Editor’s note: This is the second part of a three-part essay on the government’s use of force. The final installment will be published next Sunday.

While I wrote last week about the similarities between the CIA’s interrogation of terrorists and the use of force by the police, in proposing answers I must focus on their differences. There are two. Paradoxically, the one that is most often invoked is much less valid as a guide to decision-making than the other.

The argument for allowing the intelligence agencies to use significantly more abusive methods than we permit domestic law enforcement is that terrorism is an order of magnitude greater threat to our security than other crime. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” – the chillingly Orwellian efforts to make torture more acceptable – became U.S. government policy in response to the mass murders of Sept. 11, 2001. As terrible as that was, and as much as it called for a tough, comprehensive response, the Bush administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, greatly exaggerated the danger it posed to our existence and used that exaggeration as the justification for gravely mistaken policy choices.

Frustrated by the lack of support in America for our continuing to play the role of the enforcer of order in the world, Cheney and his neo-conservative allies argued that terrorism represented the same sort of challenge to our national survival that we faced from the thermo-nuclear-armed Soviet empire. Their most damaging success was the invasion of Iraq, dishonestly linked to 9/11 and falsely credited with possessing weapons of mass destruction. Even after it became clear that this was the single worst decision ever made by an American president, the effort to treat terrorism as the third existential threat to our continued existence as a free society, equal in kind, if not wholly in degree, to Nazism and communism, persists, in the insistence that we return American combat troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the military be exempted from constraints on spending.

It was this mindset that informed the decision to unleash the CIA to use the methods that the Senate Intelligence Committee report correctly criticizes. If our very survival as a nation was imperiled by Islamic fanaticism, then some justification might have existed for Cheney’s sneering dismissal of any concern that we were brutalizing prisoners and his lack of any regard for the fact that dozens of undeniably innocent people were among the victims.

Even if this doomsday scenario were the case, many knowledgeable people, including in the FBI, believed that this abandonment of basic American values was wrong morally and pragmatically. But now that we understand that the terrorists fall far short of Hitler and his allies and Stalin and his successors in their capacity to harm us, albeit not in their malevolence, the case for torturing our enemies and doing very little to screen out those falsely suspected completely collapses.

There is one possible exception, but it is an entirely theoretical one and no instances of it exist. That is the “ticking time bomb” scenario, in which a prisoner knows the details of an impending disaster and innocent people will die if he is not forced by any means necessary to reveal them. While there is broad support for torture in that situation, it is irrelevant to this debate because there have been no such cases. I say this with confidence because the record is devoid of any, and the CIA and its defenders certainly would have cited one if they could have.

This leads to a larger point about the nature of the information elicited by these techniques. It was not about impending attacks on the U.S. – none of those thwarted attempts were blocked by the fruits of these interrogations. Neither was there much battlefield information or other combat-related intelligence, not surprisingly since people months and years in detention clearly had decreasingly little to say about these matters. It did produce information about the leaders of the terrorist factions and their interrelationships and other facts about their organizational structure. Even here the Senate committee’s enhanced interrogation found that these “enhanced” techniques added little more than was gotten by other means. And the key point is that little of this intelligence has been helpful to our central goal.

Our inability to win the victories we have been seeking in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria is not due to our not knowing enough about what our opponents are planning to do or where their leaders are hiding at any given time. The fundamental problem is that the people we are backing – the good guys and the less bad guys – lack the will and ability to win civil wars in their own countries, and short of a massive, indefinite commitment of ground troops, America cannot change this. Those who insist that we combat terrorism as a war, not an anti-crime fight have a point – which they themselves forget in this context. Capturing its leaders can help defeat a gang; it is not a path to success in armed combat against a determined, hostile population.

Killing Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Anwar al-Alwaki was wholly justified. But in none of these three cases did the death of the terrorist leader have any noticeable effect in decreasing the capacity of their followers to perpetrate evil.

Balanced against this very limited practical justification for the practices the Senate committee revealed are two very strong objections.

The moral one is well-conveyed by the way in which the CIA and its defenders make their case. Their denial that painful, sustained physical and psychological abuse is torture, and their invention of the self-parodying phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” add up to a concession that torture is wrong. You do not deny the truth when you are proud of it; you do not resort to transparent euphemism unless reality is too ugly.

The trailer to the movie “Unbroken” contains a scene from a Japanese prisoner of war camp in which the American hero is struck in the face by a Japanese guard to illustrate the brutality to which he was subjected. Watching it and recalling scenes from other movies about the abuse of American prisoners by Japanese and German captors that were less brutal in many cases than that documented by the Senate Committee deeply reinforced the point in my mind.

The practical reason why this physical abuse of prisoners was so mistaken is also best articulated by the CIA. Making public what the American government did, they argued, damages us abroad. It strengthens the appeal of anti-American forces in the Middle East especially, and it makes it likelier that Americans will undergo brutal treatment from their captors. In a democracy, with public debate about important policy choices both a matter of right and a near-certainty, these are reasons not to engage in activities, not to carry them out in the hope they will remain hidden.

The kind of interrogation techniques we use is a conscious policy choice which in a democracy must be made in a deliberate manner by the duly elected officials, not left to the unfettered discretion of operational personnel. And this is the second difference between this issue and that of the appropriate level of force employed by domestic law enforcement. Police officers engaged in violent encounters with people who are resisting them or who are confronting a possibly dangerous situation must have more freedom to choose how to respond than agents questioning people who are already under restraint. I will address this next week.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: BarneyFrank

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