An unprecedented public feud has broken out between Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee and a strong supporter of the intelligence community, and CIA Director John Brennan, accused by Feinstein of spying on committee staff tasked with investigating the Agency.
The charges are serious and should be fully investigated. But we should not allow the fight over these allegations to distract us from the real scandal: our government’s embrace of torture and cruelty.
In 2009, President Obama commendably signed an executive order banning torture. But his decision to “look forward, not backward” has meant that the moral wound inflicted on our country by its turn to “the dark side” continues to fester. We have not fully reckoned with that period in our recent past, and it shows.
Public support for the crime of torture has increased under President Obama. Perhaps this could have been anticipated. “Prohibiting” torture while at the same time failing to investigate it or sidestepping the painful issue of legal accountability constitutes a contradictory policy and conveys doubt and confusion. As Churchill said in a famous 1936 speech to the Commons using language all too applicable here: “So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.”
That could begin to change — if the Intelligence Committee votes to declassify and make public its comprehensive, 6,000-plus-page study on the CIA torture program. President Obama recently reclaimed leadership on this issue and said publicly, for the first time, that he is “absolutely committed” to declassifying the report “so that the American people can understand what happened in the past and that can help guide us as we move forward.” It may have come late, but the president is finally moving towards legal and policy clarity and deserves our support.
The study builds on what we already know. Did we torture? Indisputably. We did so directly and by outsourcing torture through extraordinary renditions. Anyone who reads accounts of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and other detainees cannot fail to conclude that his treatment meets the legal definition of torture.
Did we also authorize and apply cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment? Undoubtedly. Although there is a legal distinction between torture and other forms of cruelty, the infliction of cruelty is no more legally — or morally — acceptable than torture. Fidelity to human rights principles and our own laws requires that the application of all pain — not only severe pain — be prohibited.
By applying cruelty and torture, did we weaken our defenses in the war on terror? Unquestionably. In the defense of our nation we traditionally pursue two strategic objectives equally and simultaneously: We defend our people, and we defend our values. We justifiably take pride in being “the land of the free and home of the brave” because we are prepared to take risks and, if necessary, take casualties in defending our freedoms. When we tortured, we compromised our values.
And what did we gain? Americans are less safe as a result of our government’s embrace of cruelty. Every military officer I have spoken with on this issue — including dozens of Service Chiefs and other four-star generals and admirals — describes the authorization of cruel interrogations as contemptible and contrary to U.S. security interests. The reason is obvious. It compromised key alliances and undermined our ability to sharply distinguish ourselves from our adversaries, who use our actions to gain members and sympathizers.
Those are the facts, and because they are facts, the Senate report will confirm them. But there are large gaps in our knowledge that the report will fill. On Tuesday, Senator Feinstein said the report has evidence of abuse “far different and far more harsh” than those disclosed by the CIA. Previously, she said that the report shows that abuse “was far more systematic and widespread than we thought.”
The wound left by official torture will not heal until we assemble the full historical record, grasp the full consequences of our actions, and address the unavoidable issue of accountability. Release of the torture report would be the essential first step toward the kind of public reckoning that might allow the country to move past the era of official cruelty.
You wouldn’t know this from Hollywood movies like Zero Dark Thirty or from the memoirs of torture proponents, but many senior leaders in the U.S. government took a stand in real time against the policies of cruelty. We did so with the belief that this was both the right and wise thing to do and that history would vindicate this stand.
But history doesn’t merely happen; to be captured, it has to be written and published. Without delay, members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence should vote to declassify the report, and President Obama should rebuff any efforts to block its release.
Alberto Mora is a former Navy general counsel and is currently an advanced leadership fellow at Harvard University.