The truth on torture

September 22, 2013 

Shortly after taking office in 2009, President Obama made a decision to bury in the sands of time the details of the nation’s use of torture as it waged a war on terror after 9/11. Obama chose not to support calls for a national commission that would document what had been done in America’s name and against its laws and moral principles.

The president said he wanted to “look forward, not backward,” but in ignoring an ugly past he has let it shadow the present and threaten to return in the future. The world, particularly the Muslim world, has not ignored and will not forget what happened. And until the United States makes a complete and honest admission, its role in torturing detainees or sending them off to be tortured elsewhere is an obstacle to peace and undermines America’s claims to be a nation of laws and a force for justice.

President Obama has issued an executive order banning torture, but the issue’s officially unexplored past still haunts him and the country. It is difficult to rally the world to protest the violations of international law in Syria when the United States has been reluctant to look backward at its own.

Faith leaders’ appeal

Last week more than 190 North Carolina faith leaders – including 18 Christian bishops and Muslim and Jewish leaders – called for that long-neglected moral reckoning to take place. In a letter, the leaders urged U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina to push for the release of a 6,000-page report on torture prepared at the request of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI). Burr, a Republican, sits on the panel.

“Our relations with the Muslim world have deteriorated, and a major reason is that our credibility on human rights is under question,” the faith leaders said in the letter prepared by the N.C. Council of Churches. “Our national security would be improved by restoring the world’s respect for U.S. integrity on human rights and adherence to the rule of law.”

The committee’s report has drawn fire from the CIA, which says there are factual inaccuracies. Burr and others have been reluctant to release the full report in light of those complaints. The committee is considering releasing a summary instead.

If there are inaccuracies, let the CIA point them out and have them corrected. But the full report – not a sanitized synopsis – needs to be shared with the people in whose name those activities – and perhaps those crimes – were conducted. A key to credibility on this issue is thoroughness and openness. A summary fails on both counts.

Burr, a strong supporter of the military, should not confuse withholding the facts on torture with protecting those who defend the nation. Making the report public will address a source of tension and make the world safer for them and all Americans.

Independent report

In the absence of a government review of torture, the Constitution Project – an independent, nonpartisan legal research and advocacy group – conducted its own review led by two former congressmen: Asa Hutchinson, a Republican and former undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and James Jones, an Oklahoma Democrat. Their 11-member task force assessed the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, in Afghanistan and Iraq and at the CIA’s secret prisons. The report concluded that torture has been conducted and that it generated no significant or useful evidence that couldn’t have been found by other means.

The question of torture is hardly academic or remote for North Carolina. Some of the worst abuses occurred after terrorist suspects were flown between countries by a CIA contractor working out of the Johnston County Airport. The suspects moved under the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program were often vulnerable to torture condoned by foreign governments.

Government’s obligation

The report from the Constitution Project underscores the need for the Senate committee to release its report. As the faith leaders said in their letter, “As important as that report is, though, it cannot replace the U.S. government’s obligation to be transparent about its past. Our nation needs to learn from the 6,000-page SSCI report. Understanding our past will help us recommit ourselves to respecting human life in the future.”

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