Torture has always been a word that stirs the CIA to hot denials of its practice, despite copious documentation to the contrary. The CIA's earliest years saw the importing of Nazi torture technicians after World War II in Operation Paperclip. By the early 1950s, the agency was financing research into sensory deprivation and isolation techniques that were formulated for practical application in an advisory manual. The 1960s counter-insurgency missions in Vietnam and Latin America saw relentless applications of torture in every form, though the denials continued full tilt. Even today, though the Bush administration is officially pro-torture, the CIA shrinks from the word, preferring more genteel vocabulary, like "harsh interrogation."




This prudery has now landed the agency in a public relations debacle, trying to explain (a) why in 2002 it secretly videotaped "harsh interrogation" of two members of al-Qaeda, and (b) why it secretly destroyed these tapes in 2005.




Explanation for the videotaping takes the pious line that this allowed supervisors the ability to assess whether harsh interrogation had slipped over the line into the no-no land of torture. "It wasn't up to individual interrogators to decide, 'Well, I'm gonna slap him,' or 'I'm going to shake him,' or 'I'm gonna make him stay up for 48 hours,'" one retired CIA interrogator, named John Kiriakou, told ABC News. "Each one of these steps &

even though they're minor steps, like the intentional shake or the open-handed belly slap &

each one of these had to have the approval of the deputy director for operations."




What they were actually doing to the al-Qaeda men, Zubaydah and Khaled Shaikh Mohammed, was abusing them physically in various violent forms, ultimately suffocating them under water &

the notorious "waterboarding" &

and the more plausible explanation is that the videotaping was for training purposes. If the sessions were being filmed to ensure only legal applications of force, then why hastily destroy the tapes three years later? The CIA says destruction was prompted by the fear that the tapes might surface in some court proceeding or as reality TV, and the CIA interrogators identified by hostile elements.




Translation: The tapes were conclusive evidence of felonious conduct, and the head of Clandestine Operations ordered them destroyed. No one bothered to tell Porter Goss, who was running the CIA at the time.




The White House, still incandescent with rage about the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's non-production of nukes &

one in which the CIA was of course involved &

is taking enormous pleasure in expressing official dismay at this attempt to purge the historical record. Since Bush's posture towards archival data is like that of Vikings to the library on Lindisfarne at the end of the eighth century, it's amazing the White House press official didn't burst out laughing as she made this claim.




The uproar has reignited the familiar debate about torture, with the emphasis on utility rather than moral principle. Retired CIA interrogator Kiriakou says that after 45 seconds of contemplation of impending water torture, Zubaydah babbled out al-Qaeda's plans for attack on the Christian West and thus thousands of lives were saved. A somewhat different assessment can be found in Ronald Suskind's recent book, "The One Percent Doctrine," based on many interviews with intelligence officials. They told Suskind that the CIA team that captured Zubaydah soon determined he was not a senior al-Qaeda man and furthermore was clinically insane. Nonetheless, they grilled him with great brutality. Frantic with pain and terror, he shrieked out one imaginary plot after another, including planned assaults on New York's water supplies, nuclear plants, shopping malls, banks, the Brooklyn Bridge. At each disclosure, Suskind writes, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each target. Thus the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."




There's not much evidence that Americans are aghast at these disclosures. Mulling the matter over, one contributor to the Washington Monthly's Web site, Peter Champion, wrote on Monday, "I think we need to look at the nature of the threat involved and take a consequentialist tack on the issue. If the information extracted by torturing Zubaydah saved even one marginal GOP House seat, or electoral vote in 2002, or 2004, it was worth it."




Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through . To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at .