Officials Change Tune on Torture

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Many officials who condoned the torture of terrorist suspects immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are now changing their minds, as the threat of another attack becomes less likely.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The treatment of suspected terrorists was at issue at a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, and NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr has been thinking about that.

DANIEL SCHORR: Some record for witness amnesia may have been set this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee. William Hanes II, former general counsel to the Defense Department, was being examined by Chairman Carl Levin about his involvement in authorizing waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other harsh methods of interrogation of terrorist suspects. Don't specifically remember. Don't know precisely. My memory is not perfect. Over and over, Hanes proclaimed a memory loss about harsh treatment of suspects on which he was advised by the CIA.

There is other evidence about brutal treatment of detainees. The Physicians for Human Rights organization is out with a report that examination of 11 former detainees in U.S. military jails reveals scars and other injuries consistent with their accounts of beatings, electric shocks and other forms of abuse. There is little evidence that harsh interrogation techniques produced much actionable intelligence. It is now known that the dragnet swept up thousands of innocent people, some of them for bounties that the United States was paying.

How could officials in a democratic society turn themselves into a harsh inquisition? One has to go back to the temper of the times after the 9/11 assault. Hanes alluded briefly in his testimony to the fear of another assault in our country. Former CIA agent John Kiriakou, who told this program about waterboarding a key al-Qaida suspect, said he believed that desperate times called for desperate measures.

I imagine that if Hanes suddenly recovered his memory, he might say something like this: You have to understand the panic and rage that seized the White House after 9/11. Geneva Convention's human rights went out the window in a panicked effort to foil a second attack, which we all thought was coming. I don't expect to hear those words from Hanes or the others who were involved in condoning torture. Confession may be good for the soul, but it doesn't come easily to officials who allow themselves to become complicit in massive brutality.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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