Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Walter Mondale defends torture report, rejects CIA response

Walter Mondale
REUTERS/Susan Walsh
Walter Mondale

As one of the leading members of the famed Church Committee on intelligence activities in the mid-1970s, then-Sen. Walter Mondale thought long and hard about how to strike the balances between the needs of the CIA to do its work, the demands and limits imposed by the U.S. Constitution and international law, and of the dangerous temptation to cross the line into torture and cover-up. So it seemed worth checking in with the former vice president for reaction to the most recent Senate committee to investigate similar matters.

“The Church Committee [which was chaired by Sen. Frank Church and investigated intelligence gathering following various Watergate revelations] tried to lay out the competing ideas, checks and balances, separation of power, the need to both have secret operations and nevertheless retain accountability of the intelligence community to the Congress and the people,” Mondale said. “It seemed that those principles were really sustained pretty well until 9/11, which generated so much fear. And some people used the fear to suggest that all those things could be removed, and had to be removed, and we should simply have secret unlimited authority for the CIA and the NSA [National Security Administration] to do whatever they pleased.”

There were people in Congress who knew what was happening, including who thought the truth had to be put on the table, Mondale said, but that impulse kicked off “this long six-year struggle, all the partisan division that went with it, before we could get a report out, and even then with all kinds of reluctance.”

“Nevertheless,” Mondale said, “an excellent report” that laid the groundwork for Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein and Sen. John McCain (not a member of the committee, but a leading Republican voice on national security issues) to “reasserted the idea that America is determined to work within the law.”

“I’m really thrilled with what they did, even as I am anxious about how long it took and the untidy way that the results were finally reached and published and — more than that — troubled by the CIA statements that it did nothing wrong and that we should be prepared to repeat the same measures if they deem it necessary.”

Mondale completely rejected the CIA argument, supported by most Republican senators, that a line was carefully enforced to make sure the “enhanced interrogation techniques” wouldn’t cross the line into “torture.”

I asked him if he had any doubt whether the line was crossed into torture. He replied: “I don’t think there’s any argument about that,” and Mondale. He cited the similar conclusion of McCain, who Mondale said, “really knows what he’s talking about on that.”

Mondale singled out former Vice President Dick Cheney as one who is defending the “enhanced interrogations” and CIA Director John Brennan, who also defended the practices. He said the failure to hold any executive branch official accountable, even by merely the loss a job, sent the wrong message into the future.

“If you don’t settle these things in a way that leaves lines clear, it’s like leaving a loaded revolver on the kitchen table,” Mondale said. But the situation is nonetheless better than it would have been without the publication of the committee report.

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Ross Willits on 12/22/2014 - 09:00 am.

    Thank you!

    Thank you, Mr. Vice President, for saying what needed to be said. This is not a partisan issue, it’s an American issue. And America should always stand against torture and for human rights. Period.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/22/2014 - 09:27 am.

    As Justices Robert Jackson and Arthur Goldberg wrote

    The Constitution is not a suicide pact.

    If Mondale had ever become Commander-in-Chief we’d all be speaking Russian.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/22/2014 - 11:19 am.

      Interesting Choice of Authorities

      I don’t think either Justice would agree with the point you are trying to make.

      Justice Jackson served as chief US prosecutor in the Nuremberg war crimes tribunals. He was especially adamant that the accused (some of the most savage criminals in history) be afforded due process.

      Justice Goldberg used the “suicide pact” language in a case that declared unconstitutional the practice of stripping draft evaders of their citizenship (Kennedy v. Mendoza-Martinez). In that case, Justice Goldberg also said that “[t]he imperative necessity for safeguarding these rights to procedural due process under the gravest of emergencies has existed throughout our constitutional history, for it is then, under the pressing exigencies of crisis, that there is the greatest temptation to dispense with guarantees which, it is feared, will inhibit government action.”

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/22/2014 - 03:12 pm.

        I disagree

        Both served at times of war and when the judicial and executive branches were both in favor of us, you know, winning.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/22/2014 - 03:26 pm.

          True, and irrelevant

          Read Ray’s detailed commentary;
          particularly his last sentence.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/22/2014 - 03:44 pm.

          How about, you know, consistency?

          Both Justices disagreed with their public actions and words? Wow.

          In any event, I doubt either of them would have said “win at all costs.” There has to be a reason we want the US to win, other than that happens to be where we were placed. If not, we can’t distinguish ourselves from our enemies.

        • Submitted by Elsa Mack on 12/23/2014 - 09:57 am.

          Torture does not bring victory.

          For your argument to work at all, torture would have to be a valid and effective means of obtaining information. But many many studies, including the CIA report here referenced, show that it is not effective. Torture doesn’t help us win. Especially when used against innocent people with no information.

  3. Submitted by David Frenkel on 12/22/2014 - 10:37 am.

    Soviet Union

    Look at the torture, rape and murder of innocent civilians by the Red Army/Soviet Union in eastern Europe during and after WWII and what did it get them 70 years later? A lost empire, a failing economy and a dictator.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/22/2014 - 10:44 am.

    Thank you

    …Mr. Tester, for that carefully-considered view.

    Suicide has nothing to do with it. Self-preservation, first, and then holding a leadership position among nations, second, pretty much demand that we NOT torture. Any shred of authority that we might have in terms of setting a moral example that other nations should follow (whether they do or not is another issue) is forfeited if we’re going to stoop to the same brutality as our enemies. That holds true, by the way, just as much when we hold people as prisoners indefinitely without ever charging them with any kind of crime, providing legal representation, or making the whole operation a “process” by which guilt might be ascertained and punishment meted out. Mr. Tester’s (and Mr. Cheney’s) casual attitude about such things betray any assertions they might make about “defending democracy.” The end CANNOT justify any and every means whatsoever without sacrificing the end itself.

    Historically, the worst kinds of police states and dictatorships are the ones that hold people in secret, without charges, for indefinite periods of time. We simply cannot allow “enhanced interrogation” and “rendition” to become the standard American way of dealing with captured enemy combatants. That is, unless we make it a conscious choice as a society, and thereby want to encourage competing powers and enemies to use the same kinds of tactics routinely on our own people. If we throw out the Geneva Convention rules unilaterally, as Mr. Cheney continues to defend, we condemn every American military service member to those same kinds of treatments. Combat is hard enough. Capture even harder, as Senator McCain knows full well and Mr. Tester does not. We gain nothing as a society by adding torture, and at least according to published reports, the information acquired through torture in this 9/11 context was either false, or of no real significance or value. In the process we put at greatly increased risk the lives of all the people now serving in our armed services. That’s not a legacy of which anyone should be proud.

    The ineffectiveness of “Do as we say, not as we do” should be self-evident, and will surely become more so as time passes. It’s much harder to criticize – with any degree of validity – the brutal regime of North Korea, for example, if we’re practicing the same kinds of interrogation techniques, holding people as prisoners without ever charging them with a crime, etc.

    For what little it’s worth, my own view as an ordinary citizen is that the perpetrators, up to and including those in the Executive Branch who signed off on these practices, fully deserve to be charged as criminals and tried in a court of law. Power and wealth being what they are, I don’t really believe that will happen, but in legal and moral terms, it should. Mr. Bush was at least complicit in these practices, Mr. Cheney an advocate, and Mr. Obama’s hands are not entirely clean, either. The people who actually inflicted the torture, whether they’re nominally military personnel or not, ought to be brought in front of a court of law. “I was only following orders” didn’t work for the Nazis at Nuremberg. I doubt it would work now.

  5. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/22/2014 - 07:00 pm.


    What a surprise – Walter Mondale supports Democratic report on torture! Mr. Mondale, having been a vice-president for Carter, should not be considered, to put it mildly, an expert in security. If by torturing someone at that time, they could have prevented the Shah overthrow and establishing a terroristic theocratic regime in Iran that tries to get nuclear weapons now, that would have been a heroic act saving tens if not hundreds thousands of lives (and I am not even talking about the time when Iran will get nukes). Oh, by the way, no one gave the CIA and the NSA an unlimited authority to do whatever they want, as Mr. Mondale contends…

    Mr. Schoch, self-preservation dictate that we kill a wolf charging us even if it is a protected species and hunting at that moment is not permitted. In other words, if survival of the nation requires violation of some outdated international laws, so be it because otherwise no one will be here to follow the law. That doesn’t mean free for all, of course – I am talking about very limited number of cases when the survival is indeed at stake. So it is NOT a defense of “the end justifies the means” approach. For example, minimal amount of iron is necessary but if one exceeds it the result will be pretty bad.

    America does not have to set any examples, moral or otherwise. Every country decides for itself what to do and terrorists fly planes into skyscrapers and behead people regardless of America’s actions and will torture our soldiers if they can no matter what we do. And I do not see any positive results in the world from presumably more moral Obama administration than immoral Bush’; in fact it looks like the opposite.

    And I hope you are not serious comparing North Korea to America…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/22/2014 - 08:09 pm.

      You are surprised

      that Walter Mondale, as Vice President, had access to classified information (and unclassified information) that you didn’t?
      Not to mention knowing more about the actual operation of the NSA (including the CIA).

  6. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/23/2014 - 11:25 am.

    Defense of torture report

    Interesting choice of words; but probably apt. Until recently, I wouldn’t have thought in this country we’d ever have to mention that not only does torture not work, but that it’s immoral, as well as illegal, and only something that could be even contemplated by a sick, twisted and pathological mentality.

    Apparently because our government has employed quite a few individuals who employed torture but that it was ordered by the top levels of government, it’s now debatable and arguably acceptable. Those who dare to point out that such conduct is sick, twisted, pathological, illegal and immoral who must defend their accusations. Hence: defending a torture report. Not even pointing out that torture doesn’t work is enough. Just say “9/11” and the law, morality and all standards of civilized behavior are out the window. And the right condemns those it sees on the “left” for moral relativism.

  7. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/23/2014 - 12:18 pm.


    The United States should be a world leader–not in torture, but in human rights. We should be a beaming light to the rest of the world as a bastion of democracy, fairness, and decency. And there’s nothing in the world that’s less decent than torturing someone.

    Studies have shown that torture is an ineffective interrogation tool for the simple reason that people will tell you anything you want to hear just to get you to stop the abuse. It’s far more effective to be friendly to them and get them to let their guard down, if not turn them completely around and make them sympathetic to your cause.

    In Germany during WWII, the most effective interrogator was a guy who simply sat down to chat with captured Allied pilots. There were no thumb screws, no hot pokers, no broken fingers. Just two guys shooting the breeze. Eventually he would work the conversation around to the dogfight where the pilot got shot down and chat him up about how that went. By talking about the dogfight he would get details like the climb rate of Allied aircraft. Oh, you dropped your external fuel tanks when you reached the coast? Now he knows the range of the aircraft once he figures out what base the pilot came from.

    The worst part of torture? It turns people who are neutral to your cause into enemies. It’s an effective tool for our enemies to recruit more people when they point to us and exclaim “look what the United States did!” Why do you think Rumsfeld was so pissed when the Abu Ghraib story broke? He knew what this meant for our intelligence gathering efforts, hearts & minds efforts, and that it would put our own people in danger. I believe at the time he called Abu Ghraib a “body blow” to our military efforts. That’s not the language of someone who thinks torture is a good idea.

    Torture was and is ineffective and morally reprehensible. I personally find it disgusting that anyone of any political stripe would even consider the method as justifiable for any reason. People like that not only don’t hold the moral high ground, they’re actively digging a deep dark pit to bury their souls, never to see the light of day again.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/23/2014 - 07:46 pm.


    Mr. Kingstad, you are using a statement that torture doesn’t work as a fact while it is really just a point of a partisan report with many people disagreeing. And one needs only to read some history books to see that sometimes it does work.

    Mr. Hintz, are you proposing to be friendly with Osama bin Laden-type people? Do you really think that they will like their gentle interrogators to tell them where the next terror act is being planned? Or you consider terrorists neutral when they are captured?

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/24/2014 - 10:55 am.


      Let me put it another way. Torture does work if one’s goal is to terrorize, bully, humiliate and degrade. Or want to destroy another human being’s sacred dignity. The Inquisition did work in those respects and in terrorizing the opposition into compliance. And in forcing Jews out of places like Spain. There is no evidence that torture is efficacious in recovering valuable intelligence. People can and will say anything during torture, which is one reason why confessions beaten out of people or obtained through threatened physical violence are inadmissible in U.S. Courts as unreliable.

      You say the report is “partisan with many people disagreeing.” Partisan no doubt because the right will politicize Mother’s Day if the President is in favor of it. Disagreeing with what? That “enhanced interrogation techniques” are not torture because they did not pull out people’s fingernails or cut off body parts? Maybe you need to specify what facts or parts of this report you or others on the right disagree with.

  9. Submitted by tiffany vanvorken on 12/27/2014 - 10:13 am.


    the quest for information after 911 can not be compared to anything or any activity that preceded it, including Nazis, Reds or any other countries methods of extracting info.
    It was not torture.
    3000 people killed was torture, beheadings are torture.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/28/2014 - 01:57 pm.

      Thus . . .

      The current right-wing meme is that 9/11 was torture (I almost said “talking point,” but that would ignore the fact that this point is to be made yelling at the top of one’s voice). Therefore, nothing else was torture. The Cheney/Bush exercise in state sadism exists outside of any historical context, and was justified because (see current right-wing yelling point).

      Is this what we mean by “American Exceptionalism” now?

  10. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 01/02/2015 - 09:37 am.

    Who is to speak for justice…Cheney or Snowden?

    Let’s take another look at Cheney who defends torture as if it were just another red stripe in our flag:

    Add the lack of right to speak and other civil liberties so condemned by this master planner of a new world order, and we see men like Edward Snowden considered a terrorist by even this administration for speaking out while Cheney terrifies the public with his policies of containment; containment of the rights of individuals in a free country – and this administration? – advocating that citizens out of fear should withhold speaking out against the new terrors formulated to oppress liberty in a democratic society; in this Republic and spokesman Cheney shames us…but he is free to speak against civil liberties… and torture being the ‘Cheney tool’ he so defends?

    “I don’t want to live a in a world where everything I say, Everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity and love of friendship is recorded.” Edward Snowden

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/03/2015 - 06:53 pm.

      A choice

      Ms. John-Knudson, you are praising Snowden but you probably forgot where he is hiding now… Do you think that country is better than America?

Leave a Reply