U.S. Bishops Back Release of Senate Torture Report

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says torture is ‘contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.’

Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., is the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace
Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., is the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace (photo: Diocese of Las Cruces)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. bishops backed the release of the Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s torture policy on Dec. 9 and marked the congressional committee’s action with a strong condemnation of torture as an instrument of national security policy.

“The Catholic Church firmly believes that torture is an ‘intrinsic evil’ that cannot be justified under any circumstance,” said Bishop Oscar Cantu, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, in a statement following the report’s release.

“The acts of torture described in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report violated the God-given human dignity inherent in all people and were unequivocally wrong.”

“Congress and the president should act to strengthen the legal prohibitions against torture and to ensure that this never happens again,” said Bishop Cantu of the Diocese of Las Cruces, N.M.

His statement on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not address GOP concerns about the partisan nature of the Senate report, which was written by Democratic staff on the Senate Intelligence Committee without any input from Republicans, nor did his statement address fears that the report might trigger attacks on U.S. embassies and intelligence services. 

Rather, the USCCB’s response reflected the Church’s unequivocal and long-standing prohibition on torture, even when the context for such policies involves national-security concerns about preventing future terrorist attacks in the wake of 9/11.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity (2297).

It also instructs, “In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times, it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors” (2298).


Urged Release

“We had urged that it had to be done — to have the report released, and we wrote to condemn practices that came to light,” Stephen Colecchi, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, told the Register, noting that the bishops’ conference had pressed Congress to expose the torture policy well in advance of the report’s actual release.

The allegations and information contained in the Senate report on CIA torture ignited a firestorm on Capitol Hill. It asserted that the CIA’s use of so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques, including waterboarding and sleep deprivation, to elicit information from terror suspects violated U.S. law and international treaties that prohibit torture and that such tactics did not produce any critical actionable intelligence.

Further, the executive summary of the report cited information culled from reams of CIA documents to support its charge that the agency lied about the number of detainees subjected to such practices and about the value of the intelligence they provided in its communications with Congress, the White House, the National Security Council and the Justice Department.

While the CIA’s tactic of using waterboarding — a practice defined as torture by many international human-rights groups — was already known, other brutal practices designed to assert “total control” over the detainees had not been publicly revealed.

“At least five CIA detainees were subjected to ‘rectal rehydration’ or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity,” the report stated. 

“The CIA placed detainees in ice-water ‘baths.’ The CIA led several detainees to believe they would never be allowed to leave CIA custody alive.”

In a Dec. 9 speech in the Senate that marked the report’s shocking allegations, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., described the CIA’s brutal treatment of more than 20 terror suspects as “a stain on our values and our history.”

“History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again,’” said the senior California senator.

John Brennan, the director of the CIA, in a public statement, admitted that the agency stumbled in its past efforts to secure vital intelligence in the aftermath of 9/11, but he also framed the report as an “incomplete and selective picture of what occurred.”

Members of the U.S. intelligence community, GOP leaders and officials in the Bush administration attacked the Senate panel’s decision to release the report, arguing that it was a partisan document and could prompt terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies and allies abroad.

“The CIA did not go rogue. At politicians’ urging, it developed new tactics to fight a new kind of enemy. Al Qaeda did not field regular armed units, hold territory or control population,” argued John Yoo, who served in the Justice Department in the Bush administration and worked on the interrogation policy, in a Dec. 10 article in National Review.

“The only way to prevail against this enemy is to gain intelligence on their plans in time to stop them,” added Woo, who is a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley and the author of Point of Attack: Preventive War, International Law and Global Welfare.

While the Justice Department has said it will not file criminal charges against CIA operatives or agency leaders responsible for the aggressive tactics, an official with the United Nations has suggested that they could be prosecuted for war crimes.

Church officials, for their part, have not called for the prosecution of U.S. intelligence operatives and their supervisors. But they support the decision to expose the policy, despite the danger that it could provoke an escalation of violence from terrorist groups.

“If the report is correct, it looks like the CIA was a little out of control, and they didn’t report the full facts [to government leaders],” said Msgr. Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College, a Catholic college in Kansas City, Kan., and professor of leadership and Christian ethics.  

“In our system of checks and balances, it’s a problem if the agency was not being fully transparent,” said Msgr. Swetland, a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who was a line officer for six years.

While some intelligence authorities have asserted that tactics like waterboarding does not constitute torture, Msgr. Swetland disputed such arguments.

“I definitely think that waterboarding is torture,” he said, citing the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information.”

That definition of torture also addresses the responsibility of government officials who instigate or acquiesce to such tactics.

Msgr. Swetland, like many critics of the CIA’s aggressive interrogation policy, noted the report’s conclusion that the tactics had not provided actionable intelligence.

“But even if we thought this was necessary for defense, it was still immoral,” he stated. “We are defending a democratic republic based on human rights. If we violate our own principles, we have already lost” the war on terror.

Bradley Lewis, an associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America, underscored the Church’s clear teaching on torture. But he also expressed regret that the report had not received bipartisan input, and that problem, he noted, weakened its authority and distracted many leaders and citizens from dealing with the morality of torture.

Lewis also expressed frustration that the report focused “almost entirely on the issue of the success or failure of the tactics and largely avoids the moral character of the tactics themselves.”

“If torture is wrong in its object and thus an intrinsically evil act ... then it doesn’t matter whether it works or not,” he told the Register.  

Colecchi of the U.S. bishops’ conference underscored the Church’s concern about the broad moral impact of the use of brutal interrogations.

“There are three victims of torture: the actual victim, the perpetrator and the fabric of our own society — if we tolerate torture,” he said, and he noted that the Catechism of the Catholic Church has also acknowledged the Church’s past tolerance and involvement in “cruel practices.”

Yet, two days after the report’s release, Bush administration officials continued to defend the policy, and they still contend that the report failed to provide the full context for the policy they adopted.  

Msgr. Swetland did not dispute that moral principles barring such tactics might appear impractical during a time of national emergency. But he observed that such moments of moral blindness offer a cautionary tale that should guide future U.S. leaders.

“I am not naïve enough to believe that, in a ticking-time-bomb situation you would not be tempted to adopt such tactics,” he admitted. “But it’s still the wrong thing. The good news is that, like the Church in 2002 dealing with the sins of the past, one of the best things an organization can do is admit that it didn’t live up to its ideals and say, ‘We won’t do it again.’”


Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.