Americans are practical people, which is why they tend to pay heed when Dick Cheney says the harsh methods used by the CIA on suspected terrorists were not merely efficacious but indispensable. The intelligence derived from these interrogations, he assures us, "saved lives and prevented terrorist attacks."
Did they really? The report released Monday, done by the CIA's inspector general back in 2004, didn't support Cheney's claim. It said "there is no doubt" that the detention and questioning of detainees "has been effective."
But the report reached no judgment on "enhanced interrogation techniques," saying, "The effectiveness of particular interrogation techniques in eliciting information that might not otherwise have been obtained cannot be so easily measured."
Most conservatives, however, don't want to hear any naysaying. They have lined up in vociferous defense of the Bush administration and every tool it adopted in the war on terrorism. And they are up in arms over Atty. Gen. Eric Holder's decision to open a preliminary inquiry into whether laws were broken by the CIA.
In this, they have two basic lines of argument. The first is to mock the idea that anything done by the agency amounted to torture. A Wall Street Journal editorial said, "Millions of Americans will be shocked to learn that these unshocking details are all that the uproar over 'torture' is about." In the New York Post, Ralph Peters groused that the CIA was being castigated for "rudeness to mass murderers."
But there is really no doubt that the agency engaged in severe cruelty. No less an authority than last year's Republican presidential nominee regards waterboarding as torture. The IG's report noted that though the method was permitted under specified conditions, the interrogators overstepped those limits.
It was not the only brutal practice. The report says a CIA officer choked a prisoner till he was nearly unconscious -- then revived him so he could be choked some more. It says an interrogator revved a power drill to frighten a naked, hooded prisoner. CIA personnel reportedly lifted one detainee up by his arms, which were tied behind his back, causing one employee to fear his shoulders would be dislocated.
The agency's guidelines, we learn, authorize interrogators to slam a prisoner up against the wall "20 or 30 times consecutively." They may force captives to stay awake for as long as 180 hours -- seven and a half days. They may force them to stand or kneel in painful positions for long periods.