America ill-served by torture cover-up efforts

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Chairman, US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in Washington, D.C., on February 9, 2016.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Chairman, US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in Washington, D.C., on February 9, 2016. TNS

Tuesday’s New York Times article, “Psychologists Open a Window on Brutal Interrogations,” reminds us of what Sen. Richard Burr would like us to forget.

Since he became chair of the Intelligence Committee, it has been Burr’s goal to bury America’s post-9/11 torture program. But the Times gave us an extraordinary glimpse into a landmark trial that is helping keep memory alive – and may finally provide a few CIA torture victims with a day in court.

Burr’s whitewashing campaign should alarm North Carolinians, and indeed all Americans, regardless of political persuasion. Especially now, we need to understand how and why America got lost in the cruel and costly morass of torture, and just how our state played an indispensable role.

In his crusade to undermine and deep-six his committee’s report on CIA torture, Burr found disturbing agreement from the Obama White House. Former President Barack Obama backed the CIA’s obstructionism during the struggle over declassifying the executive summary of the 6,700-page report. That 500-page summary was finally made public in December 2014 and reached a very damning conclusion on the CIA’s failed tactics, but the full report remains classified.

When he took the helm of Senate Intelligence in early 2015, Burr sought to recall every copy of the full, unredacted “torture report.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein had given it to the State Department, Justice Department, FBI, CIA and White House – imploring them to read the analysis of damaging abuses and learn from it.

Now Burr, who has called the torture report a “footnote in history,” has an even more active ally in the Trump White House for his whitewashing mission. From running to bring back torture to appointing a former CIA black site overseer as that agency’s No. 2, President Donald Trump has repeatedly promoted torture. Whether or not he truly sees it as a valid national security tool, Trump finds torture a useful rallying cry.

Earlier this month, Burr got his wish, and another big step was taken toward erasing national memory: Almost all the executive agencies returned their copies of the full torture report to him. Like the detainees who vanished and turned up in secret CIA black sites, the torture report could disappear. If no executive agency has a copy, the Freedom of Information Act is irrelevant – it doesn’t apply to congressional documents.

Burr also refuses to hold hearings on the abuses described in the report, which are his duty as chair of the only congressional body that oversees the CIA. Memory fades without oversight.

Let’s be clear: During the more than two years they had the torture report, Obama’s agencies all said they didn’t open it, let alone learn from it. They had ample time to study the Senate’s conclusions and seek accountability as required by law. But the White House’s message was strong: The U.S. was to look only forward, not backward, when it came to torture.

Experts have documented how U.S. torture has hurt our international influence, helped terrorists recruit and encouraged other governments to claim they are just following America’s lead by abusing human rights.

The people of North Carolina are ill-served by Burr’s torture cover-up. There is strong evidence our public airports were essential to the CIA’s program. Dozens of people, detained abroad, were transported aboard planes based in Kinston and Smithfield to overseas prisons, where they were interrogated using torture. As taxpayers and citizens, we deserve to know the truth about our state’s role, and to understand the costs and consequences.

Thankfully, efforts are underway to achieve this goal. The nongovernmental North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture (www.nccit.org) is filling a vacuum. The commission is gathering everything in the public record about the role N.C. facilities, companies and institutions played in the post-9/11 U.S. torture program. The commission is asking local and national governments to supply records that aid its inquiry.

Later this year, it will hold public hearings in Raleigh. World experts on rendition, torture, national security and the law will testify.

Torture is illegal and immoral. It is much too serious a matter for us to allow its erasure from our collective memory. We have to learn from this sad history in order to avoid repeating it.

Ellie Kinnaird is a former state senator from District 23 and the former mayor of Carrboro. Hodding Carter is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and a retired public policy professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.