The long-overdue release of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program — the so-called torture report — has shown the world America at its best and worst.
The dark side is represented in the report’s grim descriptions of a post-9/11 program that was more extensive, harsher, less truthful and less effective than the American people, and even the president, were told.
What Americans can be proud of is that despite intense pressure from powerful political and intelligence community leaders, the report was completed and released.
Critics, including some Senate Republicans and past and present CIA officials, contend that it’s an incomplete assessment. Some of their arguments have merit. But the report is the best documentation yet of grave mistakes made by many at multiple levels. Ideally, its repercussions will result in the United States not repeating these mistakes.
Descriptions of detainee abuse in the report should finally and firmly end the euphemism of “enhanced interrogation.” It was torture, and it was immoral. And that alone — not important but secondary considerations like effectiveness, strategic value, transparency and impact on international relations — should be enough to convince Americans that what happened was wrong.
Some of the brutal methods — such as waterboarding, which the report described as a “series of near drownings” — were widely known before Tuesday. Until the report’s release, however, Americans were unaware that techniques including “rectal feeding” or “rectal dehydration” were used to have “total control over a detainee.” In some cases, extreme sleep deprivation and death threats were also employed. At least one detainee was chained to the ceiling of his cell, clad in a diaper in his own waste.
Some detainees held in an Afghan prison commonly called the Salt Pit (described as a dungeon by a CIA officer) “literally looked like a dog that had been kenneled.” One Salt Pit prisoner who was stripped and shackled to a wall died of hypothermia. Overall, 119 men were held by the CIA — not 98 as the agency had previously and consistently reported. At least 26 of these prisoners “were wrongfully held,” according to the Senate report.
These and many other details should shock the nation. If American detainees were subjected to similar treatment, the U.S. public would be outraged. Americans should be equally enraged that this was done in their name.
To be sure, there are also efficacy considerations — “The CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or garnering cooperation from detainees,” the report stated. And there are concerns that it alienated allies — “The CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program damaged the United States’ standing in the world, and resulted in other significant monetary and non-monetary costs,” according to the report. What’s more, there appears to have been a systemic misrepresentation of essential information to the media, the White House, the Justice Department and Congress.
But the central issue is morality. And it was summed up effectively by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was tortured while being held prisoner in Vietnam. Rebuffing some of his colleagues’ criticism of the report, he said on the Senate floor: “Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies — our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.”
Unfortunately, countering McCain’s honorable defense of American values were unrepentant voices, including that of former Vice President Dick Cheney. The interrogation program was “the right thing to do, and if I had to do it over again, I would do it,” Cheney told the New York Times.
That Cheney is closely associated with this stain on the nation’s good character does not mean his view is unique. Others may be tempted, perhaps in response to future acts of terrorism, to again debase our standards.
Americans should not let that happen. Our national character — indeed, our morality — is what separates us from our enemies. Shame on us if we ignore that fundamental truth.