Turning the Tide Against Torture

A bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence approved a measure to declassify and publicly release a 400-page executive summary and the conclusions and findings of a 6,300-page report on the Bush-era CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program. The ball now lies in President Obama’s court; given his public statements in support of release, it will be hard for him to back track, notwithstanding the resistance he could face from the CIA and possibly other agencies in the review process.

Judging from the administration’s recent statement that the CIA will conduct the declassification review, it may be too soon to declare victory just yet. But, assuming that the summary is released with minimal redactions, this indisputably would be a good thing.

Why? Because more than a decade after 9/11, the CIA’s torture program still remains shrouded in official secrecy. Because the report is the most comprehensive account of the CIA’s torture program and the American public needs to know about the grave human rights violations that were committed in its name. And because this is the only measure of accountability for U.S. torture forthcoming from official quarters, and we should take what we can get.

Some might argue that we have settled for too little. After all, the law unequivocally prohibits torture under all circumstances. The Convention Against Torture, signed and ratified by the United States, expressly states that “no exceptional circumstances” may be invoked as a justification for torture. The convention also obligates state parties to effectively investigate torture and provide an effective remedy for torture victims.

The U.S. has not conducted an effective criminal investigation into CIA torture. The Justice Department’s investigation into detainee abuse was limited to ill-treatment that went beyond what its Office of Legal Counsel had previously authorized, and concluded without bringing any criminal charges, despite ample evidence of CIA torture and abuse. Nor has the U.S. afforded torture victims an effective remedy. Indeed, U.S. courts have closed their doors to them. The report by itself does not hold officials accountable or provide an effective remedy.

But release of the report is critical for setting the record straight and blunting the myth that torture works.

Recent opinion polling shows that the U.S. public believes that torture works. In an August 2012 YouGov national poll, 41 percent of Americans said they would be willing to use torture, while only 34 percent said they would not. Popular culture—exemplified by “24” and “Zero dark Thirty”—only feeds the support for torture. Torture remains on the table for Americans. When Mitt Romney was running for President, he said he would resurrect the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a euphemism for torture.

The report debunks the myth—propagated by the CIA—that torture worked. And it does so based on a meticulous review of more than six million government documents. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the committee, said that she strongly believes that the creation of secret black sites and the use of enhanced interrogation techniques “were terrible mistakes.” She also said that, “this report will settle the debate once and for all over whether our nation should ever employ coercive interrogation techniques.”

In the face of powerful interests that have tried to hide the truth about the inefficacy of torture, public release of this report is of crucial significance for countering the propaganda in favor of torture.

Yes, it would be better if opposition to torture were driven not by evidence of its inefficacy, but the inherent immorality of the practice. But perhaps a public that has been deceived for so long by its own government will take time to rally against the practice of torture on grounds of moral principle.  

There is some reason for hope in this regard. Feinstein herself, with the considerable credibility she carries, has taken a moral stance against torture.

“The report exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation. It chronicles a stain on our history that must never again be allowed to happen,” she said following the vote. Moreover, before and after the vote to send the report to the president, most senators on the committee issued statements saying that so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” were torture and contrary to American values.

Release of the report is no substitute for holding accountable those responsible for the crime of torture. But it will be invaluable for turning the tide against torture.

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