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Investigating torture: Should CIA agents take the blame?

Attorney General Eric Holder announced an investigation into whether 10 CIA agents went beyond Bush administration guidelines for “harsh interrogation;” White House officials will not be scrutinized.

“No matter which way he turns, President Obama just can’t seem to shake the legacy of George W. Bush’s presidency,” said Dan Balz in The Washington Post. Obama is now taking fire from both liberals and conservatives after Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week an investigation into whether the CIA broke the law by brutalizing suspected terrorists. The very narrow investigation will determine only if about 10 CIA agents went beyond Bush administration guidelines for “harsh interrogation.” To the dismay of the Left, the White House officials who authorized a host of “harsh interrogation” methods will not be scrutinized. Conservatives, meanwhile, called Holder’s investigation a partisan “witch hunt.”

The CIA agents in question engaged in some shocking behavior, said Scott Shane in The New York Times. According to newly released internal CIA documents, one prisoner was “lifted off the ground by his arms, which were tied behind his back.” Another was repeatedly knocked unconscious when an interrogator wrapped his hands around his carotid artery. Detainees were told that if they didn’t talk, their children and mothers would be dragged in, and killed or tortured; one witnessed a mock execution, complete with a gunshot and a blood-covered body. All that came on top of White House–authorized tactics of waterboarding, dousing with freezing water, and weeks of sleep deprivation.

These tactics aren’t pretty—but they worked, said Rich Lowry in National Review Online. The CIA’s internal report says detainees subjected to these methods, including top al Qaida operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, revealed plots to attack our consulate in Karachi, Pakistan; “fly hijacked aircraft into Heathrow Airport” in London; and destroy bridges, trains, and gas stations in the U.S. Six al Qaida operatives assigned to terror missions in the U.S. were identified and arrested. “For all their thundering about the criminal immorality of coercive interrogations, opponents never dare admit they could have elicited important, perhaps lifesaving, information.”

First of all, we still do not know what information torture produced, said Glenn Greenwald in Salon.com. Let us not forget that the newly released CIA report is based solely on “claims of CIA officials themselves”—who have an obvious vested interest in justifying what they did. More important, “torture is a felony and a war crime,” so debating whether it “worked” is an obscenity. If the U.S. is to embrace torture, then we should do so fully and honestly by announcing that we now stand alone in the civilized world in believing that “torture is justifiable and just.” Holder’s decision to investigate only a few CIA agents is another obscenity, said Dahlia Lithwick in Slate.com. What about the White House officials and lawyers who authorized and closely supervised these barbaric interrogations?

In the end, Holder’s investigation will produce nothing of value, said Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times. What jury would convict CIA agents for threatening al Qaida terrorists? If, on the other hand, Holder dragged George W. Bush and Dick Cheney into court for criminal prosecution, the result would be “a divisive political disaster” that would overshadow every other issue. Still, the blot that torture has left on this country’s honor and reputation must be addressed. The best way to do that is to create a bipartisan commission to thoroughly investigate what we did to detainees during the Bush years. “And then we need to move on, resolved never to repeat such reprehensible conduct.”

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