It would be hard to measure the potential divisiveness of one of those full-blown, razzamatazz, in living color, months long Congressional inquiries into the past torture of terrorist suspects. Not only is it doubtful that such an exercise would produce new revelations, it also would put politics above the national welfare — something the leadership of the current majority seems anxious to accomplish no matter the cost.
At the same time a decision by the Justice Department to prosecute Bush Administration lawyers whose legal opinions supported the activity would be equally as harmful, inhibiting future counsels.
Hopefully recent polls that show Americans are nearly evenly split on whether the recent memorandums outlining the techniques used on major terrorist figures should have been released will cool down the ardor of some Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, despite the fact two-thirds of Democrats polled are for an inquiry. Republicans and Independents bring the numbers into balance.
The torture question has been before the public almost since the first weeks following the Sept, 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when national sentiment was heavily weighted in favor of doing what ever was necessary to prevent another such disaster. That such measures as waterboarding were used in the early years of the so-called "war on terror" has been no secret since disclosure of legal opinions justifying that and other techniques.
Confusing the situation has been the issue of whether torture is effective, whether it often encourages false information as a means of escaping the ordeal. Some of those who used the procedures contend they produced crucial details that helped head off planned operations by al Qaeda. Others involved have not been so sure. The debate on that question can be expected to continue without resolution.
President Barack Obama released the memos of CIA interrogations after a sharp debate in the White House. At that time he said there would be no government pursuit of the agents and technicians who employed them, but he has refused to make clear whether that applies to the former government lawyers, saying that will be up to the U.S. Attorney General.
But an ill advised, blood letting on either front would serve no other purpose than to harden party lines to the point it would be difficult for him to get anything accomplished. Furthermore, it would give support to those who claim his often-repeated pledge to seek bipartisan accommodation was merely campaign rhetoric.
There of course is another serious reason not to pursue this matter in Congress. It would do enormous damage to the morale of the nation’s intelligence operatives many who thought they were operating within legal boundaries. Even more disconcerting is the thought that agents would be so intimidated in the future they would necessarily hesitate in any situation no matter how dire. That is not a statement in defense of torture, but merely recognition of a realistic prospect in an increasingly dangerous world of nuclear proliferation.
The primary object of torture was Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a key al Qaeda figure who when asked under normal interrogation whether there were other operations planned, replied merely "You will see." It is legitimate to inquire if questioners, aware that a dirty bomb attack was being prepared but without confirmation of place or time, should merely let it go at such a response because they are absolutely prohibited from going further in the process?
Without a doubt this is a country that for the main has tried to take the high ground in these matters. Military officials constantly worry, as they should, that severe interrogation methods would result in the same treatment of captured American soldiers. Unfortunately, some of our enemies haven’t been as diligent in their adherence to international bans on torture. Ask Sen. John McCain.
Congress likes to operate out of context, to look backward and assign blame; to forget the emotions and conditions in which these things took place. Americans were afraid after 9-11 and their leaders were desperate to keep it from happening again. They made some mistakes. It does us all no good to recriminate — just to be aware.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)