Thick, footnote-laden reports from official government bodies have played a surprisingly important role in shaping American policy and public opinion. To give a few examples from my conscious lifetime:
- The Warren Commission report in 1964, on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, argued strongly that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and without any outside guidance or collaboration. Agree, disagree (to me it's always seemed implausible, but I have no convincing other interpretation), it remains the central document for discussions of the topic.
- The Kerner Commission report in early 1968 examined the race riots of the previous few years and concluded that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." It was an immediate national bestseller. Martin Luther King said that the report was "physician's warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life." Six weeks later he was shot dead.
- The Church Committee reports of 1975 and 1976, which were technically reports of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, laid out a wide range of abuses and excesses by the CIA and U.S. intelligence agencies. These included targeted assassinations of foreign leaders and widespread and previously unknown surveillance programs. Afterwards some intelligence officials claimed that their hands had been tied, etc., but it was a mammoth and necessary airing of excesses.
- The Hart-Rudman Commission in 2001, technically the Commission on U.S. National Security/21st Century, was the one that warned the incoming George W. Bush administration of the likelihood of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
- The 9/11 Commission report of 2004, technically the "Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States," was another immediate bestseller that examined the sins of omission and commission that predated the worst-ever terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
There have been others that made news and focused attention: the Grace Commission, the "Nation at Risk" Commission, the report on the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the Moynihan report, plus more early in the 20th century (e.g. this). The point is, these big, ponderous official studies are often the way the United States has dealt with big, ominous issues.
The Torture Committee report of 2014 should have the same effect. I say "should" in an exhortative rather than necessarily predictive sense, though I hope both apply. You should read this document, and you should demand changes and accountability.
Technically the report is known as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program. You can read the 500-plus pages of the "executive summary" and other working papers at this WaPo site or this from the NYT or elsewhere. It should—and I say this in the predictive sense—henceforth be known as the Torture Committee report.
One way to put its findings is: Whatever you thought was out of control and abusive about the all-fronts approach to the "global war on terror," it was worse than that. Another way is: Whatever damage you thought the United States was doing to its own values, its standing in the world, and its system of checks and accountability, it was doing more.
Read it yourself. There is no other way to absorb the scale and relentlessness of the abuses it chronicles. And this is from the heavily "redacted" version, with working papers presumably to follow. Start reading.
The architects of America's self-destructive over-response to a shocking and unprecedented attack will always bear the responsibility for the path they set the country on. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Rice, Tenet, Bremer, Franks, and others including, yes, Powell will always be the ones who launched America into a war it should not have fought and who embraced tactics that, in the long run, have damaged America more profoundly than the original, profoundly damaging assault did. (Before you ask, these are not convenient retrospective judgments on my part but points I was arguing at the time. For instance in 2002, in early 2004 and in late 2004, and in 2006.) Although the 2000 presidential election was more an affront to the norms of democracy, as five Supreme Court justices stepped in to declare a winner, the 2004 election was more consequential for the United States internationally. By the margin of fewer than 120,000 votes in Ohio, the world's oldest democracy decided to return to power the leaders who had started the Iraq War, the results of which were already in ashes, and had run Abu Ghraib.*
Democracy depends on accountability, and accountability depends on knowledge. The Torture Committee report is potentially an enormous step forward. But only if people read it.
* This post originally stated that the margin in Ohio was fewer than 100,000 votes. We regret the error.