What Cheney’s Refusal to Confront ‘Wrongfully Detained’ Prisoners Tells Us About the Torture Program

Among the most vitriolic of the responses to Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s use of torture under the Bush administration has been that the techniques were justified by virtue of the fact that they were performed on those who would do much worse to us. Sometimes this was communicated with a simple “they”:

That line of reasoning was undone the by the Senate’s report itself, which found among other damning conclusions that slightly more than 20% of those tortured under the program were, in the CIA’s own words, “wrongfully detained.” The New York Times details:

Among those that the report found to have been wrongfully imprisoned were some whose cases had already drawn public attention. Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen, was mistaken for someone with the same name, grabbed in Macedonia and flown to Afghanistan, where he spent four months in the C.I.A. jail known as the Salt Pit. Laid Saidi, an Algerian, identified in the Senate report as Abu Hudhaifa, was held in Afghanistan for 16 months, and his case became the subject of a New York Times article in 2006 after Mr. Masri called it to public attention.

[…] Among the others mistakenly held for periods of months or years, according to the report, were an “intellectually challenged” man held by the C.I.A. solely to pressure a family member to provide information; two people who were former C.I.A. informants; and two brothers who were falsely linked to Al Qaeda by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the 9/11 planner, who “fabricated” the information after being waterboarded 183 times.

Pay note to that last sentence. The two brothers wrongfully held were apprehended based on false intelligence compelled by the torture program itself. (The Senate report’s overall conclusion was that torture is an ineffective means of procuring actionable intelligence from detainees for precisely this reason.) The CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques thus became a self-fulfilling prophecy, torturing detainees under the justification that they were terrorists, which led to the arrests of more detainees, who then became terrorists by dint of being detained. This is literally Catch 22 logic, as in there’s literally a scene like this in Catch 22.

If the architects and implementers of the torture program have even the slightest problem with this, they didn’t show it Sunday morning. When questioned about the wrongfully detained by Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd, former Vice President Dick Cheney shrugged off the twenty-six.

“The problem I have is with all the folks that we did release that ended up back on the battlefield,” Cheney said. “I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and released than I am with the few of them who were innocent.”

“You’re okay with that margin of error?” Todd asked.

“I have no problem as long as we achieved our objective,” Cheney replied.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden was equally obfuscatory on ABC. “What’s your definition of ‘wrongfully detained’?” he asked Martha Raddatz, deploying the same maddening legalese he used to dodge every one of her questions. (It was questionable whether Hayden knew his name this morning.)

The circular logic that terrorists deserve to be tortured because they are terrorists — how they become “they” — falls apart when punctured by the fact that the CIA was unable to determine to any degree of accuracy who was a terrorist in the first place, or notice that their techniques were actually creating more false positives.

But what Cheney and Hayden revealed Sunday through their refusal to confront this breakdown of rationality was that the intelligence gained from the techniques, supposedly the reason U.S. intelligence struck this Faustian bargain in the first place, was never its point. Torture itself was the point. It never mattered who we did it to or why; to torture was to show that the U.S. would do what it takes. It was performative, not instrumental. In this guise, the fact that torture created more people to torture was not a bug; it was a bonus.

Watch Cheney below, if that’s your thing, via NBC News:

[Image via screengrab]

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