This week the political partisanship of Washington – which everyone has spoken about so much in recent years – dealt a devastating blow not only to itself but to the reputation of America.
The Senate Intelligence Committee looking into the actions of the CIA under the last Republican presidency split long before the majority report on the committee’s findings were published earlier this week. Indeed the Republicans on the Committee left when they realised that the Democrat majority had decided in advance that its role was to damn the CIA for its actions during the Presidency of George W Bush. One sign that this was the case was the Committee’s refusal to interview, speak with or otherwise hear the accounts of those people who had headed the Agency during the period in question.
Well this week the report came out. And the world’s press reported not the Minority Committee’s rebuttals, nor the CIA’s detailed refutations, but the charges that over a sustained period in the last decade the CIA had brought a ‘stain’ on the reputation of America.
It is important to remember what is and is not accurate in this. It is true – and has long been known from the memoirs of members of the administration among others – that for a brief period after 9/11 ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were used on the most high-ranking captives among enemy combatants. Water-boarding – the most extreme of these measures – was used on three individuals, including the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. This was subsequently stopped from being used.
Among the permissible techniques this was the most serious. But there are certainly other occasions when individuals within the system stepped beyond the lines of what they should have done. It is for the CIA to investigate and make impossible any repeat of such events. But in all of this there are important lessons to learn.
Firstly to remember that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the aim was to prevent another such attack. That aim was achieved and it is likely – as with similar such historic events – that the public will never know what lengths were gone to to keep them safe. In addition this all took place against the background of a new type of war which politicians and publics in Britain, America and other Western countries seem very reluctant to acknowledge or understand. It is a war against an enemy which does not wear uniform, does not subscribe to the normal laws of war and which uses our own virtues as societies against us.
Damning the CIA is easy. Explaining how you would do things better and keep the American people safe is not. It is therefore striking that this week’s report carried not one recommendation. It was all simply condemnation, condemnation, condemnation. A more worthy action of a Senate committee would have been to acknowledge the problems we all face – and which our security services are on the cutting edge of – and then work out what went wrong, what went right and create a system to ensure the best is kept and the worst consigned to history. Instead the Senate has this week simply delivered the most terrific blow to the reputation of the USA throughout the world. There are ways for countries to release information about their flaws. And then there are partisan political petrol bombs. This week’s report was the latter. And it will take years to put out its flames.