Declassify: The Importance of Releasing the CIA Torture Report

Unless a Senate committee votes to release the 6,300-page document, the Bush Administration's illegal, ineffective interrogation policies are bound to return.
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Today the Senate Intelligence Committee will hold a momentous vote. The subject: what Americans are allowed to know about crimes perpetrated in our names.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration empowered the CIA to torture human prisoners. This was done in secret, without any due process. In some ways, the people involved were like 15th-century Spanish inquisitors: They tortured because they thought that it was the right thing to do, which won't save them from being remembered by history as agents of moral depravity. Under domestic and international law, these torturers should be in jail. Instead, they're lobbying to hide the extent of their unlawful acts from the public.

This subterfuge is cowardly and indefensible. Some Americans believe that it isn't torture to blindfold a prisoner, strap him to a board, gag him, and force water into his nasal cavity until his lungs fill with water, inducing the experience of drowning. Even they should recognize the public's interest in determining the efficacy of whatever interrogation methods were used to prevent terrorist attacks.

That's why the Senate Intelligence Committee spent millions of dollars and countless hours of its staffers' time producing a 6,300-page report on CIA torture—and why a majority of the committee, composed of its Democratic members plus two senators from Maine, want a portion of the report to be declassified. They're expected to prevail in today's vote to submit the report for declassification. Most Republicans on the committee would prefer to shield intelligence bureaucrats from accountability and to keep the public ignorant about torture. As a result, even ineffective methods are more likely to be used again.

The GOP's aversion to sunlight puts our moral standing and our national security at risk. As Andrew Sullivan explains, "Once a constitutional republic has decided to adopt torture, the gravity of the decision makes it a necessity for those inflicting it to prove it worked. But of course, it doesn’t work—which leads to lies and misrepresentations to insist that it did. In turn, those lies help perpetuate the torture. In almost all torture regimes, this tight epistemic closure is routine."

Senate Democrats are trying to help us to avoid a future where propaganda-fueled delusion causes us to deploy an immoral, ineffectual technique again. While torture apology in the GOP is a moral cancer, even prominent Democratic advocates for declassifying parts of the report, like Senator Dianne Feinstein, don't go nearly far enough in what they're willing to let the American public see.

As Spencer Ackerman reports:

The committee is not going to release the 6,300-page report. Its chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein of California, said on the Senate floor three weeks ago that only the “findings, conclusions and the executive summary of the report” were the subject of the committee’s declassification efforts. The vast majority of the Senate report—effectively, an alternative post-9/11 history detailing of years’ worth of CIA torture and cover-up—will remain shielded from public view. 

President Obama is also on the record supporting declassification of some, but not all, of the report. And with few exceptions, Congress and the press are proceeding as if allowing the CIA input into what's declassified is appropriate, even though it is difficult to imagine a party with a more intractable conflict of interest

As Sullivan explains a bit farther on in his item:

What’s truly encouraging about the report is that it apparently has exhaustive records on every single tortured prisoner, and the intelligence they did or did not provide. It could offer some real finality. And then it will offer this democracy a choice. When war crimes have been committed so brutal and foul, so horrifying and sadistic, so useless and immoral, are we simply going to say: no one will ever be held accountable? No one who ordered this will ever face sanction? That is the second reckoning that this country will have to make.

Since the U.S. remains obligated by legally binding treaty to investigate and punish torturers, little wonder that those responsible are trying to avoid a reckoning. Their crime harmed America. And the coverup is hurting America too.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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