America's Real Patriots Fought to Expose and End Torture

This was originally published in The Los Angeles Times.

After more than a decade of denial and concealment on the part of our government, President Obama's recent acknowledgment that "we tortured some folks" felt like a milestone. Even in its spare, reductive phrasing, the president's statement opened up the possibility, finally, of national reflection, contrition and accountability.

But the president moved quickly to limit that conversation, painting those who authorized torture as "patriots" who were making difficult decisions under enormous pressure and urging the public not to feel "sanctimonious" because our military and intelligence leaders have "tough jobs."

Obama was wrong to do this, and not only because patriotism isn't a defense to criminal conduct. The deeper problem with the president's account is that it consigned to obscurity the true heroes of the story: the courageous men and women throughout the military and intelligence services who kept faith with our values, and who fought to expose and end the torture.

Missing from Obama's remarks was any recognition that the decision to endorse torture was a contested one. In fact, that decision was challenged over and over in interrogation rooms and conference rooms and at every level of government. Soldiers intervened to protect prisoners from cruelty. FBI agents refused to participate in abusive CIA and military interrogations. Military judge advocates general decried the withholding of Geneva Convention protections and rejected the arguments of civilian lawyers justifying torture. Military prosecutors at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, resigned rather than prosecute prisoners on the basis of coerced evidence. Some CIA agents were so vocal about the abuses they saw in the field that they sparked a major agency investigation.

In every branch of the service, as well as in the intelligence agencies and diplomatic corps, men and women of conscience risked their careers to expose abuse and to confront those who authorized it. FBI interrogator Ali Soufan challenged CIA torturers at one of the agency's infamous "black sites," and later testified before Congress to debunk the CIA's claims that its cruel methods were effective. When military investigators alerted Alberto Mora, then Navy general counsel, about the abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo, Mora waged a campaign to reverse Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's disastrous decision to endorse abuse by military interrogators. Guantanamo prosecutor Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld refused to prosecute a teenager he learned had been abused in U.S. detention in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, a decision for which Vandeveld was barred from the prosecutors' office, confined to his residence and threatened with dismissal from the Army.

Behind people like Soufan, Mora and Vandeveld were hundreds of other soldiers and intelligence officers who made no less risky decisions to stand against practices they knew were wrong.

Over the last decade, several of the architects of the torture program have written memoirs. Unsurprisingly, those who opposed the decision to authorize torture make only rare appearances in these accounts. Rumsfeld writes in his memoir, "Known and Unknown," that his licensing of brutal methods at Guantanamo in 2002 was "uncontroversial," and that his decision to reauthorize many of those techniques in spring 2003 was "unanimously supported" by a legal team. Readers of George Tenet, the former CIA director; John Rizzo, once the CIA's chief lawyer; or Jose Rodriguez, former head of the CIA's clandestine service, could be forgiven for thinking that no one ever broached the possibility of not torturing prisoners.

In telling their stories, the men who sanctioned torture cast themselves as patriots driven by their desire to protect the country. We assume they were patriots. What's inexcusable is that their accounts diminish or omit the stories of those who were equally committed to protecting the country — but who questioned their superiors and risked their careers to challenge what we now know were illegal, ineffective and immoral policies.

It is easy to understand why those who authorized torture would want to suppress the stories of those who opposed it. But neither the president nor anyone else should participate in this revisionism. To pretend that the decision to sanction torture was dictated by circumstance — that our leaders had no other choice, that anyone in their position would have done the same thing — not only excuses and justifies the terrible choice made by our political leaders but obscures the actions of the courageous men and women who stayed true to our foundational commitments even as their superiors abandoned them.

With the imminent release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's account of the CIA's interrogation program, the president will have other opportunities to tell the story of how our country came to endorse torture. As he does, he should tell the stories of the dissenters. He should honor their courage. It is time for the country to hear the history that torture's architects have sought for so long to suppress.

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Family member o...

I find articles like this one utterly disgusting. Let's be so much more concerned about the people who burned my relative out of existence so effectively that we never even received a single solitary remain, and just throw Eric in the pit of Lethe while we bleed for his killers and feel so goddam sorry for them that it's surprising the very earth doesn't cry out against such an abomination.
We never get to be free of this crap. It wasn't good enough that our loved one was obliterated as effectively as they deleted people in the book 1984, we have to sit around and listen to people wax all lamentable about all the rights of his killers being violated. Is it like some sort of psychotic test to see whether we can break into millions of pieces or what?
Well at least they fuckin' HAVE rights, as opposed to Eric who didn't even get to have a goddam body at his death much less rights. The fact that they get to eat, sleep, wake, pray to their violent deity that asks them to kill for its sustained happiness is insulting to the people they killed. Especially in the face of HOW they were killed.

Alice de Tocqueville

It IS surprising that the very earth doesn't cry out against the abomination that happened to your brother. I know your loss won't end.
But the way the US responded to it has helped no one, and brought justice to no one. There are literally hundreds of thousands of innocent people who've been killed or made homeless because of our invasion. Iraq had nothing to do with the Twin Towers desecration. Killing people is wrong, no matter who does it, and killing won't stop killing. Sorry.

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