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America's Day of Shame and Redemption

The much delayed release of the report hit the headlines on World Human Rights Day, which commemorates the United Nation's General Assembly adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 (due in no small part to American leadership).
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Man with deep depression in the corner of a room
Man with deep depression in the corner of a room

Throughout the Obama administration, the President has focused on moving forward and not dwelling on the actions of his predecessor. As Faulkner reminds us, however, the past never dies and has a strange capacity for calling our attention as was the case this week with the Senate Intelligence Committee's release of the summary of its 6,700 page Study on the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program.

Its release brought us once again to the dark days that followed 9/11 and phrases like "Freedom Fries" and "Old Europe" that we thought we had forgotten. To comprehend the Senate report, you need to remember who we were before President Bush and 9/11.

The World Before 9/11

We have always been unique asa nation in that we are united not by a common ethnic or religious heritage but by a belief. A belief that we are a nation of laws not men founded based on the recognition that "all are endowed with certain unalienable rights," which ultimately is expressed in the covenant between our Founders' and future generations that all officeholders were sworn to uphold.

Throughout the nation's history, our leaders have rejected the use of torture. This includes General Washington who ordered his troops to treat British prisoners "with humanity;" President Lincoln who made this principle part of the Army's code of conduct (and it remains part of the Army Field Manual); and President Teddy Roosevelt who fired a general for engaging in waterboarding explaining that "nothing can justify... the use of torture of any kind on the part of the American Army." This has been based, in part, on a recognition that our strength as a nation emanates from the values and principles we uphold.

Those principles ultimately were codified into law such that the use of cruel, inhuman, humiliating or degrading treatment or punishment is prohibited by the War Crimes Act of 1996 as well as the Geneva Convention, the Torture Convention and other treaties. Even President Bush declared that it was against U.S. policy to use "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" in signing the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005.

Tales from the Dark Side

But after 9/11 there was a pivot under President Bush. The Sunday after 9/11, Vice President Cheney warned on "Meet the Press," that we would need "to work the dark side, if you will." Soon we began hearing of "enhanced interrogation" techniques. It is telling that the phrase is a literal translation of the German phrase "verschaerfte vernehmung" used by the German Gestapo and that both Japanese and Germans engaging in "enhanced interrogation" techniques during World War II were prosecuted for war crimes. Even worse, is the fact that "working the dark side" involved using communist interrogation manuals, ignoring the fact that the techniques were designed to yield confessions not truth or actionable information.

Despite the fact that generals from Napoleon to Washington to Colin Powell have stated that torture rarely yields anything of value and is often counterproductive, the Bush administration mined the dark side and claimed that waterboarding Khalid Shaikh Mohammed 183 times in one month prevented a 9/11 style attack on Los Angeles. Not only has this claim been dismissed by the FBI as "ludicrous" (the plot was discovered before KSM's capture), but in 2005 the head of Army Intelligence cited "empirical evidence" showing that "[n]o good intelligence comes from abusive practices."

The Senate report debunks this and a litany of CIA claims that torture yielded anything of value -- except for the two psychologist who helped design the program and made $81 million in the process. In fact, former interrogators Matthew Alexander (who used a pseudonym), U.S. Army intelligence officer Col. (Ret.) Stuart Herrington, former FBI special agent Joe Navarro, and military intelligence veteran Ken Robinson explained that the use of torture "almost certainly prolonged the hunt for Bin Laden":

Nonetheless, despite our history, the law and common sense, in working the "dark side" the following are some of the actions aside from waterboarding done in the name of protecting American citizens::

  • Rectal feeding of detainees (whether or not medically necessary);
  • Forcing detainees with broken feet and hands to stand in stress positions;
  • Forcing detainees to be naked, perform sexual acts, or pose in a sexual manner.
  • Applying beatings, electric shock, burns, or other forms of physical pain;
  • Using military working dogs;
  • Inducing hypothermia or heat injury;
  • Conducting mock executions;
  • Allowing a detainee to die of hypothermia while chained to the floor partially naked;
  • Keeping a detainee in a coffin-size box for over 11 days;
  • Threatening to kill and rape detainees' mothers; and
  • Playing Russian Roulette with detainees.

Sympathy for the Devil?

I know some Americans could care less about the Senate report, because after all these were terrorists and it was necessary. The reality is, however, that one in five detainees were wrongfully detained and held for months even after their innocent was confirmed. For example, the report explains that two foreign nationals working for a "partner government" who were trying to give the CIA information on possible future al-Qaeda attacks were subject to "enhanced" measures and held for months before being released. Another was subjected to ice water baths and 66 hours of standing sleep deprivation before the CIA discovered it had the wrong man.

As far as being necessary, the CIA used torture before even trying to determine if the detainee would cooperate.

Some claim the report's release will only provide ammunition for our enemies, but as the Baltimore Sun eloquently explained:

Anyone who thinks Islamic radicals need an excuse to murder Americans hasn't been paying attention to the sickeningly gratuitous violence recently carried out by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It would be folly to muffle debate over the issue in the vain hope that self-censorship might spare us from such murderous fanatics.. . . It was the use of torture that put American lives at risk, not our belated acknowledgment of it.

Who We Are

The much delayed release of the report hit the headlines on World Human Rights Day, which commemorates the United Nation's General Assembly adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 (due in no small part to American leadership). So the day, which normally serves as an example of the United States' leadership in human rights, became a stark reminder of how we had once lost our way.

The London Daily Mail called it both a" truly black day for the 'civilised' West", but yet believed publication of the report of practices now stopped offered a sign of hope that America was reclaiming its moral leadership.

Sadly, the far right view publication of the report as an act of heresy and have responded by embracing torture ignoring all facts to the contrary as they have on climate change and supply side economics. But the most eloquent defender of the report was the 2008 Republican nominee John McCain, a former prisoner of war who explained:

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. It's about how we represent ourselves to the world.

We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily.

Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.

At the end of the day, if our values can be easily discarded during times of crises, then they are not true values.

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