The zeal with which TV news stars Brian Williams of NBC and Bill O’Reilly of Fox have been lambasted and ridiculed for burnishing their tales of bravery in the field would be heartening if it signaled a thoroughgoing insistence that people in the public eye tell the truth. But when you appraise the current state of truth-telling through a wider lens, you have to wonder whether any consistent standards of honesty are being applied.
Case in point: For the past few weeks I’ve been making my way through the Senate committee report released in December that chronicles one of the darkest episodes of U.S. official misconduct in recent years. In it, a succession of government operatives — acting out of vindictiveness, ineptitude, fear, arrogance and lockstep obedience — inflicted cruel and lawless punishment on individuals suspected, wrongly in some cases, of being connected to terrorist threats against this country.
This was the CIA detention program, which between late 2001 and 2007 featured what the agency still calls “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and which any conscious human over the age of five understands was torture.
Let’s be clear here: The techniques included sleep deprivation of up to 180 hours, which triggered hallucinations and “attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation;” diapering prisoners and denying them access to toilets; “rectal rehydration” and “rectal feeding,” in which detainees were essentially sodomized; ice water baths, beatings, water dousing, forced nudity, abdominal slaps, “dietary manipulation” (being denied food for up to two days), threats to family members, suspension by handcuffs from overhead bars for up to 22 hours; being shackled and isolated in complete darkness in unheated cells, inducing hypothermia (and in one case, death); and waterboarding, or near-drowning.
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What’s immediately striking about the Senate report is, first and foremost, the persuasive evidence that these horrors did us not a lick of good and made us no safer.
Those are conclusions investigators reached by examining with apparent precision what the interrogators and their handlers said they learned and comparing that with what was already known, with what they’d learned by questioning the suspects without torturing them, and with what turned out to be the truth.
Time and again, investigators found that the tortured prisoners told them nothing they didn’t previously know; had already fully disclosed everything they knew before they were tortured; fabricated what they thought their tormentors wanted to hear; or didn’t actually know anything because they were wrongly accused of in the first place.
That’s not what the jailers and their handlers claimed, however. The report details instance after instance of the people who were running this torture program again and again misrepresented its extent, the precise horrors they were inflicting, the precautions they were taking, and above all, the effectiveness of the measures. They repeatedly ignored or willfully distorted the records their own operatives were keeping of the grotesque and nightmarish interrogations and the aftermaths.
According to the Senate report, they lied to their bosses in the White House. They lied to their overseers in Congress. They lied to the media, and they lied to the public. They claimed that torture unearthed information that couldn’t be obtained in any other way, and that it thwarted real plots and saved lives. And in every case, under close examination the Senate investigators determined those claims were false.
Yet not one of the people who said those things has been called to task. Indeed, their versions of reality have remained, largely unrefuted, in the statements of public leaders from the president on down. Indeed, not until now have the buoyant April 2007 assurances made to the Senate committee by Michael Hayden, then CIA director, been scrutinized and discredited, as they certainly seem to be in a 37-page appendix devoted solely to fact-checking his sunny, daylong testimony.
The full 6,700-page account of this CIA Detention and Interrogation Program, which peaked in 2003 but wasn’t halted until early 2009, was based on a four-year review of 6 million pages of CIA records. That report has yet to be released. What was made public late last year was a 525-page executive summary, which is what I read.
The program was, to be sure, a sideshow of the global war on terror, a splinter operation involving a mere 119 detainees. They’d been selected for handling in black sites by what was supposed to be the world’s premier intelligence agency, which, according to Senate figures, tortured 39 of them.
That means this program could be definitively, decisively repudiated without affecting the larger war, which has indeed continued for the past six years without a policy that sanctions torturing prisoners.
But the questions the Senate report raises are simpler than all that: At what point are U.S. officials taken to task for lying? It’s certainly possible, as Hayden and others have claimed, that the report contains errors, but the allegations it makes are unquestionably worth rigorous public examination, aren’t they? Why else spend years assembling this evidence?
Surely, the standards of honesty that officials are held to should be no less stringent than the ones that newscasters are derided for ignoring, especially when what’s at stake isn’t merely image and vanity but the basics of government accountability and the strength of the country’s commitment to international standards of decency.
Edward Wasserman is dean of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He wrote this for The McClatchy Co.