The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report detailing the CIA’s brutal post-9/11 torture program is a watershed moment for the values of our nation. The report contains some serious truth-telling. The CIA consistently lied to Congress, the DOJ, White House staff, and the public about its torture program. The torture program’s cruelty was much worse and its effectiveness far less than Congress and the general public were led to believe. The CIA violated a court order by destroying videotapes documenting torture, and used bribes to secure secret sites used for torture in a number of countries. This isn’t an example of our government at its best; it’s an example of how to carry out a cover-up.
The entire rationale for the CIA’s torture program is undercut by the conclusions of this report. In the words of Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), as she spoke about the report on the floor of the Senate, “Even if one were to set aside all of the moral arguments, coercive interrogation techniques did not produce the vital, otherwise unavailable intelligence the CIA has claimed.” Immoral and illegal, we now know that the program was also ineffective.
A broad array of faith leaders have responded to the Torture Report by condemning the CIA’s torture program. For followers of some faiths, torture violates the image of God; for others, it is an intrinsic evil. People of all faiths, though, hold human life to be sacred, and the long shadow torture casts on the moral integrity of our nation represents a travesty of justice as well as a flagrant violation of human rights. Dr. Roy Medley, General Secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, makes a plea that could almost serve as a benediction to the whole sordid chapter of this history of torture: “May God give us the moral courage to never again betray the core principles that have guided our nation as a leader in the struggle for human rights.”
Now the hard work in Congress begins to ensure that torture never, ever happens in the name of our nation. Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama have already made clear that they don’t intend to prosecute anyone for acts of torture. That’s unfortunate, in that it ensures impunity for those that violated both our laws and our values, but that’s where we are. In the absence of any punishment for torture, though, it is critical that Congress pass legislation that strengthens the legal prohibition against torture. President Obama banned torture by executive order, but executive orders can be rescinded at any time. Only congressional action can permanently prevent torture. Congress can ensure that the CIA never uses torture again by passing legislation creating one common, humane standard for all interrogations, ensuring that the CIA is permanently put out of the detention business, allowing the Red Cross access to all prisoners, and ensuring that all interrogations are conducted in accordance with the relevant laws and treaties.
Among the 119 detainees studied in the report, many endured CIA torture for days or weeks at a time. Twenty-six were wrongly held in violation of the CIA’s own detention standards. Detainees in CIA custody were subjected immediately to aggression. Stress positions. Stripped naked. Deprived of sleep.
One detainee was forced to remain awake for 180 hours — through prolonged standing, hands tied overhead, chained to the ceiling. Another was left cold, mostly naked, and chained to a concrete floor until he died of hypothermia.
Rough take-downs, meaning getting stripped, hooded, and bound with Mylar tape and dragged out of your cell up and down hallways. Threatening that the only way out was death. One secret torture center used as a dungeon, with shackling, loud noises and darkness. The kind of thing you imagine when you think about medieval torture chambers. Except these are realities that happened mere years ago – and at the hand of U.S. officials. Waterboarding, of course, was common, and is a method most aptly described as mock execution.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in support of the torture report’s public release, noted that the CIA’s acts of torture “not only failed their purpose – to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the U.S. and our allies – but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.” He went on to say that the American people have a right “to know what was done in their name.” More importantly, he pointed out that “in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be.”
Sen. McCain is right — this is about us. Will we be a nation where the CIA tortures people in secret and then tries to cover it up? Or will we be a nation of values? Congress and the president can answer that question by passing legislation to permanently prevent the use of torture.
Rev. Ron Stief is Executive Director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.