Former Senator Bob Kerrey's Attempt to Absolve Torturers

He insists that after 9/11, there was "no operating manual to guide the choices and decisions made by the men and women in charge." What about the law?

Former Senator Bob Kerrey took to USA Today last week to criticize the Senate torture report and defend the intelligence professionals who tortured prisoners after 9/11.

"It is important for all of us to remember how unprepared we were for the attacks," he declared, "and how unprepared we were to do the things necessary to keep the country from being attacked again. There was no operating manual to guide the choices and decisions made by the men and women in charge of protecting us."

He is dead wrong.

The men and women in charge of protecting Americans had numerous operating manuals to guide their choices and decisions. One was the United States Constitution. Another was the duly ratified treaty that forbids America from engaging in torture. There were, as well, all the statutes applicable to interrogations, the Geneva Convention, and interrogation rules in the Army Field Manual.

All these frameworks and rules were adopted or written precisely to be like a manual to guide future choices and decisions. Some were understood, by virtual consensus, to apply no matter what happened. And interrogators like Ali Soufan successfully interrogated high-level Al Qaeda terrorists while staying true to all of them.

So what is Kerrey talking about?

The conceit that CIA interrogators had to make things up as they went along and shouldn't be held responsible for any excesses is wrongheaded in theory and fact. This is especially so when, if Dick Cheney and John Yoo are to be believed, CIA officers even went beyond the torture tactics approved by the Department of Justice (e.g., by subjecting prisoners to anal rape by way of shoving foodstuffs into their rectums). Would Kerrey have us believe that the CIA had insufficient guidance to know that wasn't okay? One wonders, reflecting back on other torturers in history, how many of them lacked "manuals to guide their choices and decisions." By Kerrey's logic, we shouldn't hold any of them accountable for torturing.

Times were stressful! How could they know better?

Torture is verbotten under U.S. and international law, no American can escape knowledge of the taboo that surrounds it, and it is forbidden by the most prominent moral and religious codes in our culture. If ever there was a time and place in history where leaders had a manual to guide them away from the misdeed of torture they were about to perpetrate, it was early 21st Century America. It is bizarre that a former senator who once swore an oath to uphold and defend the law would sign his name to an op-ed that proceeds as if law doesn't exist.

There was an operating manual to guide the choices and decisions made by the men and women in charge of protecting us after 9/11. But when it came to interrogations, many of those men and women just decided to ignore the manual's warnings, knowing that doing so might one day put them in legal jeopardy. Should they find themselves in court they'd better improve on Kerrey's weak defense.