Confirmed: Torture Is Still Wrong

It should never have come to this.

Source: JTB Photo/UIG via Getty Images

The primary public service of the Senate summary report about the CIA's rendition and interrogation program is that it takes an abstract moral principle and, in 499 gruesomely detailed pages, gives it substance. Which is to say: Torture is wrong, and here is how and why.

The full report from the Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee -- six years, $40 million and 6,700 pages in the making -- represents something of a victory. It should place a (heavily redacted) history of the Central Intelligence Agency's detention program on the record. And its grim litany of abuses should remind future generations that, even in times of great peril and anxiety like the years following Sept. 11, torture is a debased and brutalizing undertaking. If nothing else, the report should deter interrogators of the future from ever resorting to such measures.

The committee looked at a CIA program in which 119 suspects were held at secret prisons around the world. They were subjected to treatment that in some cases amounted to torture and conditions that reminded one agent of a dog kennel. Detainees were beaten, stuffed in boxes, deprived of sleep until they hallucinated, and waterboarded until they vomited and convulsed. Some were forced into stress positions even though they had broken bones. Officers threatened to harm the child of one detainee and sexually abuse another's mother. Other prisoners were subjected to "rectal feeding." The conditions led some detainees to self-mutilation.

To the question of whether it all worked -- whether the program yielded crucial information that helped prevent future attacks -- the committee gives an unequivocal answer: "The use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation."

The CIA disputes this, asserting that some of the prisoners who were tortured did at times give up useful intelligence. And it says that the question of whether that intelligence could have been gathered through other means "is, and will remain, unknowable." For a program that soiled the nation's reputation, infuriated allies and enemies alike, and endangered American troops around the world, one would hope for a more convincing justification.

At any rate, the morality of torture doesn't turn on its efficacy. The depravity of what took place in the CIA's "black sites" is now evident to the world. No one comes off well: not the CIA, which undertook far harsher methods than previously disclosed and then misled its overseers about it; not the White House under George W. Bush, which sanctioned the whole ugly business and provided its tenuous legal rationale; and not Congress, some of whose members were once among the most enthusiastic supporters of the program.

The men and women who ordered or conducted torture may never have to face a verdict in a court of law. But history will render its own verdict, and it won't be kind.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.