The CIA Inspector General’s report on U.S. torture of detainees was released this week (under court order, thanks to a diligent ACLU lawsuit, after five years hidden from public view). The timing dovetails with Attorney General Holder’s decision to launch an investigation of that torture (albeit a tightly constrained one).

The conduct detailed in the report is barbaric and shameful, and the report moreover makes clear that it was of questionable effectiveness in gaining any useful intelligence information. Most of the media coverage has reflected this straightforward reality.

Then there’s Fox News…

Let’s be clear about a few things up front. Torture is illegal. It’s immoral. It doesn’t work. And last but not least, it cedes the moral high ground in a conflict, both demoralizing our side (we’re supposed to be the good guys, aren’t we?) and bolstering the enemy (validating all the worst fears, resentments, and stereotypes about Americans).

The IG report [.pdf] highlights all of this in no uncertain terms. As Glenn Greenwald pointedly sums up, the abuses conducted in our names include

…taking helpless detainees in our custody and (a) threatening to blow their brains out, torture them with drills, rape their mothers, and murder their children; (b) choking them until they pass out; (c) pouring water down their throats to drown them; (d) hanging them by their arms until their shoulders are dislocated; (e) blowing smoke in their face until they vomit; (f) putting them in diapers, dousing them with cold water, and leaving them on a concrete floor to induce hypothermia; and (g) beating them with the butt of a rifle — all things that we have always condemend as “torture” and which our laws explicitly criminalize as felonies.

And that’s all in the parts of this heavily redacted report that were deemed suitable for public view. Moreover, significant numbers of prisoners have died as a direct result of their treatment, including some apparently discussed in the redacted portion of the report, while yet more simply wound up “missing.”

Moreover, the report admits that many of the detainees so treated were imprisoned based on “assessments that were unsupported by credible intelligence.” In other words: they were innocent. There was no evidence they had done anything wrong, much less knew anything important.

Even in the deliberately value-neutral wording of the the über-mainstream AP coverage, the content of the report shocks the conscience:

Seeking information about possible further attacks, interrogators threatened one detainee with a gun and a power drill and tried to frighten another with a mock execution of another prisoner.

…the report by the CIA’s inspector general said they went too far—even beyond what was authorized under Justice Department legal memos that have since been withdrawn and discredited. The report also suggested some questioners knew they were crossing a line.

“Ten years from now we’re going to be sorry we’re doing this (but) it has to be done,” one unidentified CIA officer was quoted as saying, predicting the questioners would someday have to appear in court to answer for such tactics.

The report concluded the CIA used “unauthorized, improvised, inhumane” practices in questioning “high-value” terror suspects.

And yet… despite all of that, here’s how Fox News opened the story on its web site:

Two new documents released by the CIA on enhanced interrogation techniques appear to declare a success efforts to gain intelligence on potential terror attacks, leading opponents of an investigation into CIA interrogators wondering about the Obama administration’s motives.

In the third and fourth paragraphs Fox goes on to quote a public statement released by Dick Cheney, asserting that “The people involved deserve our gratitude. They do not deserve to be the targets of political investigations or prosecutions.” And those who disagree with this are summarily referred to as Cheney’s “opponents,” implicitly supporting Cheney’s own stance that disagreement on this issue is nothing more than a partisan dispute.

Thing is, those who read Cheney’s statement as a claim of vindication are reading it far too superficially. As Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent has described, the IG report and other CIA documents Cheney cites do not actually support the claim that torture produced results. On the contrary,

Cheney’s public account of these documents have conflated the difference between information acquired from detainees, which the documents present, and information acquired from detainees through the enhanced interrogation program, which they don’t.

…and the IG report in particular leaves it

…extraordinarily difficult to distinguish between what approaches worked and what didn’t for the purposes of the report. (Even factoring out moral and legal considerations.)

This is probably why Cheney’s statement itself was worded so excruciatingly carefully, as several commentators have already noted. His statement is a deliberate piece of obfuscation, setting a trap for careless readers. It does not say (and could not, given the evidence) that “enhanced interrogation techniques” actually elicited reliable, accurate, and useful information; instead it says (emph. mine) that “the individuals subjected to Enhanced Interrogation Techniques provided the bulk of intelligence we gained about al Qaeda.” It does not say that these specific practices served any purpose; instead it says in broad-brush terms that “The activities of the CIA in carrying out the policies of the Bush Administration were directly responsible for defeating all efforts by al Qaeda to launch further mass casualty attacks.” Cheney is backing off dramatically from claiming that detainee abuse did any good whatsoever; instead he’s merely stating that detainee abuse was part of a large set of practices some of which were allegedly useful (although we really have no specifics on that either), and asserting that this should provide blanket legal cover for everyone involved.

(All of which should be no surprise, of course. If there were any hard evidence whatsoever that even a single act of torture had prevented even a single specific threat, it would be a top-level talking point for administration apologists, burned unforgettably into all of our brains. The absence of same speaks volumes.)

The establishment meme for dealing with this sort of embarrassing official behavior has become very familiar in recent years:  it involves consistent denial while details are still under cover; then, once they’re finally revealed, insistence that the facts previously denied are “old news.” Obama himself seems to have bought into this unfortunate meme, at least to the extent that he’s consistently backed off from confronting the abuses of the Bush years, choosing to remain “focused on the future.”

That has not, of course, prevented his political opponents from accusing Obama and his DOJ of engaging in partisan political retaliation at every step. It’s simultaneously an act of projection (that’s how Bush/Cheney ran the DOJ, after all); an attempt at diversion, pointing away from their own shared culpability; and sheer political opportunism, seizing a chance to take potshots at the opposing party.

Just consider GOP Rep. Peter King, who has announced that he’s “furious” at the prospect of an investigation:

“It’s bullshit. It’s disgraceful. You wonder which side they’re on,” he said of the attorney general’s move, which he described as a “declaration of war against the CIA, and against common sense.”

…”When Holder was talking about being ‘shocked’ [before the report’s release], I thought they were going to have cutting guys’ fingers off or something — or that they actually used the power drill,” he said.

Pressed on whether interrogators had actually broken the law, King said he didn’t think the Geneva Convention “applies to terrorists,” and that the line between permitted and outlawed interrogation policies in the Bush years was “a distinction without a difference.”

King isn’t some kook on the fringes of the party. He’s the ranking minority member on the Homeland Security committee.

Conservative editorialists are having a field day, too, apparently completely unable to fathom the notion that there were genuine transgressions here deserving of investigation; that the law is based on principles that mean something, and is meant to apply equally to the powerful and the powerless. William Murchison says it’s all “designed to make left-wing hearts palpitate,” because “What other purpose could it possibly serve? Not that of national security or common sense.” Herbert Meyer, never one to skimp on hyperbole, calls it “an attack on the CIA” that neglects the way “we are in the midst of a global war on whose outcome rests the survival of Western civilization.”

The right-wing true-believers buy into this completely, of course. Their sense of shame at injustice seems utterly nonexistent. A sampling of the comments on the above Fox News page is enough to make one blanche:

KSM was, and is, an animal. Perhaps if the CIA actually KILLED his children, there’s some basis for complaint, but THREATS? Come on, people… don’t let your hatred of GWB make you stupid.

This is all being done at the political level. Obama is using threats to prosecute CIA operatives who kept America safe to leverage conservatives to support his health care initative.

You libs got no problem with abortion, and then using that for stem-cell research, but you’ve got a problem with effective interrogation, and then using that to save American lives. Like my moniker says, libs R kooks.

The President, and his trusted men and women had put their lives on the frontline and protected all of us. Harsh interrogations were necessary because at that time, it was the height of terrorisms, and the only way to extract evil terror plans in order to prevent them to happen again. We were all safe because of that interrogations tactics. Therefore, I justify the actions. … Bottom line is the terrorists were not able to continue their evil deeds, and we were safe in America.

There is still Al Qaeda and Taliban alive…both the military and CIA have’nt gone far enough with it yet but there is always hope they will!!!

Cheney is a true American hero, if I lived on the East or West coast I would be packing my bags and move to middle America before the nuke hits

YES I believe they worked. They also need to keep it up, no matter what. Keep this country safe for everyone. It is necessary whether you like it or not. Get used to it. What else do we have? Loud talking, angry looks, a room full of noisy children?? Please be adult about this not a candya s. That’s what were turning into.

(And that’s just from among the ones that are reasonably coherent, not typed in sentence fragments or ALL CAPS. There are a few intelligent opposing views posted too, but they’re far outnumbered. )

Many of the rest of us, meanwhile, seem numbed. Outrage fatigue has set in; it’s as if our capacity to be shocked by official misconduct has simply been overwhelmed.

It’s surreal that we’re even debating this. It’s disorienting that in America there are so many people ready to leap to defend absolutely any act by those in power, no matter how illegal, how revolting or unconscionable. Perhaps it shouldn’t be; such trends have always been around, as Hofstadter wrote 45 years ago, and if anything they’ve grown more overt in recent times. But it leaves one feeling as if there’s no solid ground to stand on, no shared principles to rely on.

What should we as a nation take away from these latest developments, though? What should come next?

The actual Inspector General responsible for the report has weighed in on that. He’s actually upset that more of it wasn’t released, most notably the entire section on Conclusions and Recommendations. He cites “significant areas of concern,” including lack of “management oversight” and the fact that

the Agency needed to answer more definitively the question of whether the particular interrogation techniques used were effective and necessary, or whether such information could be acquired using more traditional methods.

Several FBI and military experts on counterterrorism and interrogation, meanwhile, have come out in support of a “wide-ranging” investigation into abuses, asserting that opposition from conservative lawmakers amounts to “sounding ‘false alarms’ in an effort to keep serious crimes from being exposed.”

Through all of this, Obama’s detached stance, the establishment support of that stance on the grounds that enforcing the law is politically inconvenient (from, e.g., folks like Chuck Todd), the reaction from partisans who see any such enforcement as partisan, all offer eloquent reasons that the U.S. should be a signatory to the International Criminal Court. We clearly need a neutral authority that can investigate and adjudicate war crimes without being entangled in American partisan politics.

That’s a long-term goal, however, and at the moment we’re not so fortunate. Thus, under the circumstances, we can only hope that Holder’s investigation is a step in the right direction. He’s appointed assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham to serve as special prosecutor (Durham is a registered Republican, but not a partisan one), charged to investigate detainee abuse cases the Bush administration swept under the rug.

The investigation is too narrowly drawn at the outset, limited to interrogators whose abuses were not, in Holder’s words, “in good faith and within the scope of legal guidance.” That “legal guidance” that’s implicitly accepted as legitimate includes the very Yoo/Bybee OLC memos released just months ago to widespread disgust, the ones written to provide legal cover for torture, the ones that wiser heads in Bush’s own DOJ later chose to disavow.

The implicit message is that interrogators who tortured only within the bounds of an official “permission slip” are off the hook, as are those who wrote the memos and those who set the actual policy. That’s an unconscionable stance and a dangerous precedent, arguably worse than no investigation at all:  focusing once again only on low-level “bad apples” while immunizing those who broke the law at the highest levels.

On the other hand… Durham is a well-regarded professional prosecutor. The best hope, the most plausible legal path, lies in the fact that the OLC memos and those setting the policy behind them were clearly not operating “in good faith”; they were deliberately seeking to subvert the law. As the WaPo describes,

Legal analysts said the review, while preliminary, could expand beyond its relatively narrow mandate and ensnare a wider cast of characters. They cited U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s investigation of the leak of a CIA operative’s identity, which culminated with the criminal conviction of then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney’s chief of staff.

And as op-ed commentator Eugene Robinson puts it in the same publication,

Proper investigations must work their way up the chain. In some instances, it may be a mid-level employee who overstepped clear boundaries and ordered subordinates to perform acts that might have taken place in a medieval dungeon. In other cases, illegal acts apparently were approved at the highest levels. Investigators need to be allowed to follow the evidence all the way to the top — into the White House, if that is where the trail leads.

It is here that hope lies. For America truly to “move forward,” we must first acknowledge and set right the past; we must air our dirty laundry. We must once again embrace the rule of law. Whether such an outcome can emerge from the tangle of today’s polarized partisan politics remains to be seen.

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