Saturday, March 8, 2014
Shortly after the Abu Ghraib photographs became public, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told foreign audiences, “Watch America. Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing. Watch what a nation of values and character, a nation that believes in justice, does to right this kind of wrong.”
Powell assured them that “they will see a free press and an independent Congress at work,” that there would be “multiple investigations to get to the facts” and that “the world will see that we are still a nation with a moral code that defines our national character.”
Nine years later, these promises remain largely unfulfilled with respect to the CIA’s torture and abuse of “war on terror” detainees. But the Senate Intelligence Committee, which includes Maine Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent, has before it the opportunity to take a significant step toward changing that.
A year ago this month, under the leadership of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., members voted along bipartisan lines to adopt a 6,300-page oversight study of the CIA’s post-9/11 rendition, detention and interrogation program. That was an important moment. We urge the committee now to follow through by taking the next critical step: declassify and release the report.
We were members of The Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, an 11-member bipartisan panel that spent two years examining the treatment of suspected terrorists under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.
The task force was made up of former high-ranking officials with distinguished careers in the judiciary, Congress, the diplomatic service, law enforcement, the military and other parts of the executive branch, as well as recognized experts in law, medicine and ethics.
We concluded unanimously that the United States engaged in torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment — in many instances and across several theaters — and senior government officials, both civilian and military, bear ultimate responsibility for those abuses.
We also made a series of recommendations designed to prevent a return to torture and abuse in the face of any next terrorist attack. Increased transparency is at the heart of many of our task force’s recommendations. We believe that an informed public is critical to ensuring that safeguards against torture are both comprehensive and enduring. And that begins with the declassification and release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report.
Immediately on taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order rescinding the CIA’s authorization to use “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but a new president could easily overturn it with the stroke of a pen.
That is a real risk given that public support for torture has only increased in the last five years. It is easy to agree with the sanitized version of the program presented in former CIA officials’ memoirs. It is easy to defend the use of torture to defuse “ticking time bombs” on the television show “24,” or to elicit an essential clue in the hunt for Osama bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty.” It is much harder to examine the evidence about the United States’ use of brutality after Sept. 11, and conclude that our country should go down that path again.
Having engaged with the facts ourselves — at least those discoverable without the benefit of subpoena power or access to classified documents — we are confident that a national conversation based on a thorough and honest explanation of what our country did in the name of its people would shift public opinion away from thinking torture is ever acceptable, no matter the circumstances.
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