Senate Torture Report: A 2016 Strategic Blunder?

Senator Dianne FeinsteinIn no way whatsoever do I accept torture as a means of controlling people, getting information, or seeking revenge.  It makes me sick, frankly, to imagine that for whatever the purpose, there are people who can mistreat another human being in such a manner and still go home to his dinner.  And I don’t consider any of the “hands off” people who give the orders — tacit or otherwise — and condone that abuse free from direct responsibility either.  Torture is a crime and it must be dealt with.

Saying that, however, I don’t find myself in agreement with those who wanted to release the Senate Intelligence Committee report that exposes and details this abuse at length.  I don’t believe the move is necessary.  Only the most naive among us would need to see this report to understand that our government and its agents participated in the horrible crime of torture.  The world knows it and the world knows who is guilty.

Committee Chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and her supports — mostly Democrats and mostly outside military and diplomatic roles — thought it important to come clean and profess our sins.  However, given that I believe the report superfluous in the first place, I tend to agree with the critics of that decision and believe it likely will do more harm than good, perhaps inflicting more pain, death, and destruction in already strained parts of the world.  I also believe this decision might put our diplomatic work and national security at risk.  I am not saying anything new or original here.  Many people are complaining loudly about these very points.  These are serious life and death issues.  So is it insensitive then to ask a simple, pragmatic political question?

Why, pray tell, would a Democratic senator push this through given the controversy and anger it surely will stir?  Let me put it more bluntly:  Did Senator Feinstein act in the best interest of her party?

I believe this decision will become scandal.  It will be the new Obamacare.  In that way the answer to my question is no, it is not a decision that serves the interests of the Democratic Party.

Democrats took a hit just a few short weeks ago, but there was nothing decisive about it, it was not a knock-out blow.  There is another election two short years away.  A big election.  The economy and the polls are turning around.  Democrats are on the right side of the issues just as complaints about false tragedies like the Affordable Care Act are losing their punch.  Democrats — indeed, President Barack Obama — have done much good despite the collective efforts of Republicans to prevent any accomplishment at all.

Republicans don’t have much to run on.  Selling the idea of change when times are good isn’t always an easy pitch to make.  But Republicans see politics this way:  They win, we lose.  It is that simple.  And now Democrats have given Republicans a fresh controversy that they can turn into all sorts of problems for future campaigns.  Expect to see everything from inexperience and weakness to treason and lawlessness to converge around the decision to release the committee’s report.  Rather than focus on Democrat success, Republicans now have an issue they can turn into dominate political discourse.  Haven’t we seen this before?  Certainly we have, and from much, much smaller issues.  (Was the president chewing gum when he saluted the military?)

Should anything tragic happen that could be “blamed” on the release of this report,  this decision then becomes a gift, an early Christmas present to Republicans.


5 thoughts on “Senate Torture Report: A 2016 Strategic Blunder?

  1. DK Fennell

    It seems to me that the Democrats have been suffering for some time now, precisely because they filter every decision through the lens of the next election cycle. It’s why there is a general perception, among progressives and those who otherwise ought to be the most easily motivated to help and vote that the party simply doesn’t stand for anything anymore, other than Bill Clinton (2nd term)-style triangulation. The drubbing in the Senate races, I believe, was largely due to the decision to not hold any votes so that no vulnerable Democrat would have to take a stand. When you are a party that doesn’t take a stand because you are afraid what your opponents will do with it, then you really don’t stand for anything. So, making a public policy decision, based on partisan electoral concerns, to me, is always a bad decision. Democrats should stand for what is good for the country, not what is good for the perceived short term interest of the party.
    As for the release of the report purely on public policy ground, I think there is no question the right thing to do. The more transparency, the better.Yes we knew there was torture. But revulsion to torture only takes place when we look at it square in the face. Frankly, we should have gone father and brought criminal proceedings. But short of that, it has always been the “patriotic” (to use a quaint concept) thing to do when we have seen atrocities taken place to shine a light on them in the hope that studying them will make a repetition less likely. It has always been those who want to sweep atrocities under the carpet, who are the ones who makes excuses and come up with justifications. Those people make atrocities more likely in the future.
    When the U.S. was in the midst of a civil war that was consuming all of national attention, there occured an atrocity in Colorado–the Sand Creek Massacre. It would have been easy enough to sweep the matter under the carpet. After all, Congress was trying to manage both Sherman’s offensive in the deep South and Grants very costly fight in Virginia. But instead of hiding it, Congress immediately convened a joint committee to take testimony of what took place. That testimony, part of the Congressional Record, is the chief source of historical evidence on what took place. Historical memory is important to a democracy. When we decide that historical truth should be hidden for partisan reasons, we have elevated party over country. Isn’t that the main objection we have of the GOP these days?

    1. Shane Schmidt Post author

      Thank you for your note. I don’t disagree with you, but I still tend to disagree. I don’t condone committing crimes for political advantage, for example, and perhaps withholding information about a crime is being complicit with it. However, on balance, it feels like the risks might outweigh the good and I take this position because I believe the report is unnecessary. We already know crimes were committed. Moreover, because many Republicans protested, we know the report would be damning. John McCain could have made this strong speech without the report.

      So my comment is more one that says Democrats are potentially making a blunder on top of a sin. Certainly Republicans will use this report as a way to attack Democrats and Democrats are horrible at controlling public discourse. While it was the Bush administration’s policies that committed the crimes, Democrats could get pinned with the damage, especially if anything bad happens that might be blamed on the report release. We gave the GOP another Benghazi potentially.

    2. Shane Schmidt Post author

      I will add this though…seeing all the press and related discussion condemning the torture in this morning’s papers might prove me wrong. There is a lot of anger out there. There also seems to be a lot of soul searching and candid, smart talk. I hope this is a sign that I am indeed wrong.

      1. DK Fennell

        I was going to raise a similar point. (But then a series of phone calls intervened.)

        From what I’ve heard (but I can only listen to right wing trolls up to a point, then I need a break) the GOP has no real coherent story against this. Granted, the party of Benghazi doesn’t usually need a coherent story to start frothing at the mouth. But here it’s hard to say what they are complaining about except that it’s a supposed political stunt.

        I think the fact of their blustering is a sign that the release was a good idea. It is one thing to acknowledge that torture took place. (Much like RMR’s “mistakes were made.”) And quite another to hear the details of them. The “rectal feeding” is just something that normal Americans will not accept as anything other than what it was–sociopathic behavior. Moreover, the conclusion that no actionable intelligence was ganed is an important contribution to the public debate and seems to be at tleast a plausible rebuttable presumption. If there was intelligence gained, what was it? It’s going to be hard for Dick Cheney now to say that lives were saved but he can’t say how, given that the details of the crimes were spelled out.

        The reason why I brought up Sand Creek was that it was one thing to say American troops fell on a friendly tribe of Indians. It is quite another thing to hear how soldiers got off their horse to take aim against individual infants running around or how genitals were mutilated. It is the details that generate the revulsion and it is the revulsion that will go towards making this less likely in the future. Of course the prosecution that signatories to the Convention on Torture are required to conduct would be the better course (and the details would come out there too). But this Administration doesn’t like to prosecute people acting under color of authority: only the people who bring their crimes to light.

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