Getting Away With Torture?

A bombshell report from The Washington Post details the Senate’s investigation into CIA torture—and tests President Obama’s commitment to the rule of law.

By Nathan Pippenger

“We do not torture,” insisted George W. Bush in 2005, and he was lying. “On the question of so-called torture,” said Dick Cheney in 2008, “we don’t do torture. We never have.” He was lying too. Now, the Senate Intelligence Committee has weighed in with a massive report on the CIA’s role in Bush-era interrogation tactics. The report is over 6,000 pages long and still classified, but The Washington Post spoke with a number of government officials who know its contents. The bottom line: The CIA was lying too.

A strange political logic seems to govern the severity of lies. Marital infidelity requires an apology, a teary press conference, and a contrite interview. Dirty tricks at a government agency demand a few high-level firings and live-TV scolding from members of a congressional committee. But war crimes are neither juicy gossip nor entertaining television, and it’s the considered opinion of many Beltway heavyweights that talking about them is just bad form. In 2009, when the new Obama Administration was debating whether to release certain documents about the Bush Administration’s interrogation program, former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said on ABC’s This Week that “sometimes in life you want to just keep walking … Don’t always be issuing papers and reports … some of life has to be mysterious.” Similarly in 2009, the late Washington Post columnist David Broder, the very emblem of sober Washington centrism, conceded that “painful coercion” led to “one of the darkest chapters of American history,” but decried the “unworthy desire for vengeance” that would turn “policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas” and ruin “careers and reputations.” Five years later, the effective consensus has hardly strayed from these judgments.

But now a clearer account of abuses is emerging, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone could justify such an attitude. The CIA, for one, has behaved like an institution that knows it has much to hide. If the emerging details about the new Senate report are correct, the CIA did not tell one big lie about whether the United States engaged in torture. Instead, the agency told a whole string of lies (in the Post’s delicate wording, “a long-standing pattern of unsubstantiated claims”). The CIA lied about its prisoners: how important they were, what it did to them, and how it got them to talk. CIA agents continued to torture prisoners even after the agency’s own analysts “were convinced that prisoners had no more information to give.” They dunked them over and over again in giant tanks of ice water—holding their heads down so that they couldn’t breathe—and beat them with heavy sticks. In some cases, they managed to get prisoners to cooperate, and continued beating them anyway.

Because the CIA recorded at least some of its post-9/11 interrogations, these tactics, or similar ones, were probably caught on video. But when criticism of the CIA started to build around 2005, the agency destroyed the tapes. On many occasions, according to the new report, the agency took credit for interrogation breakthroughs that had come from the work of other agencies that didn’t torture prisoners, concealing the fact that its own methods were failing to produce any results. A portrait is emerging of systematic, intentional disinformation—a series of lies that necessarily cascaded in order to support each other in the face of growing skepticism from Congress and the public. On an issue this serious, it’s hard to imagine a more contemptuous attitude.

“Accountability” is an easy word to throw around. Nobody is against accountability. But to make accountability real, there has to be an open, public reckoning with the contents of this report, and, if needed, professional or even criminal consequences for those individuals who broke the law. It’s impossible to both support accountability and oppose these basic demands of democratic openness and legal responsibility—unless you’re willing to argue that the actions described in this report are no cause for concern. President Obama has repeatedly said they are, but he hasn’t yet declassified the report—and even if he does, it’s not clear what (if anything) his Administration will do. Inaction would make a mockery of the United States’s commitment to human dignity and the rule of law. If even half of these allegations were true, how could the report possibly be kept secret? And if it were released, how could it possibly be ignored?

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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