“I think Obama wants to find out if we, the American people, give a damn.” That’s Ray McGovern, the former CIA senior analyst who now seeks accountability for U.S. acts of torture, speaking in my interview with him on why President Obama declassified four Department of Justice “torture memoranda” in April of this year. Last Thursday, McGovern spoke to a packed house at UW’s Kane Hall before going on to another engagement in Tacoma on Sunday night. The Washington State Religious Coalition Against Torture sponsored McGovern’s visit.
Despite "unbelievable pressure" on Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder not to do so, McGovern says, Obama did release the memos and Holder did decide to broaden the existing government investigation into U.S. sponsored terror. Why did Obama reverse course on his earlier expressed intention to “look forward?” McGovern's theory is that the president wants to see if Americans really care, and “if they care enough to light the kind of fire under the president that will allow him to do what needs to be done.”
After reading other documents, especially the May 2004 report of the inspector general, Holder was “reliably described as ‘sickened,’” in McGovern's words. Holder went to Obama to say that he needed to broaden the existing investigation, then focused on the destruction of 92 CIA videotapes of “enhanced interrogation” to go beyond the investigation's original mandate. That investigation, by attorney John Durham, is ongoing. According to the trim, gray-haired McGovern, the reason for the pressure on Holder was that a broader investigation will inevitably result in those who carried out “enhanced interrogation” saying that they were following orders and pointing the finger of blame back up the organization chart.
Is it important that there is accountability for torture conducted by the U.S. in the “War on Terror?” After listening to McGovern and reading some of the documents myself, my own answer is yes, for two reasons.
First, the argument continues to be made, most notably by former Vice President Dick Cheney, that torture works, that it results in getting information that saves American lives. McGovern, who was an intelligence analyst with the CIA for 27 years, says the information that is gained is not reliable or accurate. It is, rather, the information that those carrying out torture want to hear. He points to Cheney’s crucial August 2002 speech building the case for invading Iraq. In that speech Cheney argued — and President Bush subsequently repeated — that there was a working partnership between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The basis for this was information gained from an Al-Qaeda operative brutally tortured by Egyptian authorities, at U.S. behest. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, 69 percent of the American public believed that Al-Qaeda and Iraq were in cahoots. There was nothing to it. Nothing at all.
Besides debunking the claim that torture is useful or necessary, the other reason for washing out our dirty laundry in public is suggested by the title of McGovern’s UW talk, “Why Accountability for Torture Is Crucial for Human Rights, Our Security and Our Souls.” It’s the last two words there, “Our Souls.” While the War on Terror has preoccupied the American public since Sept. 11, 2001, there is another struggle, even a war, going on: a war for the soul of the nation. While terrorism is a real threat, so too is the distortion of information, law, and values that has accompanied the War on Terror, particularly in the Bush administration. If America turns a blind eye, if we don’t care, a crucial moral test will have been failed.
McGovern is an interesting man. He came to public attention in May 2006 when he took on then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a forum in Atlanta. McGovern, notes in hand, alleged that Rumsfeld had lied to the American public and asked Rumsfeld to account for himself. McGovern, in Atlanta to receive an award from the ACLU that night, was quickly surrounded by security personnel as the audience and moderator sought to silence him. Still he managed a three-minute confrontation with Rummy that made national news and can be viewed on YouTube.
Audiences want to know if something happened to McGovern? Did he, after working for nearly three decades in the CIA and even being responsible at points for the daily briefings to Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, have some sort of conversion? How does he now come to be “working for the other side?” McGovern’s response is interesting. He didn’t change sides, the truth changed sides.
McGovern says the CIA always had two arms, one the covert-ops people, the other an agency, created by Harry Truman, to provide reliable information “without fear or favor.” McGovern saw himself working in the second, and thus always in the business of “telling truth to power.” In that sense, he hasn’t changed sides at all. He is still in the business of telling truth to power, and today in doing so by his Washington, D.C., congregation, Church of the Savior. That church’s “Tell the Word” ministry supports McGovern. A former Scoutmaster and Sunday school teacher, the father of five and grandfather of eight is still analyzing information and speaking truth to power. Raised a Catholic in New York, McGovern was taught by Jesuits at Fordham and Georgetown.
He challenged his UW audience, telling a story of another Jesuit priest, Dan Berrigan. Speaking in South Africa during the era of apartheid Berrigan advocated resistance. White audiences protested, saying that if they did what Father Berrigan said they would be jailed, and then “what would become of our children?” To which Berrigan answered, “And if you are not jailed, what then will become of your children?”
It is, as McGovern sees it, such a time of decision for citizens of America.
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