Vladimir Pozner, whom you might remember as a perspicuous commentator on the Soviet Union during the Sochi Olympics, was famous in America in the 1980s for being an articulate defender of the U.S.S.R. He was able to argue his points in the American style of competitive political debate, which is to say: he knew how to talk in sound bites that resonated.
Posner is very smart, and he used one technique over and over, particularly when confronted with a particular horror that the Soviet Union was accused of. He would invariably respond that Americans have no moral authority to judge the Soviet Union because, well, whatever the misdeed in question, the U.S. did it too.
Soviet authoritarianism? Well, the U.S. never criticizes China, which has a much worse record, and always focuses on the Soviets. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? Not any different than America's subjugation of Vietnam. Political prisoners? America's prison system is no model for the world. Civil rights? What about the horror of America's inner cities?
Tu Quoque is the word rhetoricians apply to this kind of argument. It is a fallacy, of course; simply because both sides might do something or engage in a behavior that draws analogies does not mean that the criticism itself is invalid. But we fall for this all the time. It's a staple of political discourse. To Quoque arguments are a subtle variant of the ad hominem fallacy; they undermine the moral authority of the person making the critique by associating him or her with the very behavior that he is condemning.
Those tortured by the Central Intelligence Agency were most harmed by the torture. Obviously. Our sense of superiority, of humanism, of being special in the world, has also been degraded by the knowledge that people were tortured in the name of protecting us. But the most dangerous consequence of the CIA's torture escapades is the gift they have given to countries that are either inclined to treat their citizens the same way or have been casting about for a way to justify to an internal political audience that American initiatives that might actually be freeing, liberating and worthwhile are not worth pursuing. Because, you know, America did it too.
The real harm is not that the scandal gives people a good excuse to make life difficult for Americans, it's that it gives them a bad excuse that is so much more emotionally powerful.
A country doesn't cooperate with war crimes tribunals? Well, America never brought to trial the people who tortured its detainees.
A country uses American money to detain and harass people on the basis of politics. Well, America threw innocents into a black hole prison and tortured people.
Good countries with good motives, or mixed motives, will incorporate the fact the American tortured prisoners into the larger scheme of foreign relations. Less friendly actors will seize on anything to get out of doing what's right.
Thanks for that, CIA.