The release this week of the CIA inspector general’s report makes clear that the CIA interrogation program was both lawful and effective in stopping new attacks. But was it moral? I believe that Americans can be comfortable not only with the efficacy but also with the morality of this effort. Here is why.
The principle at work here is casuistry, in the proper sense of that term. Under casuistry, a just society adheres to certain moral norms. There are times when one finds exceptions to these norms, but the norm remains — and the exception must be justified. For example, the Ten Commandments teach us, unequivocally: “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet most of us agree that there are circumstances in which it is both moral and ethical to kill another human being. If a policeman sees a criminal who is about to kill an innocent person, he may use lethal force to stop him. If a foreign enemy threatens your country, it is permissible to go to war to defend it against such aggression. The norm — killing human beings is wrong — remains. But in some circumstances, killing — indeed, organized killing by the state — is morally and ethically permissible.
If this principle is true when it comes to taking a human life, why would it be any less true when it comes to interrogating captured terrorists? Most of us would agree that waterboarding a criminal suspect in order to get a confession would be immoral. But if you have a terrorist in your custody who has already killed 3,000 people, and who acknowledges that he has plans to kill thousands more but refuses to tell you what those plans are, it is morally licit to use coercive interrogation to get the information needed to protect society.
Some disagree with casuistry and take an absolutist position on these moral questions. When it comes to matters of war and peace, we call such people pacifists. The critics of the CIA program are effectively arguing from a position of radical pacifism. Against pacifism stands just-war theory, which argues that society can prosecute war so long as it adheres to certain standards: discrimination and proportionality.
The CIA interrogation program met the just-war standards. Of the tens of thousands of terrorists captured, we used coercive interrogations on only a small number who had knowledge of imminent attacks. (Only about 30 terrorists had any enhanced techniques applied, and just three were subjected to waterboarding.) We used these techniques only as a last resort, when traditional techniques had failed. We used the least coercive technique necessary to get the information. And we used the techniques for a moral purpose — not to elicit confessions or to punish, but to protect society and save innocent lives.
It is good that Americans are uncomfortable with the CIA’s interrogation techniques. We should be — just as we should be uncomfortable with going to war. But sometimes war is just and necessary. The same is true for coercive interrogations. The CIA’s actions were effective; they also were moral and just. And we should be grateful to and proud of those who took on the difficult job of employing them. Like our soldiers in battle, they took on unpleasant responsibilities so that we could sleep safely in our beds.
– Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He served in senior positions in the George W. Bush administration, notably as chief speechwriter for President Bush. He is at work on a book on the CIA interrogation program that will be published by Regnery in 2010.