The Twilight of Responsibility: Torture and the Higher Deniability


Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, a small group of Bush Administration officials, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and working outside the boundaries of the normal policy process, created and implemented the United States of America’s first official torture policy. These officials bypassed the National Security Council, ignored the interagency system, met in secret, and relied on shamefully inadequate legal justifications. Still, President Bush was not “sandbagged” by his legal team and the CIA in authorizing the use of torture. The memos authored by John Yoo, Stephen Bradbury, and others were drafted in support of the decision to torture; they were intended to offer a veil of legal authority to a policy decision for which the President himself was ultimately responsible.

The resulting torture policy not only weakened America’s moral standing and bred resentment across the globe, it greatly enhanced the recruiting efforts of al Qaeda. President Bush’s decisions saddled the country with a policy that our founders would not have approved, that violated international and domestic law, and that our enemies have used against us. The ultimate responsibility for this violation of our social contract and of America’s historical opposition to torture lies with him. In wanting to show the world he would do anything to keep America safe, President Bush’s “tough decisions” hurt America badly. They loom over us to this day.

The Essay also underscores the policy and even management value of well-defined, politically sustainable guidelines for secret operations to kill enemies and deal with captives. Because the government must entrust intelligence operatives with exceptional power, a fundamental social contract forms. Such a social contract is an essential foundation to granting intelligence agencies and military departments, with thousands of employees conducting many operations around the world, extraordinary powers to intercept communications, break laws in other countries, and even use lethal force to defend the country—all in secret. When the contract is broken, trust breaks down and all sides will lose.