Grim descent to the level of terrorists

However expedient it might have seemed after the horror of the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the use of brutal torture by the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is unquestionably reprehensible and indefensible.

Something else galls. A report of the agency's secret interrogation programme took a decade to emerge and more than five years to prepare. Attempts to block its release were made by both the White House and the Republicans, who were in power when it took place. No doubt, other nations would also keep skeletons well and truly in the cupboard. But a higher standard is expected of the sole superpower that calls itself the "world's greatest democracy" and takes a strong stand against human rights abuses elsewhere.

The Congressional report was prepared entirely by the Democrats in the Senate Intelligence Committee, who had to be mindful of the Justice Department's investigation that ended with the decision not to file criminal charges. The partisan nature of the report and the lack of interviews are serious deficiencies. And it does not help that Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who heads the intelligence committee and is responsible for the release of the report, had implicitly acquiesced in the use of torture earlier.

There's no gainsaying the fear that gripped the world when terrorism reared its murderous head. Unlike conventional enemies, terrorists can lurk almost anywhere and strike at innocents. In that charged atmosphere in early 2002, Senator Feinstein had chided the CIA for not realising that it was no longer business as usual for the US after 9/11. Americans had "to do some things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves", she had said.

Therein lies the vexing question of whether the ends would justify the means when one is faced with a dire threat. Torture is permissible to prevent mass murders, in the view of American jurist Alan Dershowitz who posited the extreme scenario of finding out from a terrorist in custody where a nuclear bomb is hidden in Times Square. Problems arise when one generalises from this to justify torture in lesser situations or when one quibbles over methods - for example, assertions of ex-officials that "enhanced interrogation" did not amount to torture.

Brutal torture of the detainees, like "waterboarding" and "rectal feeding", was plainly unacceptable. The danger is that if security agencies remain ambivalent about how much is too much, there will be an inevitable descent to the level of the heinous terrorists the world is grappling with. That would undercut the moral ground that must be won to defeat the global forces of terror.