“I’d do it again in a minute.” — Former Vice President Dick Cheney defending CIA “enhanced interrogation,” Dec. 14, 2014.
I first encountered Dianne Feinstein 35 years ago in a San Francisco hotel suite while covering a teachers’ strike. A deadline loomed, and the suite swarmed with tense, milling people.
In the center of the hubbub, the elegant mayor of San Francisco lay draped in serene repose on a bed in a red dress atop a white bedspread, eyes closed, the back of her hand artfully shielding her brow like a distressed heroine in an overwrought melodrama.
That image of Feinstein, calm in the midst of crisis, leapt to mind when she delivered her unwelcome Christmas gift to the nation: the Senate Intelligence Committee’s CIA torture report. It said the CIA’s own documents show that its torture didn’t work and that the CIA lied to the president and Congress about it. Torture, you surely recall, is illegal.
Perhaps Feinstein isn’t the woman you expected to bring you this news, nor to have exhibited the gravitas and moral mettle she has shown during the torture scandal. There was, after all, that opening celebration at San Francisco’s Pier 39, where then-Mayor Feinstein presided — in a bathing suit. (She’d lost a bet.) Today Feinstein, 81, is the oldest member of the Senate and chair of the intelligence committee.
She came to power unpleasantly. As president of San Francisco’s board of supervisors, Feinstein discovered Supervisor Harvey Milk shot to death in his office; she put her finger in a bullet hole searching for his pulse. He and Mayor George Moscone, whom Feinstein succeeded, were assassinated by former Supervisor Dan White, whose defense seemed to be that he’d eaten too many Twinkies.
As mayor of America’s gay capital, Feinstein vetoed a measure to legalize domestic partnerships for gay couples. As a U.S. senator, she’s tended to be more centrist than her fellow female California Democrats. She was chief sponsor of the now-expired law banning civilian possession of assault weapons, excoriated Edward Snowden as a traitor and has supported NSA spying, the Patriot Act and the CIA.
And now here she is, giving the United States of America the most valuable gift she’ll bestow: an opportunity for redemption. Feinstein reminds us how important just one politician’s moral compass can be.
To disclose government-sponsored depravity to the citizens in whose name torturers were enabled and with whose money they were paid, she’s had to fight Senate Republicans, the CIA and it’s myopic apologists, and her party’s Secretary of State, John Kerry. And she’s labored to stiffen the spine of President Obama, who declined to prosecute the torturers.
Republicans charge that the report is a partisan smear of the Bush administration. Feinstein responds that anyone who knows former President Bush knows he would never have approved such depravity. (This of course ignores the time-honored “preserve the deniability of the boss” dictum, i.e., “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”)
The CIA’s “rogue agency” reputation was enhanced last March when CIA officials hacked computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staff during its CIA investigation. That audacious violation of constitutional authority likely was the final straw for Feinstein. The CIA answers to the Senate, after all, not visa-versa.
It’s a sign of the profoundly delusional CIA culture that some former CIA officials have the gall to publicly argue that the torture, though bought and paid for by the CIA with taxpayers’ money, took place “outside” CIA purview. This is the defense of those bereft of the most rudimentary concept of accountability.
Feinstein’s blinkered critics seem far more aggrieved by the disclosure of torture than that torture occurred. They argue the report will inflame terrorists to attempt attacks. That may be, Feinstein said, but such attempts will come regardless. That train has left the station. Rightly, she takes the long view: This nation must acknowledge the torture if it is to reclaim credibility and moral authority as a civilized society governed by law.
So what are we to do with Senator Feinstein’s gift? Should we perhaps for starters stop hiring private contractors to do the government’s intelligence work? Hello?
The firm owned by Spokane-based former Air Force psychologists James E. Mitchell — “I was just a cog in the machine,” he said — and Bruce Jessen, a Mormon bishop who resigned because of controversy over his interrogation history, was paid $80 million to devise and direct CIA torture. The twosome reportedly had never personally interrogated anyone previously nor did they have expertise about the terrorists.
“This question isn’t about our enemies. It’s about us,” said Republican Sen. John McCain, who earned his torture credentials the hard way. The CIA, said he, “damaged our security interests as well as a reputation as a force for good in the world.” Feinstein, in a history-making moment on the floor of the Senate, kissed McCain’s cheek after his anti-torture speech.
President Obama should pardon those who engaged in, or enabled, torture, argues American Civil Liberties Union head Anthony D. Romero. Legal pardon would make clear — though assuredly not to Cheney — that “enhanced interrogation” is torture with a nicer name, and that it’s a crime. It would record for history the names, and shame, of those guilty of torture.
Dare we hope that pardons issued now might compel wiser choices the next time we lose 3,000 innocents and are tempted to fight barbarism with barbarism?
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.