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The US's Story of Torture Doesn't Have to End With Impunity

Hina Shamsi,
Director, ACLU National Security Project
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December 9, 2014

After five long years of investigation, declassification, and redaction – not to mention outright obstruction by the CIA – the Senate Intelligence Committee today shone more light on CIA torture and made a historic and necessary contribution to public scrutiny, debate, and our nation’s values.

The release of the Senate torture report’s 525-page executive summary confirms that state-sanctioned torture is an American story, and no longer one we can ascribe only to odious foreign regimes. It’s a story the CIA wrote on the minds and bodies of its victims, documented in thousands of cables, and lied about to its oversight institutions and the public. It’s a story not just of perpetrators, but also torture architects in the upper echelons of the Bush administration who authorized the torture program and wrote memos seeking to justify it. It’s also a story about other Americans officials who risked their careers and objected to torture because they knew it violated basic human decency, corrupted the nation’s ideals, and undermined our national security. And it’s a story about those who were tortured in horrific ways by a government that broke the very laws it’s responsible for upholding.

This story isn’t complete. Maybe, in fact, we’re only reaching its climax.

The release of the Senate’s torture report summary is a tipping point and a reminder that the United States has never fully reckoned with a past that includes waterboarding, stress positions, beatings, sleep deprivation, threats of harm to children and other family members, among many devastatingly cruel acts. Once again, Americans, all of us, have an opportunity to choose how we end this story, whether that’s responsibly, with a full return to our laws and values, or shamefully, by failing to act now that the report summary is released. A conclusion that begins to heal wounds and rebuild U.S. credibility as a defender of rights instead of a perpetrator of rights violations consists of five parts, all of which work together to ensure that our nation never tortures again.

Here is a blueprint for accountability:

Appoint a Special Prosecutor. The attorney general should appoint a special prosecutor with the full authority to conduct an independent and complete investigation of Bush administration officials who created, approved, carried out, and covered up the torture program. The crime of torture has no statute of limitations when torture risks or results in serious injury or death, and the U.S. government has the obligation under international law to investigate any credible evidence that torture has been committed. If there’s sufficient evidence of criminal conduct – and it’s hard to see how there isn’t –the offenders should be prosecuted. In our system, no one should be above the law, yet only a handful of mainly low-level personnel have been criminally prosecuted for abuse.

That is a scandal.

CIA Reform. The CIA’s spying on Senate Intelligence Committee staffers investigating the agency’s use of torture is one more damning piece of evidence that the CIA urgently needs to be reformed. Congress should ensure the CIA never tortures again by taking two steps. First, Congress must prohibit the CIA from operating any detention facility or holding any person in its custody. Second, Congress should subject the CIA to the same interrogation rules that apply to the military. President Obama rightly ended the torture program when he assumed office. Now it’s Congress’ turn to make sure the CIA never again operates free of the checks and balances our democratic system demands.

Apologize to Victims. With only a handful of exceptions, the U.S. government has not officially acknowledged its torture victims let alone extended formal apologies to those men, women, and children for the horrors our nation inflicted on them. With the Senate torture report’s release, President Obama should rectify this.

Apologies alone won’t do, however.

The United States has a responsibility under international law to provide compensation and rehabilitation services to those who suffered torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment at its behest. Restitution is necessary for healing to start. It will also signal to the rest of the world and future generations that torture as U.S. state policy was an aberration that America promises never to repeat.

Honor Courage. Many U.S. service members and civilian officials risked their careers and reputations by objecting to torture after learning it was official U.S. policy. They understood that torture would harm lives, violate the law, undermine national security, and corrupt our institutions – including the military as well as the CIA.

These largely unsung men and women are heroes, and President Obama should formally honor their courage and their commitment to our most fundamental ideals of treating captives with dignity and respect, which stretches back to the Revolutionary War. By honoring these men and women of conscience, the president will also send a strong message to other public servants and officials that they need not fear coming forward when their government does wrong.

Full Disclosure. Even with the release of the redacted Senate report, secrecy still obscures the full extent of U.S. government abuse. If the Obama administration is serious about transparency, it will remove the redactions it forced the Senate to include in the torture report and publicly release all 6,700 pages in full. Complete transparency, however, cannot occur until the government releases President Bush’s 2001 memo authorizing the creation of CIA black sites, the CIA’s cables on the use of waterboarding and other brutal interrogation techniques, and the photographic evidence of U.S. prisoner abuse at Iraqi and Afghan detention facilities.

* * *

The other, shameful option is to continue doing what America has done all along on accountability: next to nothing.

If we choose to end the story that way, and it is a choice, there will be serious consequences for who we are as a nation. As torture survivor Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, has shown, history teaches that countries that try to bury or ignore their serious human rights abuses are more likely to commit the same transgressions again.

Impunity, therefore, becomes complicity.

How the story of America’s descent into the torture chamber ends hasn’t been written yet. We can start righting the wrongs of the past, but only if we have the courage to face our demons fully, and show the world our commitment to putting the darkness behind us.

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