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The Real Purpose of the CIA Torture Report

Overall, I guess you could say it’s good that the Senate intelligence committee has voted to declassify portions of its report on the CIA’s torture program. Certainly the public has the right, as well as the need, to know more about government criminality. But there are a lot of problems that are going to be obscured by the good cheer and the acrimony accompanying the vote.

First, note that only portions of the report will be declassified, and that the White House and the CIA will be heavily involved in the decision about what those portions will be. Explain this to a child — “the subject of a damning report gets to decide how much of the report will be revealed” — and the child would laugh at the obvious absurdity. In America, of course, such nonsense is simply the oligarchical norm.

Second, the report was never intended to, nor will it, lead to prosecutions for those involved in torture. Listen to the rhetoric of Diane Feinstein and other committee members:

This nation admits its errors, as painful as they may be. (This one had me chuckling in its own right).

Torture is wrong, and we must make sure that the misconduct and the grave errors made in the CIA’s detention and interrogation program never happen again.

We need to get this behind us.

Not a lot of talk there about America being a party to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, signed by president Reagan, ratified by the Senate, and by virtue of Article VI of the Constitution, the Supreme Law of the Land. The UNCAT not only prohibits torture; it also requires member states to investigate credible allegations of torture and to prosecute accordingly. Both former president Bush and former vice president Cheney have confessed in writing and >on video to ordering waterboarding. Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged during his confirmation hearings that waterboarding is torture. President Obama has acknowledged the same. In insisting that >“we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” and in failing to direct the Justice Department (an increasingly Orwellian name in modern America, akin to the Ministry of Truth>), Obama is therefore violating his constitutional obligation to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Which, if you think about it, is pretty much the core thing the chief executive is supposed to be doing. At least according to that pre-9/11 document called the Constitution.

Third, the primary, saddest, most pernicious effect of the release of some portions of the report is that the release will solidify America’s prevailing narrative on torture, which is that the appropriate question to ask about torture is, “did it work.” CIA critics will point to evidence that torture didn’t work; CIA defenders will counter with evidence that it did. The public will be left with a powerful metamessage that what really matters is >the question of whether torture is effective.

In fact, if America is indeed a nation under the rule of law (I know, it’s practically a laugh-line at this point), what matters isn’t whether you believe something “works,” but whether that thing is illegal.

Imagine you’re a cop. You come across a dead body with a bullet hole in the forehead, and there’s a guy standing over the corpse holding a smoking gun. You want to arrest the guy with the gun, and your partner says, “Hang on a minute there, pard. Can you honestly say that killing is never, ever justified?” This is exactly what torture apologists are doing in the face of actual laws and actual facts demonstrating that those laws were violated.

So yes, it’s nice that declassifying a bit of the report will offer the public a little more knowledge about torture. But at the same time, I expect the release will further cement some horribly insidious misapprehensions. We’ll get some knowledge, but no new wisdom. I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile trade.

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Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler

Barry Eisler spent three years in a covert position with the CIA's Directorate of Operations, then worked as a technology lawyer and startup executive in Silicon Valley and Japan, earning his black belt at the Kodokan International Judo Center along the way. Eisler's bestselling thrillers have won the Barry Award and the Gumshoe Award for Best Thriller of the Year, have been included in numerous "Best Of" lists, and have been translated into nearly twenty languages. Eisler lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and, when he's not writing novels, blogs about torture, civil liberties, and the rule of law.