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The Senate Papers: America and Torture

June 2017 – while Jeff Bezos was buying Whole Foods and the media was debating Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, Trump’s administration began to return copies of the 6,700 page 2014 Senate report back to the Congressional vaults. The classified report was the result of an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee into the CIA’s capturing, detaining, and interrogating terrorist suspects in the years following the September 11 attack. Named the “Torture Report,” it concluded that the CIA understated the brutality and extent of the enhanced interrogation techniques – including sleep deprivation and waterboarding – while exaggerating the efficacy of torture in collecting useful intelligence.

Upon completion, the report was circulated to at least eight federal agencies. None have incorporated it into their records, preventing public access to the documents, and under the Republican Senate, the agencies are urged to return the copies to the Senate committee where they can be buried, or worse, destroyed. This report holds the most detailed, accurate account of America’s involvement with torture, and as such should be preserved as a piece of history under the accountability that the US government holds to its citizens and the international community for breaking our Constitution and international law.

Since the ratification of our Bill of Rights in 1789 and to today the use of torture is banned under US law, specifically through the 4th and 8th Amendments, which prohibit unreasonable search and seizure, and cruel or unusual punishment, respectively. Similarly, Article III of the Geneva Convention, signed by 196 states in the aftermath of World War II, forbids physical and mental torture. Neither the US Constitution nor the international codes differentiate torture policy based on citizenship or nationality.

Historically, America has been a vocal opponent of employing torture in any situation. In 1946 the US belonged to the international coalition partaking in the Tokyo Trials that tried, convicted, and hung Japanese military leaders charged with waterboarding. In 1984 Ronald Reagan championed the UN Convention against Torture that established a procedure for international criminal prosecution of torturers. Then, in a departure from traditional political ethics, in 2002 the Bush Administration signed the Torture Memos allowing physical and mental torment of captives short of that, which causes vital organ failure and/or death. In 2004 CBS News published photos of the brutal humiliation, abuse, and torture of US captives in the Abu Ghraib prison. Similar cruelty was confirmed in Guantanamo Bay and other Black site detention centers across Iraq, Afghanistan, and Poland. In the end, 90% of prisoners at Abu Ghraib were found to be innocent.

Unfortunately, most of the American public is unaware of our long outspoken opposition to torture, or of the fact that according to almost every expert, torture returns highly unreliable information. Instead, the American public has increased its tolerance. In 2004 the first surveys on the subject found that 53% of Americans said that the use of torture could rarely or never be justified. Fast forward a few years, the same survey taken in 2011 found 53% of Americans affirmed that the use of torture could be often or sometimes justified. In the ultimate example of cognitive dissonance this mentality was the product of a government that blindly authorized torture without considering the consequences.

On an international scale we have failed to act as the global leader that we claim to be. Nationally, we have compromised our commitment to our legal system and our values of individual liberty and agency, and as a result, have imperiled our democracy. Individually, we have disassociated ourselves from the pain and humanity of others. Torture is, and always was, universally condemned. Yet somehow, Trump ran for president with torture as a key element of his national-security platform and those growing up in post-9/11 America accept it as a necessity of US policy instead of seeing it for the crime that it is.

This is why we cannot afford to return the papers to the Congressional vaults. America’s participation in torture cannot be a buried history, left for future revisionists to unearth and condemn. The Torture Memos and the resulting violence should be acknowledged for what they were: a cruel deviation in policy committed by the government in a time of extreme pressure to respond to terrorism at a previously unseen scale. This is rationalization, not justification. The people responsible for torture both in the dark rooms of the Black sites and in the halls of the White House should be held accountable not only for breaking US law, but for compromising our international position and causing irreparable mental and physical harm to innocent captives. Concealing this criminal history would be the ultimate injustice to its victims and inconsistent with our democratic government’s obligation to our citizens – almost as foundationally un-American as the crime itself.