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What the CIA's torture apologists could learn from the Catholic Church

A mighty institution did some horrible things. Langley might want to look to Rome for advice.

There are some acts so horrible and morally revolting that we assign them special little rooms in the halls of the damned: Genocide, terrorism (the real kind, like blowing up civilian airliners and crashing planes into skyscrapers), torture, and sexually abusing children, to name a few.

Thanks to some intrepid reporting in the mid-2000s, we already knew that the Central Intelligence Agency tortured people in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with at least the blessing of the Bush administration. Now, after Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, released a lengthy report this week on those CIA actions, we know some of the gruesome details of those "enhanced" interrogation methods used at secret "black site" dungeons outside the U.S. and outside the view of the law. They aren't pretty.

The CIA and former Bush officials delayed, obstructed, and fought against the release of the report. Now that it's out, they've launched a full-bore offensive to discredit it. They are calling it a partisan witch hunt. They are accusing Senate staffers of cherry-picking details (while not denying the veracity of those details), comparing that to cheating on a crossword puzzle. They argue (unconvincingly) that the torture saved American lives.

Some people, even a good number, will accept the CIA's side of the story. For now. The CIA torture report has effectively been politicized, and that's a shame. Torture shouldn't be a partisan issue. And the CIA shouldn't ask people to take its side.

Langley would be well-advised to look toward the Catholic Church.

Ask any Catholic how awful it felt in 2002 to read in the pages of The Boston Globe about Fr. John Geoghan and other priests who serially abused young boys in the Boston Archdiocese. Then there was the sinking feeling when reports started coming in from across the country about priests who abused young people, sometimes after being quietly transferred to another parish or diocese following an ineffective treatment program. It didn't help when it turned out this wasn't just an American problem.

There's no way to whitewash it: Purported servants of God sexually molested thousands of innocent children over five decades, and their superiors tried to cover it up. For some Catholics, that was slow to sink in.

After all, there had been reported cases of priest sexual abuse before. It was just a small number of bad apples, when the huge majority of priests did so much good. Almost all the alleged abuse cases were old news, by a decade or more. Every organization that works with children has some number of child predators. Closing down churches to pay for sex abuse settlements will only hurt innocent people. The Catholic Church and its clerics serve the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked — why the sudden pariah treatment?

All those things are true. And they were and are beside the point. After a year or so of downplaying the abuse scandal, the Catholic Church took action. Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law was out and a new, unsullied Capuchin monk was brought in to clean house and restore trust at Ground Zero of the scandal. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops brought in a high-ranking FBI official to help create and lead a new unit to protect children, hired independent legal researchers to figure out the scope of the problem, and the U.S. church came up with new guidelines for dealing with sexual abuse allegations.

Priests, bishops, and cardinals prostrated themselves, met with abuse victims, and apologized. Dioceses across the U.S. reached big settlements with abuse victims, forcing a handful diocese into bankruptcy. It was painful, humiliating, costly— and necessary. It probably wasn't enough. The Catholic Church, in the U.S. and outside, is still working to restore trust.

Needless to say, the CIA and the Catholic Church are very different organizations with very different goals and reasons to exist. The church strives to help shine God's light in the world; the CIA was created to do America's dirty work in the shadows. Religion holds itself up as a force of moral good; the CIA is conspicuously amoral.

But that doesn't excuse what the CIA did. And while the CIA may not feel any particular need to build trust with the American public, its use of torture reflects badly on America, and the United States does have a strong incentive to try to regain some lost moral high ground. America generally views itself as a force for good, a city upon a hill. It's kind of our thing. And in real life, the good guys don't torture people.

I understand the vociferous pushback. The Senate report largely exonerates former President George W. Bush (though Slate's Fred Kaplan explains why you should take that with a huge clandestine grain of salt), but this affects his legacy. And the CIA has an even stronger incentive to try and bury the report: Torturing people looks bad, but torturing innocent people and lying about the importance of the intelligence you gained looks even worse. Also, torture is illegal under international and U.S. law.

But the cat's out of the bag. And it climbed out using the CIA's own documentation. The report isn't going away, and I think that as soon as the partisan hue fades away and 9/11 gets further in the rearview mirror, the CIA's actions — sanctioned and unsanctioned — will be widely viewed as a really ugly stain on America's ledger sheet.

Yes, CIA agents put their lives on the line to further America's interests, and most of its employees are likely good, upstanding people (at least within the parameters of clandestine intelligence services). Only a small number of bad apples tortured people. Other intelligence services do equally despicable things, maybe worse. The U.S. hasn't allowed "enhanced interrogation techniques" for years.

All those things are true. And they're beside the point.

This probably isn't the worst thing the CIA has done, but America reckoned with many of the agency's past sins in the 1970s. The CIA didn't like the aftermath of the Church Committee hearings very much, but if it doesn't own up to its mistakes, put rules in place to make sure it doesn't torture again, and stop treating its critics as unpatriotic liars, it may be time for some externally imposed changes.

It's time for the CIA to get some religion.

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