Shortly after the Abu Ghraib photographs became public, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told foreign audiences, “Watch America. Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing. Watch what a nation of values and character, a nation that believes in justice, does to right this kind of wrong.”
Powell assured them that “they will see a free press and an independent Congress at work,” that there would be “multiple investigations to get to the facts” and that “the world will see that we are still a nation with a moral code that defines our national character.”
Nine years later, these promises remain largely unfulfilled with respect to the CIA’s torture and abuse of “war on terror” detainees. But the Senate Intelligence Committee, which includes Maine Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, has before it the opportunity to take a significant step toward changing that.
A year ago this month, under the leadership of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., members voted along bipartisan lines to adopt a 6,300-page oversight study of the CIA’s post-9/11 rendition, detention and interrogation program. That was an important moment. We urge the committee now to follow through by taking the next critical step: declassify and release the report.
We were members of The Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, an 11-member bipartisan panel that spent two years examining the treatment of suspected terrorists under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.
The task force was made up of former high-ranking officials with distinguished careers in the judiciary, Congress, the diplomatic service, law enforcement, the military and other parts of the executive branch, as well as recognized experts in law, medicine and ethics.
We concluded unanimously that the United States engaged in torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment — in many instances and across several theaters — and senior government officials, both civilian and military, bear ultimate responsibility for those abuses.
We also made a series of recommendations designed to prevent a return to torture and abuse in the face of any next terrorist attack. Increased transparency is at the heart of many of our task force’s recommendations. We believe that an informed public is critical to ensuring that safeguards against torture are both comprehensive and enduring. And that begins with the declassification and release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report.
Immediately on taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order rescinding the CIA’s authorization to use “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but a new president could easily overturn it with the stroke of a pen.
That is a real risk given that public support for torture has only increased in the last five years. It is easy to agree with the sanitized version of the program presented in former CIA officials’ memoirs. It is easy to defend the use of torture to defuse “ticking time bombs” on the television show “24,” or to elicit an essential clue in the hunt for Osama bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty.” It is much harder to examine the evidence about the United States’ use of brutality after Sept. 11, and conclude that our country should go down that path again.
Having engaged with the facts ourselves — at least those discoverable without the benefit of subpoena power or access to classified documents — we are confident that a national conversation based on a thorough and honest explanation of what our country did in the name of its people would shift public opinion away from thinking torture is ever acceptable, no matter the circumstances.
Senators familiar with the Intelligence Committee report suggest that it also would refute factual representations made by the CIA about the scope, safety and efficacy of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” representations on which Justice Department lawyers relied in judging the techniques lawful. Having the report public would make much more difficult any future attempt to lawyer acrobatically around the laws that already prohibit torture.
As long as the proponents of “enhanced interrogation” can continue to claim that torture and other forms of abuse are critical to protecting the nation against terrorist attacks, while the hard evidence to support or rebut those claims remains shrouded in secrecy, there will be a temptation to resort to them in a crisis. Future presidents navigating future crises will face pressure from a nervous public, and from those who still insist not only that waterboarding in pursuit of national security is permissible, but also that timidity in employing it would be a betrayal of trust.
The Senate Intelligence Committee report could provide an important counterweight to that pressure and prove invaluable to our country’s leaders when making decisions about how best to keep all of us safe without sacrificing who we are. But only if it sees the light of day.
David Irvine is a retired Army brigadier general who maintained a faculty assignment for 18 years with the Sixth U.S. Army Intelligence School, teaching prisoner-of-war interrogation and military law. James R. Jones served as ambassador to Mexico and as a Democratic congressman from Oklahoma. Thomas R. Pickering served as undersecretary of state for political affairs under President Bill Clinton and as ambassador and representative to the United Nations under President George H.W. Bush. William S. Sessions served three U.S. presidents as director of the FBI, and was chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.,