Torture Report Gives America a Second Chance


On Tuesday, after years of wrangling with their colleagues and with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Senate Democrats released a report that accuses the CIA of what legal scholars have largely agreed on: in the aftermath of 9/11, the United States tortured detainees.

The basic facts are well established: in an effort to collect valuable intelligence, and under guidance from both the White House and the Justice Department, the CIA engaged in extraordinary interrogation techniques that would have not been previously considered legal.

The fight has largely been divided over two questions. The first is the semantic matter of whether those practices should be legally and/or colloquially termed ‘torture’ – a debate that reminds me of Nietzsche’s description of social truth as “the duty to lie according to a fixed convention.”

The second asks whether or not such practices were effective.

For years, the country has had to make do with a particularly pitiful spectacle: advocates on both sides of the argument have made largely-unsubstantiated claims while appealing to classified information that the rest of us have not been privy to. In one of the worst examples of political paternalism that I can think of, the American people have been invited to chose among competing ‘experts’ but have been denied any meaningful opportunity to engage with the facts of an issue that cuts to the core of who we are as a people.

Tuesday’s release is an important step in remedying that mistake.

The Senate report accuses the CIA of misleading both Congress and the White House in order to make its interrogation program appear more effective than it was. That’s a disturbing charge on its face, and one that merits serious consideration in light of the fact that the CIA has already admitted that it spied on Senate staffers who were doing research in preparation of this very report.

The conclusion that the CIA is an intelligence agency run amok is difficult to avoid.

It would seem that Americans should question a system that depends on a secretive agency making classified reports to lawmakers who are, in turn, sworn to secrecy. Whatever merits such a process might enjoy, rigorous oversight doesn’t seem to be among them.

What happens next is difficult, if not impossible to predict. For example, earlier this week the executive director of the ACLU called for the Obama Administration to grant a blanket amnesty to high-ranking members of the Bush Administration for any role they might have played in torturing prisoners. His argument, which you can read here, is that such a move would at least establish the principle that crimes were, in fact, committed.

But the idea that the ACLU would endorse amnesty as the best remedy for the situation speaks volumes about the difficulty it has faced gaining traction with its more straightforward arguments.

Over the following weeks, observers will participate in a debate over the conclusions of this report. Some people will argue that the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ program did not amount to torture and that it saved lives, while others will argue that it did amount to torture and that it was ineffective. None of significance will argue that it saved lives, but that it was also torture – a tacit recognition that torture, is in fact, wrong.

We’ve had this debate before. The difference is that it will now happen in an environment where Americans will be allowed to know that ‘enhanced interrogation’ included medically unnecessary rectal feeding for the purposes of exerting “total control over the detainee.”

Americans will also know that one detainee reportedly died of hypothermia after being chained “partially nude” to a concrete floor, that detainees were routinely forced to endure sleep deprivation for periods of up to a week, and that an unnamed intelligence operative described one interrogation site as a “dungeon.”

Another operative likened the condition of prisoners to kenneled dogs.

Does that amount to torture? Americans will have to decide for themselves. Thanks to Tuesday’s report, now they can.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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