Senate Torture Report Shows Need for Accountability

WASHINGTON – The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence today released the executive summary and findings of its landmark report on the CIA’s rendition, secret detention, and torture program.

The full report was adopted in December 2012 by a bipartisan majority of the committee after nearly five years of investigation. Today’s release comes after long negotiations between the committee and the White House over redactions requested by the CIA.

Responding to the report, the American Civil Liberties Union released a detailed plan for full accountability, and ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero had this reaction:

This is a shocking report, and it is impossible to read it without feeling immense outrage that our government engaged in these terrible crimes.

This report definitively drags into the light the horrific details of illegal torture, details that both the Bush and Obama administrations have worked hard to sweep under the rug. The government officials who authorized illegal activity need to be held accountable. The CIA’s wrongful acts violated basic human rights, served as a huge recruiting tool for our enemies, and alienated allies world-wide. Our response to the damning evidence in this report will define us as a nation.

This should be the beginning of a process, not the end. The report should shock President Obama and Congress into action, to make sure that torture and cruelty are never used again.

The Department of Justice needs to appoint a special prosecutor to hold the architects and perpetrators of the torture program accountable for its design, implementation, and cover-ups. Congress must assert its constitutional role in the system of checks and balances, and oversee the CIA, which in this report sounds more like a rogue paramilitary group than the intelligence gathering agency that it’s supposed to be.

The president needs to use the moral authority of his office to formally recognize both the torture program’s victims and those in government who resisted this shameful and illegal policy.

Over the course of a decade, ACLU FOIA litigation has resulted in the release of the 100,000 pages of documents relating to the torture policies, which are available in a searchable database.

Here is a blueprint for accountability:

Appoint a Special Prosecutor. The attorney general should appoint a special prosecutor with the full authority to conduct an independent and complete investigation of Bush administration officials who created, approved, carried out, and covered up the torture program. The crime of torture has no statute of limitations when torture risks or results in serious injury or death, and the U.S. government has the obligation under international law to investigate any credible evidence that torture has been committed. If there’s sufficient evidence of criminal conduct – and it’s hard to see how there isn’t –the offenders should be prosecuted. In our system, no one should be above the law, yet only a handful of mainly low-level personnel have been criminally prosecuted for abuse.

That is a scandal.

CIA Reform. The CIA’s spying on Senate Intelligence Committee staffers investigating the agency’s use of torture is one more damning piece of evidence that the CIA urgently needs to be reformed. Congress should ensure the CIA never tortures again by taking two steps. First, Congress must prohibit the CIA from operating any detention facility or holding any person in its custody. Second, Congress should subject the CIA to the same interrogation rules that apply to the military. President Obama rightly ended the torture program when he assumed office. Now it’s Congress’ turn to make sure the CIA never again operates free of the checks and balances our democratic system demands.

Apologize to Victims. With only a handful of exceptions, the U.S. government has not officially acknowledged its torture victims let alone extended formal apologies to those men, women, and children for the horrors our nation inflicted on them. With the Senate torture report’s release, President Obama should rectify this.

Apologies alone won’t do, however.

The United States has a responsibility under international law to provide compensation and rehabilitation services to those who suffered torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment at its behest. Restitution is necessary for healing to start. It will also signal to the rest of the world and future generations that torture as U.S. state policy was an aberration that America promises never to repeat.

Honor Courage. Many U.S. service members and civilian officials risked their careers and reputations by objecting to torture after learning it was official U.S. policy. They understood that torture would harm lives, violate the law, undermine national security, and corrupt our institutions – including the military as well as the CIA.

These largely unsung men and women are heroes, and President Obama should formally honor their courage and their commitment to our most fundamental ideals of treating captives with dignity and respect, which stretches back to the Revolutionary War. By honoring these men and women of conscience, the president will also send a strong message to other public servants and officials that they need not fear coming forward when their government does wrong.

Full Disclosure. Even with the release of the redacted Senate report, secrecy still obscures the full extent of U.S. government abuse. If the Obama administration is serious about transparency, it will remove the redactions it forced the Senate to include in the torture report and publicly release all 6,700 pages in full. Complete transparency, however, cannot occur until the government releases President Bush’s 2001 memo authorizing the creation of CIA black sites, the CIA’s cables on the use of waterboarding and other brutal interrogation techniques, and the photographic evidence of U.S. prisoner abuse at Iraqi and Afghan detention facilities.

The other, shameful option is to continue doing what America has done all along on accountability: next to nothing.If we choose to end the story that way, and it is a choice, there will be serious consequences for who we are as a nation. As torture survivor Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, has shown, history teaches that countries that try to bury or ignore their serious human rights abuses are more likely to commit the same transgressions again.

How the story of America’s descent into the torture chamber ends hasn’t been written yet. We can start righting the wrongs of the past, but only if we have the courage to face our demons fully, and show the world our commitment to putting the darkness behind us.