Torturers as infamous as those of the Spanish Inquisition and the Khmer Rouge have used waterboarding—sometimes described as “controlled drowning”—against their enemies. Sadly, so has the United States.
Like many of my fellow citizens, I share a sense of shame, and even complicity, over the CIA detention and interrogation program created after 9/11, which included waterboarding and other brutal treatment of suspects. Until the United States takes a decisive step to tell the truth about what happened, and so long as we fail to take action to make sure it never happens again, we are all complicit.
But perhaps we are finally turning a corner. The executive summary of the historic, 6,700-page Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on CIA interrogation and detention likely will be released this fall—after the Committee and the Obama Administration settle their differences on what information must be redacted to protect the identities of specific intelligence sources.
The report is apparently so chilling and shocking that, when asked about it earlier this month, President Obama bluntly acknowledged that after 9/11 the United States “tortured” some detainees. He added that the Senate report “needs to be understood and accepted. And we have to, as a country, take responsibility for that so that, hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.”
On his second day in office, President Obama issued an executive order closing down all CIA detention facilities—known as “black sites”—and ending the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation.” He deserves credit for doing so. At the same time, however, the president insisted upon “looking forward and not back.”
This has left us with a festering wound. Among the many obscenities that we are still living with from this troubling time—nearly six years into the Obama Administration—is the fact that defendants at Military Commissions being held at Guantanamo cannot say in open court what was done to them by CIA torturers. Why? Because that information is still considered secret.
Former CIA officials George Tenet, Jose Rodriguez, and John Rizzo have written and given countless interviews about what the CIA did to the detainees at the black sites. But if a Guantanamo detainee tries to describe what happened to his own body, while on trial for his life in some cases, the judge actually cuts off the microphone.
We know that former Vice President Dick Cheney agrees with the view that waterboarding is little more than “a dunk in water” and that using waterboarding is a “no-brainer.” Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee in 2008, has said that, “If I were in charge, [our enemies] would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” As a preacher’s kid, I can hardly imagine how someone can utter these kinds of sentences.
Even without the Intelligence Committee Torture Report we have a lot of information about how brutal the CIA interrogations were. For instance, John Rizzo, the former top lawyer at the CIA, wrote in his memoir that as he read the interrogation reports of the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he felt that “this guy was withstanding simulated drowning longer than I would have ever imagined humanly sustainable.” Indeed, Rizzo wrote that he considered it a real possibility that Mohammed might be killed during his interrogation. Yet, he still says publicly that he doesn’t consider waterboarding torture.
But as much as we need a national consensus about the facts and the law, what I think we need even more is a national sense of shame about what happened, just as there is now a broad sense of shame over locking up Americans of Japanese ancestry after Pearl Harbor. That attitude is epitomized by the comment of former Bush Administration Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage who, when asked about waterboarding, said: “I’m ashamed that we’re even having this discussion … I cannot believe that my nation is having a discussion on what is torture.”
Armitage was himself waterboarded briefly as part of a U.S. Navy training exercise to teach service members how to resist torture. But what is remarkable and important to me about Armitage’s interview is not just that he emphatically denounces waterboarding and speaks powerfully about the dangers of using torture. It is his sense of shame.
That shame is no doubt personal, as someone who served in a senior capacity in an administration that used and defended waterboarding and other forms of torture. But I think he’s speaking more broadly—that he is ashamed as an American that our nation did this.
I am not suggesting that Armitage has or should have a sense of shame about being an American, and I have no doubt whatsoever that Armitage is proud of his service to his country. These were the acts of specific people who must bear the bulk of the responsibility. But it must pain him that under the enormous stress of the 9/11 attacks the collective leadership of the United States failed to live up to the “the better angels of our nature,” and that America still has not decisively repudiated torture or even told the truth about what happened.
With the release of the Senate report on CIA torture, all of us will have the chance to understand what happened and to make sure that it never happens again.