Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
After five years of Dick Cheney's insistence that "enhanced interrogation" saved "thousands of lives," after a multiplex blitz by the Hollywood film Zero Dark Thirty propagating CIA claims that torture led us to Bin Laden, after strident neo-conservative rhetoric forced mainstream media to shun the "T" word, we finally have an authoritative, non-partisan investigation stating, as verifiable fact, "It is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture."
And instead of blaming this abuse on a few bad apples at the bottom of the military's chain of command, this report, titled Detainee Treatment, states, "The nation's highest officials bear some responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of torture."
These are but a few of the many stunning yet authoritative conclusions from an eleven-member panel impressive for their unimpeachable credentials -- including former DEA director Asa Hutchinson, former FBI director William S. Sessions, and retired Army intelligence chief Claudia Kennedy. After President Obama rejected calls for an official investigation into U.S. interrogation practices back in 2009, the Constitution Project mobilized staff, funds, and this impressive expertise for an exhaustive two-year investigation of every major facet of the torture controversy that has so divided this nation for over a decade.
In an editorial this week on April 17, the New York Times said this report was by no means "musty old business," but instead represents "a valuable, even necessary reckoning" and the "fullest independent effort so far to assess the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and at the C.I.A.'s secret prisons." The Times called this group's conclusion that the United States engaged in torture "impossible to dismiss." Even for someone such as myself who has written two books on the torture issue, the report rings with bracing authority and refreshing moral clarity.
By a thorough review of past research and their own aggressive investigations, this group produced an eloquent narrative, free from the convoluted circumlocution of past official inquires. Their unflinching account offers nauseatingly detailed descriptions of US torture and cautionary accounts of the bipartisan groupthink that sanctioned such abuse. These profiles in cowardice include the CIA for false claims about its enhanced interrogation, the Bush administration for directing this abuse, its lawyers for exculpatory memos that "remain a stain on the image of the United States," the Obama administration for failing to investigate, and even the International Committee of the Red Cross for refusing to risk a confrontation with the Pentagon when their staff "were so offended by their discoveries at Guantanamo."
With responsible officials either encouraging or tolerating abuse, torture spread like a cancer throughout the national security apparatus. Within a year after 9/11, almost every US agency holding detainees worldwide had crossed the line into torture. In Iraq, CIA, Special Forces, and military intelligence all tortured their prisoners. In Afghanistan, US Army interrogators beat a detainee's legs so badly they would have required amputation had he not died in custody. Even today, US troops transfer detainees to the Afghan National Directorate of Security where, as everyone knows, they are brutally tortured. At Guantanamo, the head of the Military Commissions has admitted, "We tortured."
But nobody can trump the CIA when it comes to working what Vice President Cheney infamously called "the dark side." Once the Bush administration authorized their tortures in late 2001, the agency reveled in its new role. In black sites from Thailand to Poland, CIA interrogators beat prisoners to death, high-shackled detainees for days on end, and engaged in demonic techniques such as waterboarding and confinement in tight boxes filled with insects.
Yet there is, this report tell us, "no firm or persuasive evidence that the widespread use of harsh interrogation techniques...produced information of value." Indeed, there is, the group reports, "substantial evidence that much of the information adduced from the use of such techniques was not useful or reliable." But so blasé did the agency become about torture that the CIA kidnapped and abused three Libyan Islamists "who had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the September 11 attacks" simply because they were convenient bargaining chips "to win favor with [Colonel] el-Gaddafi's regime."
With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan only months away, now is the time, this distinguished panel advises, to staunch all this damage.
We need to close Guantanamo, put a few prisoners on trial and send the rest to any country that will not torture them.
We must revise the US Army Field Manual, compromised by Bush administration changes in 2006 to now allow an inhumane 40 hours of continuous interrogation.
It is, moreover, time to end all the secrecy surrounding detention and rendition since 9/11 and let the full truth come out.
We must stop the charade of sending detainees to other nations notorious for torture that give Washington some fig-leaf assurance about respect for human rights.
We must rewrite our Torture Statute and War Crimes Act, erasing all the legal loopholes and lawyerly legerdemain that allow torture, and instead adopt the clear UN definition that most other nations observe.
Unless we make all these changes, then we run the risk of once again resorting to torture. Obama's executive orders banning CIA torture could, this group warns, "be rescinded on the first day of any new president's term -- and this could be done without public notice."
Although the Bush Justice Department's dubious memos finding that CIA techniques of shackling, slapping, and sleep deprivation were in compliance with the Geneva Conventions have been suspended, "there is no institutional barrier to future...attorneys adopting their legal reasoning."
Indeed, a recent poll found that 41 percent of Americans still favor torturing terror suspects versus only 34 percent opposed. And it is "possible that the robust public defenses of the CIA program" by Dick Cheney and others have "convinced many people that the CIA program...saved lives," creating a vocal constituency for torture midst some future crisis.
In short, the United States is acting like a cancer patient who decides to skip the uncomfortable chemotherapy and go to the ball game instead. Mark my words, the practice of torture is a cancer poisoning cell after cell in this nation's democracy. "As we slide down that slippery slope to torture in general," I warned seven years ago in my 2006 book A Question of Torture, "we should realize that there is a chasm at the bottom called extra-judicial execution. With the Agency's gulag full of dozens of detainees of dwindling utility, CIA agents, active and retired, have been vocal in their complaints about the costs and inconvenience of limitless, even lifetime, incarceration for these tortured terrorists. In effect, the logical corollary to state-sanctioned torture is state-sponsored murder."
Back in 2006 readers may well have dismissed that warning about "state-sponsored murder" as improbable, even irresponsible. But now this distinguished panel tells us that is exactly what has happened. Under President Obama, the torture issue has faded not from reform but because we are no longer taking prisoners since, as this report states, "the regime of capture and detention has been...supplanted in large measure by the use of drones." By killing high value targets with drones, "the troublesome issues of how to conduct detention and interrogation operations are minimized." In effect, we have slid down the slippery slope of human rights abuse to find extra-judicial killings awaiting us like an unwelcome specter at the bottom.
Unless we confront this troubled past and systematically correct our bipartisan slide into state-sanctioned illegality, some future scandal awaits in the murky realm of executive covert action that can further damage our democracy and degrade our nation's international standing.
Alfred W. McCoy is professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the recent book Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).