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Coming Clean, With Bloodstained Hands

Why the release of the damning, horrific Senate torture report could be a bright spot for American democracy.

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The release of the report by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture during the War on Terror is a vital step toward bringing to an end the Age of Fear that has perverted American national security policy and, more importantly, undercut our most basic national values for almost a decade and a half. Indeed, the core abuses listed in the report — and they can go by no other name than torture — are the signal failure of U.S. leadership of that era, worse even than the invasion of Iraq. Both were disastrous. Both damaged us. But the use of torture cut deeper into the fiber of who we are, and who we have always aspired to be as a nation. The issue the report raises is not just what we did to these people, but what we became by doing it.

It is already clear that the report will trigger a firestorm of political controversy, with a vigorous defense of their conduct by the CIA and former intelligence community leaders already underway and clear signs that it will be spun along party lines. But even if you take as contentious points about whether or not the intelligence community misled Congress, overstepped the bounds of the guidance given by the White House and U.S. government lawyers, misrepresented the effectiveness of the enhanced interrogation program, or employed inappropriate techniques or badly trained or supervised staff, the 6,000-page report and its declassified summary of more than 500 pages make several things crystal clear and indisputable.

The United States committed torture. It did so repeatedly. It did so with callous indifference to the most basic of human rights and in violation of the U.S. Constitution and international law. Those responsible for the torture programs ignored repeated concerns expressed by trusted colleagues within their own ranks that they had gone too far and that their efforts were often ineffective in producing the intelligence that had been deemed so valuable that it had justified our departure from our national senses. Leaders within the intelligence community misrepresented the results of the program, the scope of the program, and the nature of the program.

I have no doubt, as has been asserted by President George W. Bush and by the CIA in its own response to the Senate report, that those who participated in these programs did so because they felt they were acting in the national interest. Further, it would be a tragic error to condemn the many effective, often heroic, efforts of the men and women of the intelligence community simply because this program was so misguided, mismanaged, and ill-considered. But it was all those things.

In the end, therefore, responsibility for it must reside with the president who initially OK’d the program, George W. Bush, and with the team around him who justified it, oversaw it, and accepted its outcomes. Again, these were good men and women acting in what they no doubt saw was an essential effort to defend the homeland against future 9/11s or potentially even more devastating attacks.

But in the end, they were deeply and profoundly wrong. They let their fears of getting “hit hard” justify the unjustifiable. And in so doing, because they were the leaders of a great nation with essentially limitless resources, they set in motion a chain of events that are appalling to consider in retrospect and were, according to the report, often so repulsive that they “profoundly affected” some of the intelligence agency personnel called upon to perform or observe them. Indeed, it is an important footnote to the report that so much within it came as a result of the testimony of those who were so disturbed by the program that they sought to change it, to call their bosses out. These men and women, too, should be seen as heroes within the intelligence community, those with the courage to stand up to the bureaucracy in which they worked and its culture of suppressing and discouraging such dissent.

Among the assertions of the report is that President Bush and Vice President Cheney were not informed of the details of the program for four years after it was initiated. The assertion is that information was withheld from them, much as it clearly was from Congress. But while the facts of this may be true — and it should be acknowledged that Bush’s memoirs and those of other players imply that they actually were being kept up to date — this does not somehow exculpate the president and vice president.

To the contrary, they knew what they had launched. They knew how precariously close to the legal and moral winds they were sailing, and therefore it behooved them as leaders to seek updates and to ensure that what they had unleashed was working properly. Either they and those around them were involved in a deliberate effort to enhance plausible deniability of the CIA’s torture program or they were simply irresponsible for not asking the right questions — questions that many in America and around the world were asking repeatedly. Elements of the report that suggest that some key figures, like Secretary of State Colin Powell, were kept out of the loop because it was known that what was being done would outrage them, suggest the actions were deliberate. That’s not just mismanagement; it’s the most cowardly form of collaboration.

Some of what the report reveals is consistent with much of the reporting I did for my two books on the National Security Council, both of which covered the Bush years. It suggests that in the wake of 9/11, many of the steps undertaken were done so in haste and without sufficient consideration of their implications. As Condoleezza Rice noted to me in the course of my preparing the most recent of those books, National Insecurity, during the first two or three years after 9/11 the actions of the administration were largely reactive. Unsurprisingly, this took a toll. As the Senate report reveals, this manifested itself not only in terms of a program that should not have been undertaken but in its shoddy management, including a lack of vetting for those engaged in it, errors in its execution, and as a result, compounded violations. Even a quick perusal of the report’s passages on abuses — like repeated waterboardings or “rectal feedings” or threatening a prisoner with a pistol and a drill, or requiring others to remain standing for more than a week at a time — makes clear that this was a horror show.

It is no wonder that those responsible for the CIA’s excesses felt compelled to keep its details from those in Congress who were entitled to know of them as a part of a program of reasonable and necessary oversight. Indeed, it seems some of the most carefully thought-out elements of the program actually had to do with the way agency and intelligence community leadership misled other members of the U.S. government.

As the New York Times noted in its excellent review of the report’s release by Mark Mazzetti, in August President Obama said that the “character of our country has to be measured in part not by what we do when things are easy but what we do when things are hard.” And today, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee, spoke of the report as reinforcing our commitment to “a just society.” Their words are stirring and fairly tremble with righteous indignation. But there is no room for self-righteousness among the vast majority of members of either party in Washington.

First, while we may debate what Congress might have done to enforce better oversight of the conduct of the part of the War on Terror that took place in the shadows, one thing is certain: They did not push back hard enough, soon enough.

The mere production of such a report so long after the fact — five years — suggests that better steps would have been possible sooner. Second, the mentality that led to having a nation that preaches human rights to the world willfully suspending its values at the first sign of a crisis has infused the Obama administration much as it did Bush’s White House. The serial violations of due process and international law associated the National Security Agency’s overreaching surveillance programs also violated core American values, constitutional provisions, and international codes of behavior we have long fought to put in place. Guantánamo is still open. Drone strikes violate sovereign nations and claim the lives of civilians to this day. And President Obama has been seen as seeking to slow-walk the release of even this report.

There is collective responsibility for all who were in charge in Washington while these wrongs were being committed and for all who have worked to cover them up or downplay them. Those in the GOP who argue the report should have been kept private because it may lead to backlash have failed to learn the period’s most fundamental lesson. We are a nation that should assume risks in pursuit of values like openness and the accountability of our leaders, rather than one that should continue to be willing to sacrifice such basic values in the name of our fears.

How Osama bin Laden would smile were he to see us even debate such things. How he must have delighted that he and a comparative handful of others could goad the United States to behave so reprehensibly over fear of a band of thugs.

Democrats and Republicans alike have been warped by this Age of Fear mentality. Shocked by an attack that revealed vulnerabilities we had long ignored, the nation reeled — and then made the avoidance of another such attack the primary organizing principle of our national security policy. From then on it was down the slippery slope to the point where we have allowed ourselves to believe that essentially anyone, anywhere, can be a threat. This, in turn, justified the use of any means possible against anyone, anywhere.

But this is not the basis for a foreign or national security policy. Instead, it is paranoia. And unchecked, it unleashes our darkest impulses while shrouding them in the rhetoric of patriotism that makes even challenging them seem un-American … when in fact the opposite is true.

What this report — belated, incomplete, perhaps debatable at points — has done is, by contrast, very American.

It is an open act of questioning those in power and, more broadly, a national direction that was widely embraced from coast to coast by average citizens. Out of such acts of soul-searching and introspection we change, grow, and remain true to the best elements of the character of our Constitution, its commitment to the highest values, and to the idea of constant national reinvention.

But this is not a moment for self-congratulation, either. We face bigger tests. Will a Republican-led Congress have the courage and the honesty to dig further and to seek accountability from those who erred? Will a president who has been part of the pattern of abuses associated with this Age of Fear live up to his own ringing words and seek to end his term in office embracing higher standards than he has embraced internationally thus far? Will we as Americans demand it?

I am not optimistic. But there is more hope of it today than there was yesterday.

Photoillustration by FP

About the Author

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is <i><a href="https://www.amazon.com/Great-Questions-Tomorrow-TED-Books/dp/150111994X/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=">The Great Questions of Tomorrow</a></i>. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.

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