EVEN some of those who had supported the release of the United States Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report agree that it could damage American interests abroad.
And opponents of the report are sure that, in Senator Ted Cruz’s words, it “will endanger lives,
drive away our allies” and “undermine” national security. But will it really?
Cruz’s argument is similar to what we heard often during the Cold War.
(The “Cold War” was a state of political and military tension after World War 2 between powers in the Western Bloc — the US, its North Atlantic Treaty Alliance allies and others — and powers in the Eastern Bloc — the Soviet Union and its allies — in the Warsaw Pact).
America was at a disadvantage compared with the Soviet Union, it was said, because it had to operate with its hands tied behind its back, with congressional interference, media exposure and all the other trappings of a democracy.
Moscow, on the other hand, could act speedily, effectively, lethally and in secret.
Even a dove like George Kennan would lament that conducting foreign policy in a large, messy democracy was a handicap.
(George Kennan was an American adviser, diplomat, political scientist, and historian, best known as “the father of containment” and as a key figure in the emergence of the Cold War.)
In fact, the Soviet Union pursued an utterly disastrous foreign policy. It so brutally suppressed its “allies” that by the 1980s, it was flanked by a group of countries in Eastern Europe that had become deeply hostile.
It pursued an arms race with the US that consumed, by some estimates, 10 per cent to nearly 20 per cent of its gross domestic product. It invaded Afghanistan and bled itself dry in a war it could not admit it had lost.
All these flaws were a product of a closed system with no checks and balances.
The Kremlin and the KGB (the main security agency for the Soviet Union from 1954 until its collapse in 1991) had complete freedom of manoeuvre, no oversight, no requirement to ever reveal any operations, and no media that reported on them. The result was that errors persisted and ultimately broke the back of the entire enterprise.
America made its share of mistakes during the Cold War. But because of a democratic system of contestation, transparency, checks and balances, many of them were exposed early. New administrations could shift policy without losing face. Course correction was routine.
Despite the nostalgia that many mandarins have for an old Metternichian model, it is the big, raucous, contentious democracies — Britain and the United States — that have prevailed in the world, not Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or the Soviet Union.
“A case can be made ... that secrecy is for losers,” the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in his 1998 book on the subject, adding, “Openness is now a singular, and singularly American, advantage.”
Closed systems work badly. Open systems have the great advantage of getting feedback — criticism, commentary, audits, reports.
The Central Investigation Agency (CIA) claims that its programmes after 9/11 worked very well and suggests that the best judge of this should be itself.
The Senate report provides an alternative view with substantial evidence and argumentation.
This debate will make the CIA better, not worse. And the revelations of the National Security Agency (NSA)’s vast espionage will force it to refine its snooping to programmes that are effective and justifiable.
What organisation has ever benefited from being able to be the sole judge of its own performance?
Democratic accountability is almost like a market test for government agencies. It forces an outside check that is otherwise very difficult to come by.
The touchstone example of congressional revelations that are said to have damaged American foreign policy is the Church Committee.
It became an article of faith for many that the committee, set up in 1975 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, destroyed the CIA and weakened America.
But what were its revelations? That the CIA had attempted to assassinate a series of leaders across the Third World, often in ham-fisted and botched operations that provoked a nationalist backlash for decades. That it covered up its mistakes. That it had spied on American citizens.
A worker cleaning the floor at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia. A torture report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee has delivered a damning indictment of CIA interrogation practices after the 9/11 attacks. AP pic
The reforms of the era included a ban on assassinations, congressional and judicial oversight of intelligence agencies, the requirement that the president formally approve a covert action (to create accountability), and a term limit for the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (so that no individual could amass and abuse power in the manner that J. Edgar Hoover had for four decades).
It is a measure of how sensible these reforms are that they are today utterly uncontested.
As for the broader consequences, a few years after the Church Committee, the revolt in Afghanistan, dissent in Eastern Europe and dysfunction in the Soviet Union — all assisted by America’s intelligence agencies — caused the unravelling of the Soviet empire. Keep that in mind when you hear the same kinds of warnings today.