We knew the CIA was guilty of torturing detainees, but until this week we did not know just how vicious it had been. We knew it had misled us about its torture program, but until this week we did not know the sheer scope of its lies. We had some knowledge of its horrible mistakes, but until this week we didn’t have definitive proof of its utter incompetence. Those are just a few of the stomach-churning things we can now be certain were done in our name, thanks to the 524-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report, the full version of which is still classified and is over 6,000 pages long. It’s hard to improve on The Guardian ’s description of the enormous importance of what has been released: “It is one of the most shocking documents ever produced by any modern democracy about its own abuses of its own highest principles.” What happens in the coming weeks is of the highest moral and political significance: We now have to decide whether we will ever do this again.
It is unlikely that most Americans, or their elected officials, see things that way. The overwhelming tendency will be to discuss the contents of this report as the excesses of an era that is now over. That tendency could not be more wrongheaded. As long as those who designed, ordered, and carried out these torture programs escape accountability, we are still living under the torture regime. First, because our refusal to reckon with these crimes belies our conviction that they are crimes at all. And second, because a failure of accountability today erases any assurance that we will resist the temptation to torture in the future. If torturers are above or outside the law, and if we demonstrate by our inaction that future torturers will enjoy the same immunity, then the era of torture is very much still with us.
If we decide to continue living under the torture regime, let’s at least do so without illusions and look clearly at the grisly details in the executive summary. (For an infuriating overview, see Dylan Matthews’s collection here.) The CIA lied to Congress about its program, telling oversight committees that techniques like waterboarding had worked—a statement at odds with its own records. It lied about program successes in high-level White House briefings. The agency’s defenders often insist that certain clandestine activities can never be revealed for national security reasons, but that argument only applies to the general public. A CIA that conceals the truth in classified congressional hearings, that lies to the White House, answers to no one.
What does an agency do when it is above accountability and outside the law? The report gives some answers. CIA interrogators engaged in “rectal feeding,” a practice which left at least one prisoner with “chronic hemorrhoids, an anal fissure, and symptomatic rectal prolapse.” It forced detainees with broken feet to stand upright or in stress positions for hours on end. It drove prisoners insane. In one instance, the agency wrongfully detained an intellectually disabled man in order to gain “leverage” against his family members. It even mistakenly tortured people who had cooperated as CIA informants.
This is a picture of incompetence and inhuman cruelty. And as Timothy Lee points out, the only person who has been prosecuted in connection with these crimes is the CIA official who revealed them. He is now serving a prison sentence while other agents walk free—agents who tortured innocent people, who force-fed pureed hummus through prisoners’ anuses, who drove detainees to self-mutilation and hallucinations, and who in some cases killed them.
When these abuses came to light several years ago, figures like Peggy Noonan were mocked for suggesting that Americans just “keep walking” and forget the past. Their refusal to face unpleasant facts was rightly taken as proof of their moral idiocy. But Barack Obama is no moral idiot, and neither are many of the other high-ranking figures who now have the chance to galvanize public opinion in the wake of these revelations—even if the result is a formal pardon, simply to acknowledge that laws were broken. To reveal this information and take no action would only prove that the people who committed these crimes are not ruled by the law, that they have been granted legal immunity on the basis of national fear.
Granting that immunity now will haunt us at some point in the future. Someday, long after the furor over this report has subsided, the United States may suffer another attack or find itself in fear of some national security threat. As in the months following September 11th, powerful voices will call on the government to abandon the dangerous legal niceties of peacetime. We now have the chance to do what the law and basic decency require of us, and to help ensure that we never submit to these calls again. Unless we do so, we will have the fate of some future victims on our conscience. And we will still be living under the torture regime.