Finally, it appears that the US will have some formal accounting – albeit with plenty of redactions – of the CIA's use of torture following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
The promised release of the Senate report on US government torture later today has prompted a bout of bipartisan hand-wringing that the truth could put American lives in danger. Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Jim Risch of Idaho issued a statement last night saying they "are concerned that this release could endanger the lives of Americans overseas, jeopardize US relations with foreign partners, potentially incite violence, create political problems for our allies, and be used as a recruitment tool for our enemies. Simply put, this release is reckless and irresponsible.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel even ordered US military installations around the world to be on alert for fallout from the Senate report.
This narrative of danger in releasing the report has been dominating the coverage for the past 24 hours. But there's in fact very little reason for concern.
Groups like Al Qaeda and their sympathizers already think the absolute worst of the US government. They're well-motivated to attack US interests because of their belief that the US is engaged in a war to subjugate Muslims everywhere. And making the case that the US never tortures has been impossible for more than a decade now.
When pictures of US soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib came out on 60 Minutes on Apr. 28, 2004, it was a major coup for Al Qaeda and every other organization in the world that views the US as immoral and thuggish. To them and their audience, it was proof of America's evil.
Within two weeks, Al Qaeda in Iraq murdered American Nick Berg, who had been seeking work in the country. The group's then head, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, dressed Berg in an Abu Ghraib-style orange jumpsuit and beheaded him on video. The practice of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, which grew out of Zarqawi's organization, of dressing up American and other captives in orange jumpsuits before they behead them is a legacy of that torture scandal.
It's also been public knowledge for some time that the US used simulated drowning ("waterboarding"), stress positions, and other forms of torture at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba starting in 2002. And back to the Clinton Administration in 1995, the US had been "rendering" terrorism suspects to Syria, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan – places where the torture of suspects is routine. For at least 20 years now, jihadi literature has been filled with claims of US-backed torture, either by US hand or outsourced to friendly regimes.
It could do some good
But a full and frank accounting of what the US did, who did it – and hopefully explaining what measures are going to be taken to prevent it from happening again – could ultimately do some good. While President Bush declared in 2005 that "we do not torture," no enemy or critic of the US was willing to give the country the benefit of the doubt anymore. Too much evidence had already accumulated to the contrary, and the fig-leaf of calling it "enhanced interrogation" didn't cover much.
This is a case of it taking years to build a good reputation, but only minutes to undo it. Perhaps the release of the full and official accounting of US behavior in the dark days and months after 9/11 will begin a process of regaining international trust on this issue.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who endured repeated torture during his five years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, has repeatedly called for the report to be declassified in the interests of America's honor and future. This is what he wrote about the issue in Dec. 2012:
It is my sincerest hope that we Americans, for all of our many disagreements, can nonetheless manage to agree that torture of the kind described in this report is unworthy of our national honor and should no longer be a matter for discussion. It is my hope that we can reach a consensus in this country that we will never again engage in these horrific abuses, and that the mere suggestion of doing so should be ruled out of our political discourse, regardless of which party holds power. It is therefore my hope that this Committee will take whatever steps necessary to finalize and declassify this report, so that all Americans can see the record for themselves, which I believe will finally close this painful chapter for our country.
Our enemies may act without conscience, but we do not. It is indispensable to our success in this war that those we ask to fight it know that, in the discharge of their dangerous responsibilities to our country, they are never expected to forget that they are Americans, and the valiant defenders of a sacred idea of how nations should be governed and conduct their relations with others – even our enemies.
Those of us who have given our protectors this onerous duty are obliged by our history, and the many terrible sacrifices made on our nation’s behalf, to make clear that we need not risk our country’s honor to prevail – that through the violence and chaos and heartache of war, through deprivation and cruelty and loss, we are always Americans, and different, stronger and better than those who would destroy us.