WASHINGTON (BP) — Southern Baptist ethics commentators greeted a new report on interrogation of detainees by the Central Intelligence Agency with mixed reviews, some criticizing the report’s approach while others either condemned or supported the government entity’s practices.
The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released Dec. 9 a 525-page report sharply criticizing the detention and interrogation program the CIA operated for more than seven years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
Among its findings, the committee said the intelligence agency’s interrogations of suspected terrorists were “brutal and far worse” than it had disclosed and conditions for the detainees were “harsher” than it had revealed. The report also said the interrogation methods — that included waterboarding and sleep deprivation — proved ineffective in obtaining intelligence from detainees.
Not only did Republicans and former CIA directors disapprove of the Democratic-controlled committee’s approach to the report, but one Southern Baptist ethicist said the study fell short of what is needed.
Daniel Heimbach, senior Christian ethics professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, lamented that he had seen “little fair-minded analysis” in the debate swirling around interrogation practices that “aimed at truly understanding the nexus of duties and limitations affecting decisions political leaders must make regarding ‘enhanced’ methods of interrogation.”
“Public discussion treating the ethics of torture — such as the recently released Senate report on CIA interrogation techniques — is framed by political” posturing that is “more eager to blacken opponents, however unfairly, than with understanding ethical truth,” Heimbach said in a written statement for Baptist Press. “And for this reason, public discussion surrounding the ethics of torture has become a highly charged morass.”
Evangelical Christians, Heimbach said, “must chart a vastly different course.” We must “treat all parties fairly by focusing instead on what [Christian apologist] Francis Schaeffer called ‘true truth.’ In other words, we must be fair and truthful, whatever the stakes may be, and regardless of who is made to look good or bad. This is a time when followers of Jesus Christ must pursue ethical politics without falling prey to political posturing.”
Joe Carter of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) said in a Dec. 9 blog post the report shows the CIA’s detention and interrogation program fell short of the ethical criteria he believes Christians should endorse.
The program “was not justifiable, did not include an adequate system of accountability to prevent abuses, and did not extract information with the least coercion necessary,” said Carter, the ERLC’s communications specialist and a former Marine. “For these reasons, the CIA’s actions were both immoral and violated the standards and laws recognized by the U.S. regarding the treatment of prisoners.”
Some of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” fit the definition of torture, he wrote. This doesn’t mean Christians should refuse to defend their country and their lives, he said.
“We must never hesitate to defend our culture, our future, and our lives against those who seek to destroy us,” Carter said. “The pacifist’s solution of laying down our arms in the face of such an enemy is suicidal. The conservative position, which is willing to face up to and address the evil of terrorism, provides a more adequate approach.
“Evil” comes “from the heart of a fallen, sacred, yet degraded human being,” he wrote, noting, “If we are to preserve our own humanity we must not forget that our enemy differs from us in degree, not in kind.”
Heimbach said the “just war” principles taught through centuries of Christian theological and moral reflection guide his view of interrogation methods. The just war approach includes having a just cause to remedy injustice and using only the force necessary.
He favors “using morally justified coercion within Just War limitations” but does not support “any sort of immoral conduct under any circumstance,” said Heimbach, a former deputy assistant secretary of the Navy. “I only favor morally justified actions under morally justified circumstances, and do not favor any action under immoral circumstances and never favor immoral actions under any circumstance.”
Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, views the debate over enhanced interrogation techniques through the lens of the Golden Rule — “Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them” (Luke 6:31).
“Whatever we may decide about the suitability of this or that interrogation technique, about the quality of Senator Feinstein’s committee work or about the wisdom of the report’s release, let me say that I believe there is a place for enhanced interrogation. And I draw on the Golden Rule to argue that,” Coppenger said in a written statement for BP.
Coppenger’s comments mirrored ideas expressed in “Waterboarding and the Platinum Rule,” a paper he presented at the Tennessee Philosophical Association’s 45th annual meeting at Vanderbilt University on Oct. 26, 2013.
“Contrary to what one might think of the Golden Rule, with its amiable, accommodating cast, the maxim, when properly construed, warrants stern treatment of others,” he wrote in the paper’s abstract. “This understanding gives rise to what we might call the ‘Platinum Rule,’ which projects what the subject would want were he [to] get a firm fix on the situation and come to his moral senses. With the issue at hand,” he wrote, “he could assent to waterboarding if it meant he could avoid having innocent blood on his hands.”
He told BP, “Of course, there are moral limits. Many things that might work (including torment of the subject’s loved ones and physical mutilation) are illicit. The Golden Rule does not warrant or excuse their imposition. But terrorism, with its willful slaughter of innocents, justifies rougher treatment than normal in the pursuit of life-saving information.”
Speaking for himself, Coppenger said, “I give American authorities advance permission to waterboard me if they discover I’ve so thoroughly lost my moral compass that there is probable cause to believe I’m assisting terrorists, that I am likely withholding information that puts innocent lives in peril,” he said. “Even if I don’t actually have that information; even if I’m skilled at hanging tough or likely to mislead them; if it’s reasonable to suppose I’m safeguarding terrorists and their schemes, then have at it.
“And should I ever regain my moral equilibrium, should I awaken to the horror of my enablement of Al-Qaeda or ISIS, I’m confident I would thank my waterboarders for giving it a shot, whether or not they succeeded,” said Coppenger, a retired infantry officer. “That’s how you apply the Golden Rule in this context.”
The Senate committee’s report — which actually was only the executive summary of a still-classified document of nearly 6,700 pages — made no recommendations but included these among its other findings:
— The CIA justified its interrogation techniques with “inaccurate claims of their effectiveness.”
— The CIA hindered congressional and White House supervision of the program.
— The CIA used interrogation methods on detainees that were not approved by its headquarters or the Department of Justice.
— The CIA ignored internal objections to the program.
— The CIA’s program harmed the world’s perception of the United States.
Among the techniques used on detainees, according to the report were waterboarding, which involves water being poured on the cellophane-wrapped face of a prisoner and inducing the sensation of drowning; sleep deprivation up to 180 hours in duration; forced standing with hands and feet shackled; and naked detention in cold cells with cold water dousings.
Six Republican members of the committee issued a minority response to the report. They pointed to various problems with the majority’s work, including what they said were strong biases that “led to faulty analysis, serious inaccuracies, and misrepresentations of fact.” Among the committee’s erroneous conclusions was that the techniques were ineffective, they said.
The three CIA directors during the years of the detention and interrogation program also denied the methods were ineffective and sharply criticized the committee’s report in a Dec. 10 piece in The Wall Street Journal.
George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden described it as “a one-sided study marred by errors of fact and interpretation — essentially a poorly done and partisan attack on the agency that has done the most to protect America after the 9/11 attacks.” They criticized the committee’s failure to interview them or anyone else who ran the program and rejected charges the CIA misled the White House, Congress, Department of Justice and American public.
President Obama signed an executive order in January 2009 that effectively ended the detention and interrogation program. President George W. Bush had signed a memo to the CIA director only six days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to authorize covert action to capture and detain people who posed a serious threat to the American public or were planning terrorism.
The Senate committee, which began its study in 2009, approved the report initially in a 9-6 vote in December 2012. In April 2014, it voted 11-3 to send revised versions of the executive summary and findings to the president for purposes of declassification.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D.-Cal., is chairman of the Senate committee.