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Hard Choices
By Peter O’Brien

So, your people walk in and lay a dossier on your desk; there’s a map, some pictures, a report from several spies, and a debrief from Prisoner X. The debrief is what started it all: he fingered a terrorist who’s plotting an attack on a US city, a large bomb, maybe a radioactive or "dirty" bomb. Now, your raid is ready. You give the go ahead…

One of the issues at hand is whether to approve Acting Director Haspel for the post of Director, CIA. By virtually all accounts Haspel is more than capable of running the agency, is a career Case Officer, has held a series of increasingly important positions and is universally respected across the Intelligence Community.

So, what's the issue?

The issue is that Haspel was director of a detention facility the CIA set up in Thailand after the 2001 attack on the US. The site, euphemistically termed a "black site" was one of several where individuals - terrorists - captured in Afghanistan were held and "tortured."

This is, of course, selective discomfort for some Washington politicians. John Brennan, President Obama's CIA Director, was also involved with secret detention and "stress techniques" - aka torture. Brennan publicly defended these techniques, saying that they helped obtain key information. Senators who supported Brennan suddenly find Haspel repellant, a standard case of Washington DC hypocrisy.

So, what about torture?

Is it Legal? Is it moral?

At the time of the activities in question, US law, and associated Presidential orders, guided the actions of the agents who ran the prisons ("black sites") and who conducted the questioning. But so what? Under the laws written by Hitler's henchmen, the rounding up and mass execution of Jews was quite legal. The point of the Nuremberg trials, now codified in international law, was that the defense that "I was obeying an order” (hence, following the law) was not sufficient for committing acts which were clearly in violation of universal moral codes.

And torture is clearly immoral.

Or is it?

We’re talking about universal concepts of right and wrong, absolutes. But moral absolutes have a hard time dealing with the work-a-day world. Even jaundiced, anything-goes Hollywood understands this. Hollywood continues to produce movies in which the hero uses torture to extract information necessary to save the day, and usually far worse than anything done at the CIA detention facilities, where no one's life was actually at risk, where no one was physically scarred or permanently injured.

Obviously, Hollywood wants to sell tickets. But to do so movies have to reflect reality, or at least what the viewers would like to think is reality, that in moments of extremis our police, FBI agents, CIA case officers, our various Special Operations personnel, would do whatever it takes to save the nation. Even if it means placing the lives of the terrorist prisoner at risk. At a visceral level the viewers knows they want to be protected, they want the nation protected – at any cost. Gaining critical intelligence when lives are at stake - is that the time to be politically correct? If your family were at risk when the situation became morally gray, what decision would you want the CIA officer to make? What direction do you want them to take when that means that hard decisions must be made? The average viewer, the average citizen, gets that. Even while politicians posture and pretend governing is something that can be carried on from ivory towers.

Is that morally acceptable? Philosophically, the answer is, at best, a gray area. In absolute terms the ends can never justify the means. But in practical terms, particularly when there is limited time, and a war against terrorists is by definition one in which each side constantly faces fleeting, rapidly perishable, time-sensitive tactical advantages, the fact is that police, agents, special operators are often faced with options that run the moral gamut from poor to bad to awful, and the awful choice is the one that's most likely to work, to produce the result that might keep the nation a little bit safer.

To quote someone who understood hard decisions: "War is hell."

So, back to the top: The raid is successful, the bad guy has been taken prisoner, the bomb seized. And then you’re told that during questioning Prisoner X was screamed at, pushed against a wall, slapped, denied sleep.

What are you going to do? Make a choice…


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