Torture Report

As Americans grapple with the tragic bombings in Boston on Monday and the U.S. government works to track down those responsible, a new report on detainee treatment after 9/11 sheds important light on some of the measures adopted by the U.S. government in response to that attack. 

Issued by a panel convened by the Constitution Project, and chaired by two former members of Congress, Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat James R. Jones, the 577-page report looks at the broad range of policies and practices that were adopted by the U.S. to deal with detainees after the September 11 attacks. “Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel,” the report’s opening states, “is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture.”

The new report states that in addition to methods that qualify as torture, “American personnel conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved ‘cruel, inhuman, or degrading’ treatment. Both categories of actions violate U.S. laws and international treaties” (Emphasis added). Such conduct, the report concludes, was “directly counter to values of the Constitution and our nation.”

As for the idea that, as distasteful as these methods might be, they are effective, the report also found “no firm or persuasive evidence that the widespread use of harsh interrogation techniques by U.S. forces produced significant information of value.”

In the past decade-long debate over interrogation methods, one preferred trick of torture advocates was to magically redefine methods long acknowledged to be torture as “not torture.” The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens exemplified this move in a 2007 op-ed. “For the record, count me as one who does not object to the interrogation to which KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, architect of the 9/11 attacks] was reportedly subjected, including waterboarding,” Stephens wrote. “This is not because I take the use of waterboarding lightly (although I have a hard time concluding that a technique, however terrifying, to which CIA officers are willing to subject themselves experimentally can properly be counted as torture). It's because I take the threat posed by KSM seriously.”

This was always a transparently ridiculous pose, made even more so by the hackneyed appeal to “seriousness.” Thanks to this new report, this argument should now be over. The remaining question is whether anyone, at long last, will be held accountable for one of the most serious crimes that a person can be accused of. The report could serve as the basis for a truth commission which, even if it offered some form of amnesty to officials guilty of abuses, would at least serve as a more rigorous public reckoning than we’ve yet seen. 

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen. The prospect of revisiting past abuses is unlikely to garner much public support, and would certainly generate enormous resistance from conservatives committed to blocking Obama’s agenda at every possible opportunity. The Obama administration is also probably not excited to open a broader discussion into some of the Bush-era practices it has adopted with regard to detainees and executive secrecy, which the report also criticizes. 

“I don’t believe anyone is above the law,” President-elect Obama told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in January 2009, shortly before his inauguration, “on the other hand I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backward.” In retrospect, this was an important, and troubling, sign that President Obama would not be as vigorous in investigating the Bush administration’s abuses as candidate Obama had indicated. 

Upon taking office, President Obama immediately issued an executive order prohibiting the use of torture, but ultimately decided against seeking any sort of genuine accountability for those who did. Whether this was done out of a genuine desire to repair the rancorous divisions of the Bush years or simply to avoid expending valuable political capital on a difficult partisan fight, the fact of the matter is that, despite what Obama might personally believe, his administration’s actions have ensured that some people remain above the law.    

In his statement on Tuesday, President Obama said that, “The American people refuse to be terrorized.” Detailing the various ways in which the people of Boston moved quickly to aid the injured, the president said, “If you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil—that’s it. Selflessly.  Compassionately.  Unafraid.”

This is an admirable sentiment, and quite true in many respects. But it’s not the complete picture. Our actions, the actions of a government that acts in our name and with our consent, showed quite clearly that, after 9/11, the American people were terrorized. And the fact that our government is still unable or unwilling to fully confront its adoption of torture, and hold accountable those responsible, is evidence that  we still are. 

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