Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released portions of its 6,700 page report that concludes a five year oversight investigation into the CIA’s former detention and interrogation program. The report’s deeply disturbing details – culled from millions of classified documents – confirm a conclusion that we reached after two years’ study of the public record as part of The Constitution Project bipartisan Task Force on Detainee Treatment: it is indisputable that the United States tortured people in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Our Task Force also found and that this was known at the highest levels of the US government.
Some have charged that it was irresponsible to disclose publicly portion of the Committee’s report for fear of possible violent reactions of extremists. But this misses the point in two ways: first, our national policy is not to bow to extremists' demands. Second, if any such reactions do materialize, it will be because our country engaged in grave abuses in the first place, not because we are now owning up to it. The level of concern expressed about this issue in recent days only underscores the urgency to do everything in our power to prevent similar abuses from happening again. That process begins with acknowledging the truth.
Our detainee task force report identified a host of ways in which engaging in torture and abuse hurt our country, including its negative impact on our foreign affairs. Lawsuits have been brought against the United States and individual U.S. officials in a number for foreign courts, straining diplomatic relations. According to former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora, at one point British military captured a terrorist in Iraq, and, at the time lacking detention facilities of their own, released him rather than turn him over to U.S. or Iraqi forces for fear that he would be abused. Mora further describes high ranking military lawyers from the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand pressing him at a conference to deliver a simple message: our countries cannot be party to your detention and interrogation practices. The Committee’s report similarly concludes that “[t]he CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program created tensions with U.S. partners and allies, leading to formal demarches to the United States, and damaging and complicating bilateral intelligence relationships.”
It is true that shining additional light on past abuse of detainees in U.S. custody is embarrassing to the United States. It will surely make for difficult conversations with the foreign partners we involved in the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. But even more important in the long term is that admitting our mistakes and seeking necessary corrective action is the only credible and effective way to reassure our foreign partners that we intend never to let this happen again. To do less would leave both a cloud over our commitments to law and principles and our friends and allies in doubt about what we stand for.
Honesty and acknowledgment at home is an important step towards fostering a re-building of trust with a number of our allies – the lifeblood of effective international cooperation. Today, it is more difficult for other states to adopt a double standard, where they believe they can do what we do and ignore what we say. Our diplomats will have renewed credibility to condemn and call for correction in the actions of other countries for engaging in many of the same brutal interrogation methods to which we subjected detainees. Our foreign partners will be additionally wary of being drawn for any reason into practices that cross both legal and moral lines, a development the United States should regard as a salient benefit: legitimate cooperation has nothing to fear from publication of portions of the Senate’s report. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the United States has sent a clear signal that it is committed to taking all steps necessary to protect our armed forces personnel, intelligence professionals, diplomats and other Americans who fall into hostile hands from being subjected to the same types of abuses.
There is more we need to learn about our country’s treatment of suspected terrorists: the vast majority of the Committee’s report remains classified, as does the CIA program on which the report is based. But we know more than enough from both the committee’s report and our own to warrant immediate action.
In his memorandum transmitting the agency’s response to the Committee’s report, CIA Director John Brennan wrote: “it is my resolute intention never to allow any Agency officer to participate in any interrogation activity in which enhanced interrogation techniques would be employed.” Congress can, and should, support him in that goal by passing legislation that enshrines important protections against torture and abuse that our country now observes as a matter of policy, but not law, including a uniform standard for interrogations across all agencies.
Jones served as ambassador to Mexico (1993-1997), and was a Democratic congressman from Oklahoma (1973-1987). As part of a five-decade career in diplomatic service, Pickering served as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs (1997-2001) and as ambassador and representative to the United Nations (1989-1992). They are members of The Constitution Project Task Force on Detainee Treatment.