It’s not as if state-sanctioned torture is anything new. Include the last 400-odd years of black victimization and you just created a library exclusively devoted to the subject. So when the Senate Intelligence Committee recently dropped its findings on brutal CIA “interrogation techniques,” watching the outrage from pundits and politicians was like struggling through a badly acted sitcom. Late-night binges on Homeland episodes, we got this. Even the reaction from Middle Eastern jihadis and an aggrieved Muslim diaspora seemed muted. For the most part, while talking heads battled over everything from rectal dehydration to the merits of waterboarding, the rest of us appeared underwhelmed. Tell us something we don’t know.
But the international and domestic political ramifications are what make this report significant. American culture may have prepped for it through our tacit approval of torture in the post-9/11 world, but the rest of the world—including U.S. allies—wants attribution and accountability. Was it wise to put it all out there?
“Tactically, [torture] produced unreliable information, handed terrorists a recruiting tool, put Americans in captivity at greater risk, fueled anti-American sentiment around the world and undermined international cooperation on counterterrorism issues,” observes Mike German for the Rethinking Intelligence project at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. “Strategically, it undermined domestic law and international covenants prohibiting torture, damaged relationships with our allies and destroyed our moral authority on human rights issues. Tyrants and dictators around the world will no doubt use the Bush legal memos to justify their own torture programs against political dissidents and human rights activists.”
Still, we can probably take a little moral high ground while in the midst of disclosure. The U.S. might have bloodstained hands, but we wash up with style. We’re transparent in a way our critics aren’t. North Korea clowns us, but it’s not as if Kim Jong Un is releasing execution videotapes. Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t be overwhelmed with emotion one day and describe, in grisly detail, all the cats he’s killed since his days as a Soviet KGB agent.
Plus, you can’t beat the timing. Senate Democrats, while they’re in charge, rip the Band-Aid off now and score points with their jaded liberal base. Republicans won’t be having any of that when they take over in 2015. It’s a bit of nonredacted sweetener that progressives can probably use against the Bush brand should ambitious brother Jeb decide to run in 2016, since the current president is staying out of this. Notice, though, that Guantanamo Bay is still open.
Better to get ahead of this thing before any more embarrassing Edward Snowden leaks (or worse), tool. And just as the world is questioning America about police brutality and how it treats people of color, this might help alleviate some pressure. There is an implicit what-makes-America-great message in it … well, sort of … we guess. We make mistakes (some big ones, too), but we own up to them through oversight, something other countries that criticize us don’t do.
The Take turned to a couple of leading experts for their thoughts on the topic to explain whether it’s, indeed, chicken soup for the American soul. Vincent Warren is executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Patrick Eddington is a policy analyst in homeland security and civil liberties for the Cato Institute.
Vincent Warren (@VinceWarren): It’s always good when transparency reveals hundreds of CIA lies, but in no way is it a safeguard against the state-sanctioned crimes it exposed. The bottom line is that to prevent torture, we must criminally prosecute torture. That is the law—torture is a violation of federal and international criminal law, no exceptions allowed.
Patrick Eddington (@PGEddington): Mass surveillance and torture are the hallmarks of totalitarian regimes. Since the 9/11 attacks, our government has used both, in violation of the Constitution and international law. The release of the Senate report summary on the CIA’s torture program should only be the first step in the renunciation of torture, and it should help spur the rejection of mass surveillance of Americans.
VW: The audacity with which the Obama DOJ refuses to prosecute these criminals is irresponsible and feeds into the expectation of impunity—from police who kill unarmed blacks to CIA agents that torture—that is undermining our most basic human rights and constitutional protections.
PE: This report summary took years to see the light of day, not because of political considerations but because of the obstructionism of the Central Intelligence Agency. Its release will put the United States back on the path of being a nation that international partners can trust to uphold the rule of law, instead of being a nation that subverts it.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.