The Frusen Glädjé response to torture

Anyone of a certain age will remember the 1987 television commercial for Frusen Glädjé ice cream. A woman sits on the floor of her living room, having just finished an entire pint. When her husband walks in, she confesses, “I ate all the Frusen Glädjé.” She adds, with a smile: “And I’d do it again.” The narrator tells us to “enjoy the guilt.”

Our nation’s response to the release of the executive summary of the Senate Select Committe on Intelligence’s report on torture follows pretty much the same script. Although it took too long to be released, was resisted too hard and remains too censored, we can be proud of a democratic process that has begun to open up this unflattering history for reflection and debate. Yet so far, neither Congress nor the administration has taken meaningful steps to punish those who acted wrongly, to make amends to those who were harmed or to close the loopholes that allowed these crimes to occur. In short, we’re not really sorry, and we would do it again.

{mosads}This stance is particularly hypocritical and self-defeating when viewed against the standards to which we hold recipients of foreign assistance. Under the so-called “Leahy Laws,” aid may not be provided to units of foreign security forces that have committed gross violations of human rights unless their government is taking “effective measures” to bring the perpetrators to justice. Our laws recognize that violations can and do occur, but we expect our partners to take “all necessary corrective steps” if they want our continued support. How can we, with a straight face, expect others to take remedial action if we are unwilling or unable to do so ourselves?

The situation also illustrates the delicate balance between transparency and accountability, terms which are often used together and somewhat interchangeably. The GOP has pledged to “fight to ensure transparency and accountability in Congress and throughout government.” Transparency and accountability are two of the four “key principles” that policymakers and practitioners agree are essential to foreign aid effectiveness. In theory, at least, they are principles that are hard to argue against.

Yet transparency is only a means to accountability. Transparency is relatively easy — in fact, as the Sony hacking scandal reminds us, it’s probably harder to keep secrets these days than to reveal them. In an era of big data and open government, we have made it far easier to know what is being done in our names and to measure the results of public policies. Large gaps remain, but the transparency train is moving forward.

Not so with accountability. True accountability requires that there be consequences for wrongdoing, mismanagement and criminal conduct. It implies that mistakes will be rectified and successes will be rewarded. Having access to information is necessary, but it is not sufficient to guarantee that facts and evidence will be used to guide decision-making.

The torture study provides transparency but not accountability. As The New York Times editorialized, “Since the day President Obama took office, he has failed to bring to justice anyone responsible for the torture of terrorism suspects.” Despite issuing an executive order banning torture, he has not launched a criminal investigation. He has not fired anyone. He has not called for a revision of the CIA’s mandate. In fact, his CIA chief has refused to rule out the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques in the future or to admit that they constitute torture.

Under these circumstances, we’re likely to torture again — at great harm to our national security. Jihadism thrives on the images and reality of U.S. mistreatment of prisoners. New evidence indicates that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was born in a U.S.-run prison in Iraq, and stories about torture of those in U.S. custody have been used to recruit and radicalize alienated young Muslims. Our toleration of torture taints our global image and demoralizes brave defenders of human rights across the globe.

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama spoke of leading “with the example of our values” and “striving to hold ourselves to the highest of standards — our own.” Instead of enjoying the guilt, Congress must categorically repudiate any justification for the use of torture and enact legislation to ensure that it never happens again.

Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, co-chair of the Accountability Working Group of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network and a principal of Turner4D, a strategic communications firm.

Tags Accountability Enhanced interrogation techniques Foreign Aid Leahy Law Senate Select Committe on Intelligence Torture Transparency
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