Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has not been hit again. But the United States - both the nation and the ideal it represents - has been hurt time and again. There's the damage of the protracted and increasingly pointless war in Afghanistan, the unprovoked invasion of Iraq, the disgraceful treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the endless confinement without trial of inmates at Guantanamo and the NSA's monitoring of Americans.
But of all that was done in the name of protecting the nation, the most damaging was something that the government would not admit: the extent and the details of the brutal and often illegal torture imposed by the CIA and its contractors on 39 of 119 detainees thought to have knowledge of terrorist activities and plans.
Now we know. A summary released Tuesday of a Senate Intelligence Committee report said the CIA's treatment of terrorism suspects was more painfully grotesque than previously admitted. Some detainees were deprived of sleep for up to 180 hours, were subjected to near drowning by water boarding, were given medically unnecessary "rectal hydration" or "rectal feeding," endured forced nudity and sexual threats and were shackled in pitch-black cells as loud noise and music blared. And, the Senate report suggests, these methods carried out in secret prisons abroad produced little information of value despite the claims of CIA officials and former Vice President Dick Cheney. Furthermore, the CIA itself determined that at least 26 detainees were wrongfully held.
As terrible as the disclosures are, the release of the summary of the 6,000-page report despite resistance by the CIA and members of the George W. Bush administration is a positive and reassuring event. If some deserted American values in the name of security, the democratic system was responsive to the nation's conscience. What happened shamed the nation. That it has been revealed by the U.S. Senate is a vindication that the United States is a nation of laws, committed to justice and willing to admit and learn from those times when it acts contrary to its history and its ideals.
Cheney and other defenders of the CIA program say the interrogators were acting as patriots in defense of their nation. In truth they were undermining the United States, flouting its commitment to humane treatment of prisoners, endangering Americans held by other countries, fueling the hatred that drives terrorism and lying when saying that valuable information obtainable only by torture justified the means. The real patriots were those CIA and FBI personnel who questioned the "enhanced interrogation techniques" only to have their concerns dismissed.
Up until Tuesday, defenders of the CIA's use of torture argued that releasing the details would inflame opinion abroad and endanger Americans. That damage has already been done and perhaps inflated by the unwillingness of some to have the methods and results made public. Tuesday was a day for the United States to show the courage of its convictions and admit what was secretly done in its name.
Review the CIA
What's needed now is to codify in law President Obama's 2009 executive order banning torture. There should also be a searching review of the CIA's mission. The agency is supposed to gather intelligence, but it has become increasingly militarized and unaccountable, a force that seems to create more risks than it detects. The prospect of such a review, however, appears remote with Republicans taking control of the Senate in January. North Carolina's Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who will serve as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said recently, "I personally don't believe that anything that goes on in the intelligence committee should ever be discussed publicly."
We hope the response to the report made public at last by the committee's outgoing chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, will persuade Burr to take a more open approach to ensuring that the spy agency's behavior does not violate the values of the nation it serves. As Feinstein said in the report's introduction, "The major lesson of this report is that regardless of the pressures and the need to act, the intelligence community's actions must always reflect who we are as a nation, and adhere to our laws and standards."