By Dan Froomkin
By this point, there really should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that torture was widely used during the last administration — and that nothing like that should ever happen again.
The new, comprehensive report out today from an august, bipartisan commission goes a long way toward making that abundantly, authoritatively clear, laying the blame fully at the feet of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and other top officials.
But the reality is: That’s old news. What’s new and disturbing and important about the report from the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment is how it calls attention to the absurd reality that we, as a country, are actually still actually arguing about any of this.
And for that, the report lays the blame fully at the feet of the current administration, for covering up what happened and stifling any sort of national conversation on the topic — and the media, for splitting the difference between the facts and the plainly specious argument made by torture regime’s architects that what occurred should be defined as something other than what it so obviously was.
The report points out, as I have in the past, that neither Obama nor Congress have done a thing to make sure that, the next time a perceived emergency comes up, some other president or vice president won’t decide to torture again.
Obama’s policy of “looking forward instead of looking backward,” in this light, is exposed as a cover-up that is actually holding the country back from a crucial period of self-understanding, and growth.
There’s also a matter of law. That U.S. officials involved with detention in the CIA’s black sites committed war crimes and violated interntional law, which the report concludes to be self-evident, isn’t something Obama is allowed to ignore.
It actually violates the U.S.’s legal obligations under the international Convention Against Torture, which requires each country to “[c]riminalize all acts of torture, attempts to commit torture, or complicity or participation in torture,” and “proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.”
“The United States cannot be said to have complied,” the report concludes, noting: “No CIA personnel have been convicted or even charged for numerous instances of torture in CIA custody — including cases where interrogators exceeded what was authorized by the Office of Legal Counsel, and cases where detainees were tortured to death. Many acts of unauthorized torture by military forces have also been inadequately investigated or prosecuted.”
So it’s not just Bush and Cheney who violated international law; now it’s Obama, too.
The report is blistering about the cover-up. “The high level of secrecy surrounding the rendition and torture of detainees since September 11 cannot continue to be justified on the basis of national security,” it states. “Ongoing classification of these practices serves only to conceal evidence of wrongdoing and make its repetition more likely.”
The end result is a society in moral disarray: “Democracy and torture cannot peacefully coexist in the same body politic,” the report states. “The Task Force… believes and hopes that publicly acknowledging this grave error, however belatedly, may mitigate some of those consequences and help undo some of the damage to our reputation at home and abroad.”
And what an indictment of false equivalency by the media. Shame on us. The report notes:
The question as to whether U.S. forces and agents engaged in torture has been complicated by the existence of two vocal camps in the public debate. This has been particularly vexing for traditional journalists who are trained and accustomed to recording the arguments of both sides in a dispute without declaring one right and the other wrong. The public may simply perceive that there is no right side, as there are two equally fervent views held views on a subject, with substantially credentialed people on both sides. In this case, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that among those who insist that the United States did not engage in torture are figures who served at the highest levels of government, including Vice President Dick Cheney.
But this Task Force is not bound by this convention.
The members, coming from a wide political spectrum, believe that arguments that the nation did not engage in torture and that much of what occurred should be defined as something less than torture are not credible.
So the so-called objective reporters who couldn’t speak the truth were basically accessories after the fact.
There’s so much more in the report worth reading, and discussing.
Perhaps its most urgent conclusion is that forced feeding of detainees — going on right now — “is a form of abuse and must end.”
The report notes the “crucial support” to the torture regime provided by people in the medical and legal fields, which it says raises “profound ethical questions for both professions.”
And weighing into territory recently plowed during the debate over the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” and its depiction of torture as providing useful information, the report notes that there is no evidence to support that view, and points out that the people saying torture worked have “inherent credibility issues,” one of which is that they are the ones “who actually who authorized and implemented the very practices that they now assert to have been valuable tools in fighting terrorism.”
The U.S. has lost its moral compass before, the Task Force notes. It does so in every war, to some degree or another. And yet, the report concludes, there is “no evidence there had ever before been the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after September 11, directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”
That’s not something we can just pretend never happened. We need accountability.
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Dan Froomkin is in the process of launching a new accountability journalism project at FearlessMedia.org. He is contributing editor of Nieman Reports, and the former senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. He wrote the White House Watch column for the Washington Post website from 2004 to 2009, and was editor of the site from 2000 to 2003. Dan can be reached at email@example.com.