and to include inhumanity. And if you don’t believe that stretching people till their limbs break, near-drowning them hundreds of times, hounding them day and night with sleep deprivation, or subjecting them to freezing temperatures, mock executions and amount to inhumanity, you are no longer human. In a court of law, Tenet would be out of luck.
Just as important, the context is irrelevant. Tenet’s plea to understand the context he was working in has no place here:
No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
Get that? Read it again.