Torture Report: What Next?

The Senate report on CIA torture of suspected terrorist detainees is welcome for its transparency. However, without a concrete plan of action including recommitment to the rule of law, torturer accountability and abolition of the CIA, the abuses could well be repeated in the future.

Now it’s official: The CIA tortured its “detainees.” In the several prisons it operated around the world, CIA interrogators used so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In the years following 9/11, the media reported instances of cruel treatment of suspected terrorists, including sleep deprivation, wall slamming, stress positions, sexual humiliation, indefinite detention and “waterboarding.” Now the Senate report on CIA prisons cites additional horrors: ice water baths, forced standing, rape with blunt instruments, sexual and death threats and “rectal feeding.” No civilized society should tolerate such mandated sadism.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairperson of the Senate Intelligence Committee, succeeded in releasing the torture report despite inordinate delay and heavy redaction by the Obama administration. In the report’s foreword, she expressed the “deep hope” that “US policy will never again allow for secret indefinite detention and the use of coercive interrogations.”

The Senate report focuses more on the non-effectiveness of torture as a means to obtain actionable intelligence than on its clear illegality and its affront to universal morality. And the report makes no specific recommendations.

The report and Feinstein’s hope alone cannot assure that similar acts won’t be committed again in our name. While the exposure of CIA crimes is a laudable and necessary first step, the United States needs more than transparency. The urgent need is for a concrete plan of action to ensure compliance with existing laws and treaties against torture.

Such an action plan should include:

1. Recommitment to the rule of law. Sadly, in the years after 9/11, “national security” has trumped adherence to law. Some examples are “preemptive strikes” that violate the UN Charter; drone attacks that violate both humanitarian and human rights laws; the military’s force-feeding of Guantánamo hunger strikers that violate torture treaties; and bombing strikes on Iraq and Syria that bypass congressional authorization. A lawless state encourages lawlessness by others. The United States should recommit to the international rule of law it helped establish in the wake of World War II. Since acts of torture violate US legislation as well as international treaties, their enforcement would help restore respect for the rule of law.

2. Torturer accountability. Last month, a UN commission that monitors compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture, cited numerous breaches, including the Obama administration’s failure to hold parties accountable for past instances of torture. A failure to prosecute officials and contractors for crimes identified in the Senate report will embolden those who may want to employ “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the future. Moreover, if the United States doesn’t act, foreign prosecutors may decide to arrest torture program participants who turn up on their soil. Afghanistan, or any of the black site countries, could ask the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate torture crimes committed within its territory. Ending impunity for those who ordered or carried out acts of torture would deter others who might be tempted to use waterboarding and other cruel punishments to obtain information. It would also preempt legal action by other states and the ICC.

3. Abolition of the CIA. The despicable acts described in the Senate report reveal a rogue agency that has no qualms about breaking the law and lying about it to Congress and the public. The CIA blends a culture of secrecy, deception, lack of congressional oversight and fiscal disregard with a history of operational failure (e.g. Bay of Pigs and Iran-Contra). Moreover, it was caught unawares by the breakup of the Soviet Union, the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11 and the recent ISIS phenomenon.

By all relevant measures, the CIA deserves to be abolished. The Senate report could and should prompt the agency’s demise.

While the CIA’s awesome power and resources will probably ensure its survival, serious reforms may be possible given the agency’s current exposure. Any new CIA mandate should be limited to intelligence gathering. It should strictly prohibit covert action, military operations and prisoner interrogation.

In any event, President Obama should fire the CIA director, John Brennan, who defends the agency’s drone program that kills and maims civilians. He exemplifies agency deception through his false testimony to Congress.

The Senate report on torture offers the administration and Congress an opportunity to ensure that torture will never again be committed in our names. Will Americans insist they do so?